THE MOViE SHELF:
comparing films to their literary counterparts
~ by christopher funderburg ~
When it comes to adapting novels into films, the cliché is that the movie likely won’t live up to the ol’ book ya got there - it’s such a cliché that it’s probably more like an expectation, right? We all know a film will have to reduce, elide, streamline, convert, etc. - to turn a novel into a movie, you know an adaptation will have to do all those kinds of things that suck out a work’s personality, drain away an author’s voice, undermine the themes and whatnot. This is not news to anyone, certainly not anyone willing to read 9,000 words on the subject of legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of one of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books.
I bring it up because in this ongoing Movie Shelf series,* the cliché has not applied: the majority of movies we’ve discussed have either been their screwy own entities that would be hard to rate in terms of being “better” or “worse” than their source novels (The American Friend, Made in U.S.A., Diary of a Chambermaid) or flat-out superior, no question, to the book adapted (The Spy Who Loved Me, The Bridesmaid, Gone Girl.) Even The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Cry of the Owl and The Grifters are unassailably excellent films, even if they don’t inarguably match the quality of the pulp novels on which they are based - calling them “not as good as the book” is debatable, unfair even.
Kurosawa’s High and Low continues this trend and represents maybe the most extreme gulf we’ve covered between a Great Film and a Crummy Book. Of course, the other adaptulary cliché is that weak novels often make for brilliant films with Jaws, The Godfather and Cobra being the go-to examples. The idea lurking around this mirror-image cliché is that bad books are somehow more likely to be turned into good movies, that novelistic trash more readily converts into cinematic treasure.
But while Kurosawa’s adaptation undoubtedly upgraded a near-worthless Ed McBain novel, let’s be real: Kurosawa improved on Shakespeare, his masterpiece Ran besting King Lear in every way imaginable and his searing, tormented Throne of Blood jettisoning the clunkier and more cheeseball aspects of MacBeth.** Massive improvement on the source material is de rigueur for Kurosawa adapting anything - it’s not proof of the cliché’s concept that bad books are somehow ripe for cinematic reconfiguration. If you’re improving on the work Billy “El Bard-o” Shakespeare, it’s safe to assume you’re going to improve on a random entry in a series not known for its quality control.
The question, I think, that remains unresolved is just how much some essential quality of McBain’s work informs and guides Kurosawa’s film - there is no question the film is better than the book; but is the film in some way the same as the novel? So let’s dig in, get down to business with our brass tacks and see where the story was coming from and where it ended up. It’s another cliché-busting Movie Shelf.
kurosawa's HiGH AND LOW
based on the novel
ed mcbain, 1959.
“You going to let them kill that boy, Doug?”
The first thing you should know about this slight crime thriller isn’t that it’s the 10th entry in the 55-volume “87th Precinct Mysteries” series or that Ed McBain (working under his pseudonym Evan Hunter) was heavily influenced by the Dragnet t.v. show, but that the main character, an imperial shoe magnate who gets drawn into a kidnapping plot gone awry, is named Douglas King. For you see, not only is he a corporate big-wig, one of the veritable New Kings of our corporate society, but he is also being blackmailed for a ransom. A King's Ransom. Douglas King. King of fictional Manhattan stand-in Isola, NY (one of the most isola-ted metropolises in America.)
I’m never sure if an authors think shit like this is clever or if their audience is idiotic. It’s a pitiful groaner, a hack-y set-up that says something that goes without saying, a bit of cleverness so dumb it signals that Ed McBain must think you’re a moron for being amused by it. Who knows? Hunter’s breakthrough novel, The Blackboard Jungle, was the embodiment of a certain kind of hysterical, middle-class anxiety, the kind of straight-faced nonsense where you could never be sure how much the author intended to smugly bait his audience and how much of its goofy, revolting horseshit he actually believed.
The current critical tendency is to be very kind to old pulp novels, this despite the majority of them occupying a reactionary, even repulsive viewpoint and most critics being artsy/fartsy liberal academic types. I think this is because a few genuinely worthwhile authors like Jim Thompson, David Goodis and Patricia Highsmith were in their time unjustly maligned for the lurid ugliness of their work, so lesser, contemporaneous authors like McBain end up getting the benefit of the doubt. That is, formerly the scope of respectability was too narrow and now critics overcompensate by making it too wide - flavescent pages drifting from an unthinking mark of shame to an equally unthinking badge of honor.
