After the incomparable Ikiru, High and Low is, I think, Akira Kurosawa’s best film. Set in contemporary Yokohama, it takes off from a police-novel plot that a news item might have inspired. Wealthy shoe manufacturer Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) gets a phone call from a man who claims to have kidnapped Gondo’s son. Everyone quickly realizes that the culprit has grabbed the son of Gondo’s chauffeur by mistake, but the kidnapper insists on Gondo’s paying the ransom.
The film’s long first section resembles a play, with the unities of time and place being observed. But the displacements of Kurosawa’s camera, as it shuffles the characters and deals them out again across widescreen space, give these scenes an electric urgency that belongs only to the cinema. Free and impersonal, the camera never adopts any character’s viewpoint, and neither does it pretend to the status of an infallible god. The viewpoint shifts restlessly, restructuring space, turning around on itself in the blink of an eye and contradicting its previous formulations (the "180-degree rule" is violated more inventively in the first 40 minutes of High and Low than in any three films by John Woo). The camera’s refusal to adopt a preferred point of view suggests the multi-camera style of live TV drama, and it generates an edgy uncertainty reminiscent of the best TV.
The sleek showroom space of Gondo’s house is bounded by a glass perimeter — at once door, window, and backdrop — that provides a panoramic view of industrial Yokohama below. This extraordinary image gives High and Low the texture of science fiction (the relentless reminders of visibility and surveillance) while revealing the topographical basis of Kurosawa’s social criticism. Gondo’s house is "high," even in "heaven" (the film’s Japanese title, Tengoku to jigoku, means "Heaven and Hell"), and it offers both a symbol and a constant spatial reference to the kidnapper, who’s trapped in the "hell" of Yokohama, from where he looks up at it (the film is based on the principle of inversion: its third section, dealing with the police investigation, starts with a shot in which Gondo’s house is seen far away, from below).
Cutting through the film and dividing high and low with a precise horizontal stroke is a five-minute sequence aboard a bullet train. Kurosawa packs both his characteristic pathos and his creativity with visual shocks into these five minutes: Gondo’s anguish is expressed through a radical spatial disorientation, as the tense and fragile geometry of the house sequences is wiped away (literally) by the trajectory of the train.
If the film’s pleasures are in large part formal (and kinetic), its unusual narrative structure also enables Kurosawa to elaborate a complete view of society, encompassing numerous vantage points and exploring three worlds (Gondo’s life of clandestine stock deals, the mapped city of the police, the spiraling depths of the kidnapper) and three pragmatisms (Gondo’s identification of his life with his business, the police tactics, the kidnapper’s struggle to remain hidden). Thus, High and Low has a fullness and a compactness rare in cinema. Two very distinguished counterparts come to mind: Fritz Lang’s M (which is also a study of three worlds) and Jean Renoir’s La règle du jeu (which likewise has a high-and-low structure).
What are, in my opinion, two of Kurosawa’s most dubious qualities — a "humanist" sentimentality that’s apt to latch on to lovable grotesques and admirable do-gooders, and a "Dostoyevskian" sense of abasement and abandonment that expresses itself in steamy visual rhapsodies — are present in High and Low, but nowhere else in his work (except in Ikiru) are they as justifiable. The film treats Gondo’s elevation to national hero without a shadow of irony, but Kurosawa refrains from claiming that Gondo is essentially good (the film deliberatately ignores the problem of his relationship with his wife, whom he treats as a servant or an accessory, refusing to let her share his life). The section of High and Low that follows the kidnapper through his urban hell seems (at first) limited by its familiar "film noir" iconography and visual feel, but it gradually deepens, evoking a terrifying loneliness. The sense of tragedy is confirmed in the swift and hopeless coda, which descends on the film like winter.