Film noir is a genre that is cool yet nebulous as a puff of smoke. The definition of what makes a movie “film noir” just bends and billows until it fades into meaninglessness. For some, film noir is merely pulp fiction stories about cops and crooks in fedoras living on the edge. This be films like The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, and The Killing. Some define it a mere aesthetic, shots of brooding stark shadows, billowing smoke; many of the previous films fall under this but it explains how atypical narratives like M, Night of the Hunter, and Sunset Blvd. can still be defined as noir. Really it is all of these things, to an extent. Film noir is a genre of atmosphere, which studies the humanity of unsavory characters, struggling to take a hold of themselves in a cool, nihilistic society. If there is a filmmaker that can truly express the bleak mood of film noir, it is Akira Kurosawa. At a glance it seems like a stretch that Kurosawa, a director known making samurai action epics, could even grasp anything so typically American as “Le Film Noir,” but a quick dive in his filmography shows a filmmaker with a huge grasp on American genre, let alone noir. One of his earliest successes was Drunken Angel, a clever crime drama that owes more a hand to Howard Hawks and John Ford than to any yakuza movie. Stray Dog was his first definitive film noir, and a great one at that, but it is High and Low that is his noir opus, as well as his most idiosyncratic. High and Low is the film where Kurosawa pushed and broke the standards of noir crime fiction to create something truly epic.
High and Low is such a baffling film noir that seemingly refuses to fall into the visual clichés of genre whilst delving into an intense and complex story of men struggling with cynicism, disenfranchisement, and greed. It begins as a chamber drama, with a group of shareholders and executives talking about a hostile takeover of a business called National Shoes. However, it evolves into an intricate cat-and mouse police procedural as an investigation unit works a child kidnapping case and the proceeding manhunt for the elusive kidnapper. In this time the investigators guide the audience in to a decaying modern Japanese society filled with cynical, greedy men cannibalizing themselves and stomping the lower-class into the dirt. This is noir as Dante’s Inferno, and the cops are the witnesses.
Their first subject they witness is Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune playing a remarkably uncool character), the key executive to National Shoes a character who struggles to find the light in this world in spite of his devious nature. Gondo touts himself a man of pride and integrity of sorts by breaking the deal with the National Shoes shareholders, only to reveal to his wife and his partner that he is planning his own takeover scheme. This is a portrayed as just capitalism at its most absurd everyone has their own scheme. It is fine as long as it is not made public. However, plans go out the window when a fateful phone call force him into a dilemma: is his entire fortune worth the life of a child? For a solid hour, this moral question forces him to put into perspective everything about his past, future and his entire world as it seems to fall apart right in his living room. Even if he does the right thing the system does not care, the banks will want their money back and his business partners will consider him a pariah. It is a brutal portrait of a man beaten for finding his soul in a cruel and uncaring society.
The second half of the film plays more like a film noir in the tradition of The Third Man as the police search for their next subject: the kidnapper. The villain of the film is an utter enigma, so mysterious that he seems more like a symbol than an actual person. The most the viewer can parse from this figure is by witnessing him wander through the streets of the city, which is a metropolitan graveyard. Every street he turns to is gradually worse than the last, whether it be a slum, a drug-fueled dance club, or a heroin den. The noir shadows slowly creep in, becoming dark and expressionistic, climaxing junkies and thugs tragically looking like ghosts and zombies, prowling in the night. There is no salvation to be had anywhere. In hindsight, it seems so obvious why he would attack the lone house on the hill. He is a tragic villain that only Kurosawa could create, one where an entire history of nihilistic misery is displayed in the character’s environment.
High and Low is not a film noir that merely uses style clichés for the sake of making pulp fiction, but one that slowly builds upon these elements to expressively portray a society that not only has descended into hell. Power is made through money and money can only be made through disseat. By the end of it all, the film finds that it is possible to find salvation through doing the right thing—working honestly and with integrity—but it is unbearably hard and often impossible for those in different circumstances. Everyone has a monster deep inside, it is a matter of whether one control it or let it loose in the world. That dilemma is about as noir as it can get.
This post is brought to you by the Noirathon! Check out Maddy Loves Her Classic Films for more posts about sexy, smoky, film noirs that will make you want to drink Scotch on the rocks.