The cultural veneration of pulp fiction and B-movies which began accumulating in earnest with the Cahiers du Cinema critics in the 50’s has been racing towards critical mass in recent years with very few critics even entertaining the possibility of a meaningful difference between high art and low art - there are plenty of critics (especially academics) who would look at you like you were crazy for suggesting that it even matters whether an Ed McBain book is any good. And the high/low art division isn't even precisely what I’m trying to describe, but rather the real critical tendency to say “in a lot of ways, it doesn’t matter whether an artwork is a piece of shit or not.”
Part of this critical tendency has been a willingness to disregard (if not precisely excuse) the more irredeemable elements of pulp artifacts. In these books, there’s oodles of unrepentant misogyny, venomous disdain for brown-skinned people of all kinds, veneration of abusive police tactics that “just get results,” paranoid middle-class fear of the lower classes, rape (and murder) as an empty gesture utilized to goose the plot and, worst of all, characters named Douglas King, the king of fictional Isola, NY, who is forced to pay a king’s ransom.
The 87th Precinct books are far from the worst in terms of their moral-political point of view - they’re police procedurals with an emphasis on the foul-mouthed camaraderie of Decent Cops who are overworked and underpaid, gruff men just barely on the right side of cynical. And that stuff is the best thing about any given book in the series. Like most procedural serials, the structures of most 87th Precinct books are built around the continuing tribulations of a small band of these main characters, grafted on to a new “case of the week.”
But even if that's their most outsanding element, as far as that sort of thing goes they’re not that great. Regardless, the critical tendency is awful kind to “that sort of thing” these days so you’ll find many vociferous defenders of the series. The books borrow Dragnet’s unflinching “law-and-order above all else” bent but also the Joe Friday series’ dedication to real-ish-ism: the cops break cases by wearing out their shoe leather, taking down small-timers with plausible-ish plans, enough grime, enough grit, enough danger, but a careful avoidance of real profanity and debasement. They’re like a clever simulacrum of True Crime.
More than anything, in both the book and t.v. series, the cops are good guys in here in the precinct house and the bad guys are out there in the streets, probably in a crummy neighborhood full of brown-skinned people or the Irish. The cops’ flaws and occasionally flippant attitudes only serve to humanize them, to prove their humanity and, therefore, goodness - they couldn’t really be heroes if they were emptied of everything but valor. Nobody respects a goodie two-shoes.*-*
The closer King's Ransom sticks to the procedural elements, the more smoothly it functions. The basic story concerns a shoe-magnate on the verge of a big-time (but secret) deal - he’s got his entire fortune wrapped up in a covert corporate action and sharks are in the water, colleagues-turned-competitors are looking to tear him apart if his head bobs below the surface for even a single second. In the midst of the deal, his son is kidnapped… no, wait! The kidnappers made a mistake! They took his chauffeur’s boy… forcing King to choose between paying a ransom for his underling’s child (and facing financial ruination because paying the ransom will torpedo the do-or-die business deal) or putting his own family and future first.
The most interesting aspect of the book is its aspiration towards a kind of downbeat realism, one in which the cops complain about the cold, mutter in annoyance under their breath at the people they’re supposed to be assisting, slam down the precinct phone on dumb callers, negotiate favors with the wise-asses in adjacent precincts, and struggle to channel their frustrations and fears into productive police work. Even if these aspirations feel like a bit of a feint, any time the book focuses on the cadre of 87th Precincters, it’s fine. Not just in King's Ransom, but in general, the more closely the 87th Precinct books focus on the cops, the better they are.
The “real cops doing real cop stuff” elements are nothing earth-shattering by any means but mixing together the distressed King household (his wife is appalled he’d even consider not paying the ransom) with the cadre of gruff cops plays pretty well. The more the King family and their associates are left to their own scenes or the villains take center stage, the more a chore reading the book becomes. For example, there’s a useless bit involving King’s right-hand man’s affair with a sexy, tart-tongued neighbor that just begs and begs to be cut, but the book skirts so close to acceptable length for a novel that McBain clearly has no choice but to leave it in. It’s some pretty choice, uncut genre padding.
