Noirvember Files: High and Low (1963)
As its title might suggest, Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low is a film of polarities: good and evil, rich and poor, light and dark. Even the story itself is divided into two distinct parts. The first half is a moving chamber drama, set within a rich man’s home as he receives a series of phone calls demanding ransoms for a kidnapped child. Emotion runs high and time flies by as Toshiro Mifune’s Kingo Gondo hangs on each and every word spoken over the phone. Gondo is painted as a heroic, honorable man. The kind of man that puts the quality of his product before maximizing profits in his business. The kind of man who pays a life-endingly, expensive ransom for a captive child, even if it isn’t his own. He’s so easy to root for; you really want the best for this kind of man. Kurosawa’s incredible staging and blocking are the stars of this show, as characters move through spaces in beautifully-controlled patterns and formations, always listening intently. This is pretty par for the course in Kurosawa films; his theatric flair naturally becomes a focus of any viewer.
As the abductor demands that the windows overlooking the city below be left open so that he can be observed, a paranoid sense of voyeurism starts to take form. The feeling of being watched and listened to from a distance plagues this home more and more with each passing moment. It’s terribly suspenseful and morbidly fascinating, until Gondo leaves to make the trade. But, to this point, High and Low really doesn’t feel all that noir-ish.
The latter half is where things shift. The story transforms after the recovery of the kidnapped child into a much more traditional investigation film as the police take over the narrative entirely to find the culprit. While the first half has small elements of noir at play, this second portion is really where the noir genre gets to shine. We leave Gondo and his picturesque, wealthy home behind for the dingy streets of the city and crowded police stations. Gone is the dramatic, dynamic display of shifting power dynamics; now we’re shown police discussing evidence, situations being investigated, and bad guys trying to thwart justice. This half thrums with the energy of a whodunit tale that’s woven into an ever-changing sea of city life, dizzying in its scale. The vibrant night life of the city becomes an integral part of the climax of the film, which stands boldly opposite to how we started in a peaceful, separated home.
Voyeurism comes into play again, but now it’s up close and personal. The cityscape is so cluttered and crowded that people can’t avoid peeping into each other’s lives. Reflections within small spaces capture these characters for our outside gaze. Everyone is watching and judging everyone else’s actions, from the police, to the kidnappers, to the passersby in the depths of the slums. Furthermore, the audience is as much an insidious, nosy onlooker as the villain of the piece as we take these characters’ worst fears and turn them into our entertainment. This latter portion, in its lighting, atmosphere, storytelling style, and so, so many other elements, perfectly epitomizes noir in all the ways the first part avoided.
Like we said from the start, High and Low is a film that plays with contraries: black and white, heaven and hell. Even drama and noir.