For his 1963 suspense film High and Low, Akira Kurosawa seems to have been actually trying to draw the wrath of those who find his work too “Western” by choosing the Ed McBain novel King’s Ransom for his source material. What could possibly be more Western—indeed, more downright American—than an Ed McBain novel? Then again, High and Low is Kurosawa taking a shot at a kind of Hitchcock suspense thriller, and he was sufficiently good at it that the film was one of the few works singled out for detailed attention in William K. Everson’s 1972 pioneering book on the genre, The Detective in Film. Is this tale about shoe manufacturer Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), whose chauffeur’s son has been kidnapped for a ransom that Gondo can’t afford—and yet can’t afford not to pay—that good? Very probably. It may not be one of Kurosawa’s best works, but it’s certainly a worthy one.
The buk of the film is less a detective movie—or at least single detective movie—than it is a police procedural. In some ways, it feels less connected to Hollywood than to Germany and Fritz Lang’s M (1931) with the tracking down of the kidnapper replacing the tracking down of the child murderer. And, like M, it’s a film that strives—and generally succeeds—to be more than just a crime drama. The moral weight of the story hangs not only on the question of whether or not Gondo is a good enough human being to ruin himself financially over the life of a servant’s child, but also the separate issue of the battle for control over the shoe business. In fact, a completely separate review could be written on that aspect, and on Kurosawa’s attempts to balance modernity with tradition.
The problem with the film overall—and the thing that I think most keeps it from actual greatness—lies in the pacing and length. What Kurosawa has here is two hours of suspenseful movie that he insists on stretching to nearly two-and-a-half hours. This becomes especially troublesome—at least for me—during the film’s final stretch. I understand the need not to make the ending feel rushed, but I also find the last scenes extended considerably beyond their actual value, particularly the whole heroin purchasing business. Others will doubtless disagree. It’s not a deal-breaker for me, but it does compromise the film.