But the biggest problem with King's Ransom is the trio of villains - I believe their names are Menacing Heavy, Guy in Over His Head, and Fallen Woman with a Heart of Gold. What I’m sayin’ is: they’re some Sluggsy and Horror-level garbage writing who wreck any chance the book has of working. There’s nothing even mildly interesting about them and their scenes take up at least a third of book (the structure basically jumps between domestic drama of the King household, the police as they investigate the kidnapping and the villains in their farmhouse hideout.) It’s nothing you haven’t heard: the heavy may go too far, the fallen woman didn’t agree to this!, the guy in over his head needs to grow a spine before it all goes to shit. A child’s life (and the biggest score of theirs!) are at stake!! (!)
Nowadays, you’ll hear these sort of tedious, badly written characters defended as “archetypes” accompanied by the suggestion that their predictability and overall crumminess is “all part of the fun.” And that’s always going to be the deal when it comes to forgettable pulp that was churned out by the boatload: quality isn’t actually the determining factor in whether its audience enjoys it or not.
The audience affinity for generic mediocrity (of their preferred stripe) intermingles with the critical forgiveness of any old pulp n’ pop to create a “garbage is great!” situation. Yes, we can all agree that garbage is great and to suggest otherwise is being pretentious, clueless and/or a self-important blow-hard who blows too hard. Or at very least it’s fine and there’s an audience that likes it so why are you trying to shit all over something people like? If someone likes something, literally anything at all, isn’t that the only thing that matter in judging its merits?
And here’s why I have to admit: it’s hard to hate King's Ransom. It’s not a book I want snatch at gunpoint and bury alive in a shallow grave. It’s the kind of artwork you can know is worthless and still have an amount of affection for. So it’s hard to say what to do with something like this book, which is overtly shit, but the kind of shit that many folks adore defending. For example, get a load of this passage describing the tart-tongued neighbor, an entirely superfluous secondary character:
“She was born with blonde hair that needed no hairdresser’s magic, blue eyes fringed with thick lashes, an exquisitely molded nose, and a pouting sultry mouth. She had acquired over the years a figure which oozed S-E-X in capital letters in neon, and had overlaid - if you’ll pardon the expression- her undeniable beauty with a polish as smooth and as hard as baked enamel. Even dressed for casual life in Smoke Rise, as she was now, wearing a simple sweater and skirt, suede flats, and carrying a suede pouch-like bag, sex dripped from her curvaceous frame in bucketfuls, tubfuls, vatfuls. She wore only one piece of jewelry, a huge diamond on her left hand, a diamond the size of a malignant cancer."
There’s a segment of the reading population that delights in just that kind of terrible writing - terrible for its clichés, terrible for its predictability, terrible for its complete superfluousness: this character ultimately plays no role in the story, certainly the fact that she’s carrying a suede “pouch-like” bag doesn’t matter. She just hangs around making semi-clever quips because a dame dripping tubfuls of sex, sipping hi-balls and spewing one-liners is always called for in this kind of dime-store thriller. In general, the only kind of folks who bother to read old pulp novels eat that stuff up (and why would you bother to read them if you didn’t eat it up?)
It’s a strange position for me to be in, where there’s not much reason to be hard on a book like this and, truthfully, I don’t even have anything against it, not really. It’s not simultaneously repulsive and boring like one of a John D. MacDonald’s reactionary thrillers or even reliant on stoking middle-class male anxiety about crime, predatory women, and Otherness like so much work contemporary to McBain’s. Anyone who reads it now is probably going to enjoy it - and taking the position that there’s such a thing as junk, such a thing as cultural detritus that is worth forgetting, is completely out of step with the critical orthodoxy. It’s lose-lose - just as Douglas King is screwed by being forced to choose between his big-time shoe deal and paying the ransom for his chauffeur’s son, I am screwed by trying to write about Ed McBain.
Truly, it is my critical dignity that is stolen in this Funderburglary.
