Here’s another oldie: a program note about a Kurosawa classic, written in 1981 for a University of Washington film series – thus readers are assumed to have just watched the movie. High and Low turns up on my Ten Best of 1963 list, too. – Robert Horton
Cinema is a window, a window through which we are privileged to watch people and things as they move and break and dance and die. The window can be maneuvered gracefully around people, so that we can observe things from swirling, unbroken flight—as in the way a film director like Max Ophuls made movies. The window might change its perspective many times in a few seconds, showing us different sides of images from angles we didn’t even know existed, to the point where we may wonder if the barriers are gone and we’re now surrounded by the action—as in the way Sam Peckinpah makes many of his sequences. The window may also resolutely sit and watch, unmoving but fascinated by the dynamism within the frame, as people come and go and perform—as in the way Charlie Chaplin made movies.
Akira Kurosawa can do it all, and so, for that matter, can the three guys named above. It’s a pleasure to watch someone manipulate a frame (particularly a CinemaScope—make that TohoScope—frame) the way Kurosawa does; he knows that the decision about what to include and exclude from a frame may be the most important in a film. He takes pride in the window. He also knows, good director that he is, that by the end of a movie the audience should come to know that what they have been witnessing is not only a window; it is also, unavoidably, a mirror.
Kurosawa’s High and Low begins with an unusually seedy and ugly credits sequence; but after the first smoke-filled images of metropolis, we begin the narrative proper with a window; through this window, that same metropolis is still visible. A man moves across the window—it’s dark in the room, and since the only light is entering from the window, behind the man, we can’t clearly make him out. He crosses the room, the camera panning to accommodate, and flicks on a light. Okay, let the action begin.
And begin it does: immediately we’re dropped into a world of corporate scheming and personal back-biting. The fellow who at the nerve center of the shifting frames is Gondo (Toshiro Mifune); this guy is so self-possessed and confident (we won’t know all of the Why for that yet, but will soon be let in on it) that he controls this confrontation even when he’s not saying anything. He’s a man who can keep his cool, even if he is just a tad callous to his chauffeur, a bit cruel to his wife, and perhaps not too interested in his little boy (though they both “like violent games,” as his wife says). Looks like we’re heading into the country of Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well here—industrial hanky-panky, with perhaps a fable of a simple idealist who just wants to make a good pair of shoes. All right, we know from that earlier film that Kurosawa can imbue very personal and cinematically/emotionally justified anguish into even a story top-heavy with social comment, so no problem.
Then the world is broken in two. It’s just a phone call, but few phone calls in the history of cinema can match this lightning-bolt moment. Kurosawa’s cutting and composition in this sequence is just about flawless; the editing is disturbingly jagged and the people, huddled in desperation around a telephone receiver, seem to be falling out of the frame in their panic. Things will never be the same from this point on; lives will be irrevocably altered (some will end) and even the fact that the criminal on the other end of the line has made a clumsy mistake in identification will not remedy that. Thus it’s entirely necessary that Kurosawa bombard us with his editing prowess at this point; in fact, the first ten minutes or so of the film, with rhythmic cutting and pleasing compositions, have been building up for this rupture.
Kurosawa’s ability as an editor will come as a surprise to no one; but let me just pluck one example from High and Low to demonstrate why his reputation is so well-earned. Gondo’s household has been getting calls from the criminal, and each time they’ve gotten a little tenser, as the police must be hustled to the phone to set up the recording equipment, the right people have to be by the telephone, etc. With every call, the phone seems to ring longer, heightening the anxiety for us—will something happen on the other end that can’t be prevented just because someone stupidly didn’t pick up the phone in time?
Finally, we’re at the beginning of a new sequence, telephone rings again, and nobody can find Gondo—they shout for him, the phone keeps ringing, someone remembers where he is—then we get a smash-cut to Gondo in the shower. The volume of the water and the angle of the camera combine for a dazzlingly effective payoff; for the audience, it’s a wallop in the face and a relief for the nerves. (This kind of thing should be kept in mind all through the film—an especially striking example is the lengthy, single take of the preparation of the bags for the ransom money; the camera doesn’t move too much, with Gondo dusting his old tools off and hunkering down to some manual labor—is it possible this horrible incident has given him something to live for? Perhaps he even feels a higher high than when executing his complicated business deals. Anyway, this long, long shot is removed with a vertical optical wipe, passing from one end of the frame to the other and peeling it back to be replaced with a shot of a moving train, which we know will be the sight of the ransom dumping, signaling a lot of action to come in the next few minutes.)
I insinuated something back there—that the crime for which Gondo must pay so dearly has somehow given him something to live for. Perhaps you find him more admirable (in the beginning) than I do, and maybe we are meant to take his Quality of Shoes speech at face value, but it’s hard to buy—especially after we see the way he treats the people around him. Then, after that first, electrifying phone call that changed this movie from The Bad Sleep Well II to Stray Dog II, Gondo must face the awful fact that someone has been looking in those great windows of his, watching and hating. Would it be stretching things to suggest that Gondo (after his initial turmoil—the shot of him riffling through the drapes covering his windows is a nice detail, as though he’s thumbing through his mind, weighing pros and cons) becomes engrossed in the procedure of the ransom paying?
Kurosawa himself gets engrossed in procedure—when Gondo drops out of the picture, he really drops out—the cops take over completely, until Gondo resurfaces near the end. Oh, Gondo is visually present on screen, but he seems lifeless. All his saving are gone, yes; but so is the feeling of being alive and vital, of having lived at a more intense level than he’d probably ever known. Now all he can do is watch his furniture get repossessed and wait for a cloud of pink smoke to appear (as the police say, “Gondo is already serving a life sentence”).
Gondo has been watched; we find out how after observing a young man pick his way through slum housing, pull out an eyepiece when he gets back to his own dump, and point it up at an imposing house on the hill. Then we cut to the discussion going on inside those by-now-familiar windows; it’s an interesting cut, as though we had made the jump through the criminal’s point of view and were seeing what he can see, even if he couldn’t literally see this shot. We know that he’s been watching Gondo for a long time; he tells Gondo that watching him gave him a purpose in life: to hate Gondo. This is revealed in the last scene of the film, when he and Gondo finally sit and talk; a doomed man, and one in limbo, and the two appearing unnervingly alike.
They’d actually met once before—on the night of the criminal’s capture. The cops have been trailing the suspect for some time when Gondo suddenly appears in the background of a shot—and the suspect and the cops and the audience may all discover him at the same time. He’s looking in a store window (where else? And the criminal is sporting mirrored sunglasses, the ultimate touch for the voyeur who wishes only to watch, and be protected from any observation from anybody else; you get your windows both ways) and the young man approaches Gondo for a light. As Gondo delivers it and departs, the criminal savors the degradation he’s managed—clearly, hating Gondo really was the best thing he’s ever had.
The final scene is played through windows—the window that separates as it joins. Even when the two men are seen in their own one-shots, they are both present in the frame because a reflection of the other face is always hovering on the glass at the side of the face we’re looking at directly. The effect is eerily equalizing, and suggests that the two men may have more in common than is instantly apparent, just as the two men rolling in the muck at the end of Stray Dog find themselves in the same position. The criminal loses control as he is led off, and the wild, uncontrollable half of this duo exits with sound and fury. Which is exactly what Gondo is left without. That black divider that slams down in front of Gondo at the end leaves him looking into a window, which is where we found him, but it doesn’t leave much hope. He stares into his reflection in the darkness, into a black divider which has robbed him of a kind of shadow warrior, a piece of him without which he may very well be something less than a whole human being.