The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Saturday, March 27, 2010

High and Low

Watch enough movies with the same actor, and you start to look at that person in the same way.  It’s like John Wayne in westerns and war movies, Clint Eastwood playing tough cops, or Johnny Depp always playing eccentric, quirky characters.  It feels like a big set-up because eventually they will play against type from their more familiar roles.

Take Toshiro Mifune who teamed up with director Akira Kurosawa on and off for years, most of the time playing an antihero in feudal Japan.  These parts were usually samurais, soldiers, and killers, and Mifune was good at what he did in becoming one of Japan’s most famous movie stars.  So when he plays a rich CEO in modern times, there’s a bit of a transition period to get used to him playing such a unique role.  The part is in 1963’s High and Low, a police procedural drama that rises above the typical cop investigation movie.

Putting the final touches on a takeover of his company, Kingo Gondo (Mifune) receives a startling phone call. His son has been kidnapped, and the ransom totals 30 million yen which eats away at the funds he had accumulated to become the majority stockholder in his shoe company.  Gondo brings in the police without alerting the kidnappers, but soon a second call follows.  It isn’t Gondo’s son, but his chauffeur’s son instead that is being held captive.  Now Gondo faces a tough decision; pay the ransom and be ruined financially or refuse to pay and keep his position atop his company?

I can’t tell too much more about this movie without giving away some major plot twists so from here on in SPOILERS are everywhere. Stop reading if you don’t want the ending spoiled.  That plot summary is only the first 70 minutes of a 140-minute movie.  Shocker, but Mifune’s Gondo pays the ransom, but more on that later.  The second half of the movie is the police investigation to catch the kidnappers.  Nothing feels false in the smallest sense in the second half as the police, led by Det. Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) follow up on any and all possible leads that might lead to closing the case.  It could be excruciatingly dull, but because Kurosawa’s story gave little in the way of hints in the first half, the viewer is trying to piece together the case before the police do.

Even with a movie that is well over two hours, the story never lags.  The first half, set almost entirely in the Gondo mansion, is heavy on the dialogue with long scenes of conversation with no cuts, just the camera focusing on the actors.  The cast is top notch with a lot of characters involved, the Gondos, Aoki the chauffeur, the police, the wait staff, all trying to figure out how to end the case.  The second half though has a better flow to it as the investigation develops.  I’m struggling to identify why that’s so, and all I’m coming up with is the story moves around instead of being relegated to a house, and more than that, a single, large room.  The police move all over the region looking for the kidnappers as the evidence and clues continue to come together.

Seeing Mifune as an upper class business man is a little startling (I kept looking for a samurai sword) but it works pretty well with all things considered.  Gondo is an incredibly intelligent businessman who sees that the company he loves is being torn away from him.  He develops this nearly perfect plan to gain a majority control, and not that a kidnapping is ever good, but this particular one comes around at the worst possible time.  Mifune gives this man a heart when it’d be easy to root against him.  When he realizes his son wasn’t the one kidnapped, it’s easy to see that for a split second Gondo realizes he’s in the free and clear…if he so chooses.  But as the situation dawns on him, it’s really a lose-lose situation.  No matter what he does, it won’t end well for him.

Mifune’s strong performance dominates the first half of the movie in the Gondo mansion with more of an ensemble cast taking over in the second half with the investigation.  Nakadai as Detective Tokura, the officer running the case, is good in a thankless part as a cop with no personal background, he’s just a dogged professional trying to get the job done.  Other worthwhile performances include Yutaka Sada as Aoki, Gendo’s chauffeur, Kyoko Kagawa as Gendo’s wife, Isao Kimura, Kenjiro Ishiyama and Takeshi Kato  as three fellow detectives helping Tokura’s case, and Tatsuya Mihashi as Kawanishi, Gendo's possibly treacherous right hand man.

With the movie as a whole, it’s a change of pace for Kurosawa and his fans who have only seen his samurai movies typically based in feudal Japan.  I didn’t love ‘High and Low’ like I do some of the director’s other movies, but I did like it a lot.  A classic?  Maybe not, but as far as police procedurals go, you’ll be hard-pressed to come up with one that’s better.

High and Low <---trailer (1963): ***/****

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