But oh man, this book is a brutal read. The story sputters along with the only tension coming from the open question of just how bad the bad guys will be: there’s a scene late in the book that spends pages and pages simultaneously threatening to depict a rape (of the fallen woman with a heart of gold) and a child murder (of the kidnapped boy.) But it’s in no way a necessary sequence, it’s a repeat of a half dozen scenes that have already occurred and it doesn’t even escalate the stakes, it only weakly threatens to escalate them. The Menacing Heavy menaces and not much else.
Too often “pulp-y fun” functions as it does in King's Ransom: a lot of padding, a lot of narrative wheel-spinning and a reliance on the threat of horribleness as a stand-in for narrative drive. For example, the characters ask themselves and each other over and over “do you really think they’ll kill the brave and scared l’il tyke?” It’s almost as though by articulating the sentiment, the book is admitting that it needs to remind its readers of a fear that should be self-evident - “hey folks, remember this kid could get murdered. please stop being bored. also… maybe a rape? how’s that make you feel? hopefully bad!”
So sure, the book has a compelling hook, but the stillborn plot never develops compellingly beyond the initial moral quandary. It repeats its basic beats over and over: what will King do? How bad will the villain prove to be? Will the cops finally find the clue that breaks the case? The answer to these questions: it doesn’t matter. The whole things ends abruptly when the fallen woman calls the police and tells them everything - she blows up the whole plot, gives the whole plan away - because she fears something terrible will finally, truly (no, for real this time, guys!) happen to the kidnapped boy. Remember: she has a heart of gold. Child murder? She didn’t sign up for this!
It’s not much of a story. Beyond that, the beats are hard to read from a moral perspective: Douglas King refuses to pay the ransom because this big-time shoe deal is just too important… but McBain gives him an unsatisfying redemptive moment at the end of the book when he tackles the Menacing Heavy and socks him one, but good. It’s not clear to me whether you’re supposed to think King is an irredeemable louse who cares more about money than a innocent boy’s life or the kind of Great Man who makes tough, unpopular decisions because he understands the True Meaning And Importance of corporate capitalizing or a bit (but only a bit) of a coward who redeems himself by punching a guy.
King’s tough decisions are at least of interest, no matter how incoherently they’re explored. Because as a character King invites so little sympathy and is so poorly sketched, his decision in regards to the kidnapped boy strangely carries no weight; it exists primarily as a theoretical, an interesting thought experiment without much humanity or intensity behind it. But it’s at least something to think about, the kind of hook that makes you say “gee, golly, gosh, what would I do in that situation? I wish I had a fancy mansion looking down at all the peons below me. That’d be tough to give up, even to save an innocent l’il doofer.”
At the risk of beginning to spin my wheels a little bit, I’ll say that even if the theoretical had more flesh and blood to it, the stock villains and unimaginative writing are just too much for the book to overcome: it’s a boring novel filled with ill-advised floral passages and a turgid plot that fails to develop after it lays out its one and only idea. In one of the patience-testing lowlights, three-quarters of the way through, there’s an extended passage describing the break of morn on Isola, a series of generic descriptions of generic activities like people taking their showers and having a cup of coffee:
Morning. The city slumbers…The alarm clocks begin to ring when it is still dark… The Georges of the city slip from beneath the blankets, leaving the warm womb of the connubial bed, their toes touching icy floors…Good morning, America, it’s time to rise and shine.The neon lamps blink in sudden weakness against the overwhelming power of the sun… The whistles begin to hoot up and down the curving waterfront. On a navy vessel, reveille is piped over the loudspeaker system… A patrolman makes his silent rounds, trying the knobs of stores, leaning close to the plate-glass doors, peering in shops.
Seriously, it goes on like that for several pages. The idea is clearly to remind you that even as Douglas King makes his life-or-death decisions, the city continues on; that to the rest of the island-city’s population, it’s just another sleepy morning stirred to life by the alarm-clock’s rattle and the bracing cold splash of the shower. But the story is already stagnant at this point, so the digression takes a congested narrative and completely clogs it. Oh, cloggery.
“Rotten and filthy,” she repeated. “Like one of the machines in your factory. A filth-clogged-“ And then he tries to touch her and she yells at him some more. That’s Mr. King’s disappointed wife voicing her displeasure with his decision to not pay the ransom. That’s the kind of writing we’re dealing with here. I just don’t know what to say about it. Yes, truly shoe magnates who value business deals over human life are morally corrupt in a clogged sort of way, not unlike a non-specific piece of machinery in a shoe factory. You know, how shoe machines are always rotting and getting clogged? And I don’t get the sense that Mrs. King is supposed to be a clown sputtering out gibberish: this is her big moment, her barely-checked righteousness finally exploding.
It’s just bad writing, you know? Bad. writing. Not like this piece, which is excellent writing.
What else is there to say? The nicest thing I can think of is that while the series inherited Dragnet’s black-and-white views on lawful citizens pitted against craven criminals,*** King's Ransom does build its story around an intriguing moral theoretical. That’s something. Douglas King being forced to choose between idealistic selflessness and business-minded pragmatism is the only worthwhile propellent in the story’s near-empty tank. The basics of King’s irresolvable moral quandary (the worst kind of moral quandary) will stick with you: if he pays the ransom, his business deal will fall through and a lifetime of hard-work will be flushed down the toilet. If he pays the ransom, there’s no guarantee they won’t still kill the kid. And what does he owe to someone else’s child, anyway?
The stickiness of that hook is the only thing I can imagine compelling Kurosawa to adapt the novel. Considering how much of the book he tossed, it’s hard to say what, if anything, he found attractive about King's Ransom apart from that basic set-up and some vague implications of the moral dilemma (implications that McBain leaves almost entirely scrutinized.) Kurosawa’s work, in some ways, exists primarily to explore the many unexplored suggestions of McBain’s novel.
HiGH AND LOW
akira kurosawa, 1963.
“No one is responsible - the man is a maniac!”
Here’s a quick list of a few central elements from McBain’s book that Kurosawa entirely jettisoned: the trio of villains, their plan for the money drop, the dame with gams up to here, the story structure (and ultimate resolution), the dumb title and its tie-in to the main character. They appear nowhere in his film. And some things he altered so deeply as to be unrecognizable: the secondary businessman characters, the kidnapping plot, the main shoe magnate’s characterization & motivation, the lead detective’s characterization, the whole goddamned story.
It’s impossible to argue Kurosawa’s artistic instincts were wrong: he took a bad book and turned it into one of his very best films. I’ve never found an interview with McBain where he addresses his feelings on High and Low - his stock answer for the best adaptation of his work was Claude Chabrol’s Blood Relatives. That 1978 film starring Donald Sutherland is an interesting choice (Chabrol is essentially riffing on gialli) but refusing to name Kurosawa’s film always felt very pointed to me.
And how could McBain like High and Low? It might be the classic example of a great, highly-respected auteur running roughshod over the work of a less respected genre-toiler. McBain got fired by Hitchcock while writing Marnie (he also adapted Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds for the Great Big Fatso****) after disagreements on the subject matter and tone of the script, so he’s obviously unwilling to blindly kowtow to big-shots. The truth is, there aren’t a lot of good films for him to choose from which is comes to adaptations of his work: the first two novels in the 87th Precinct series were made into uninspired nothings in 1958 and I suppose if you liked Blackboard Jungle enough to write it, you might enjoy the risible Glenn Ford movie made from it.
Clearly, High and Low is the cream of the crop when it comes to cinematic McBain-ery. You’d be hard-pressed to name more than a dozen cinematic adaptations of novels that are decisively better films than High and Low, adaptations not just of McBain but of any author. Personal taste, but I’d take High and Low over those aforementioned standbys The Godfather and Jaws any day of the week, month or year. Possibly century. I will have to consult my astrologer.
Now, some of you folks are probably sitting there, stewing in your juice, muttering “Look at this jabroni, after all the hay he made about what a dumb title King's Ransom is, when compiling his list of improvements he ignored that Kurosawa changed the title to the extremely forgettable and not that great High and Low! Bias! Dishonesty by omission! Poltroonery!” Of course, the hay I made was in part to set up that stewing straw-man and give myself an opportunity to mention that the original Japanese title for the film translates as “Heaven and Hell,” which is clearly a top-notch title for this film.
It evokes the moral dilemma of the Douglas King character (now called “King Gondo”) who must make a decision with heavy implications about where he deserves to spend his afterlife - do the right thing and he punch his ticket to eternal bliss, make the selfish decision and what could await him but the eternal inferno? Of course, the problem is he’d be risking giving up the heaven on earth he built for himself and his family. The title the contrasts the idyll of his hillside estate with the humid, grimy city below - the gods of the city up in their paradise suddenly beset by demons billowing out with the smoke rising up from the underworld.
And maybe most importantly, it’s appropriately sweaty and lurid, the kind of overheated pulp-ish excess that one might’ve expected from McBain’s series - which already included titles like Cop Hater, 80 Million Eyes and See Them Die. On the other hand, the series included plenty of books where McBain seems to have been content with the most generic title possible: Bread, Ice, The Pusher, The Con Man, Fuzz, Shotgun, Kiss, Tricks, The Last Dance, Poison.*** ** I’m no expert on the 87th Precinct books (I’ve only read a dozen of the damn things) but Kurosawa certainly seems to have been more concerned with putting resonance and meaning in his one title than McBain was with any of the names in his litany of puns, pulp and genericism.
But that’s enough McBain bashing for one lifetime, let’s move on to the elegance of High and Low’s construction. McBain’s book follows a fairly standard genre construction alternating between an “A” story and a “B” story with a bit of a “C” story thrown in - essentially, a scene of the King household will be followed by a scene of the police’s efforts, back and forth with digressions to the kidnappers in their hideout sprinkled throughout. It’s sometimes referred to as “A/B/A/B/C” construction and it’s the most basic shit there is, especially in procedural writing. That doesn’t make it bad writing - for example, Charles Willeford’s brilliant Miami Blues and Sideswipe follow this construction as does almost anything Richard Price or Elmore Leonard ever wrote. Like a lot of genre tropes, it’s used because it’s sturdy, effective and malleable.
High and Low’s construction is much more unique than that: the film begins claustrophobic, bound to a sound-stage with almost all of the action staged in a single room. Eventually, the film switches to location photography and gradually spreads out to cover the entire city, from hospitals to train stations to fleabag motels to cliffside villas. This is one area where Kurosawa seems to have gotten the idea, if not the execution, from McBain’s book: the ineffective “morning in Isola” section of King's Ransom nevertheless presents the concept of expanding the story to be more and more about the life of the city around the central crime, of exploring the world outside of Douglas King’s tribulations. While it’s a random cut-away in the novel, Kurosawa integrates the concept much more coherently.
Rather than cutting between A/B/C stories, as I mentioned he initially stages the film almost as a one-act play. In fact, the first time I saw High and Low, a half an hour in, I was convinced it was going to be a single-location film, like Hitchcock’s Rope or Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, films that never much sets foot outside of a single set. It’s almost exactly 55 minutes into the film before we leave the apartment (apart from a brief scene in the driveway just outside the front door of Gondo’s mansion); for almost an hour, the film doesn’t move outside of Gondo’s living room. The claustrophobia and intense narrative/staging concentration serves to highlight not only the confusion and fear of just what has happened to Gondo’s supposedly kidnapped son, but allows the squad of detectives to be absorbed naturally into the story. The detectives seamlessly become an feature of the microcosm so when the film is passed off to them later it doesn’t feel like an abrupt shift.
But back to the oppressive, suffocating atmosphere of the single-set: rather than show us early on exactly who the kidnappers are and what their plan is, their identity remains an open question. There’s no relief from the anxiety generated by their anonymity: the members of the Gondo household can only pace like rats in a cage, their stately mansion turning into a prison as they await another phone-call from the kidnapper, more information, some semblance of clarity about their horrible situation. And instead shifting to a “C story” lightly divorced from the context of the film, we get to know the police in their context of their strategies for dealing with Gondo, his wife and his chauffeur Aiko (whose son was kidnapped) as they attempt to formulate a strategy for dealing with the ransom demands.
It’s a striking contrast to the bloat and aimlessness of the novel - 10 minutes into the 2hr & 23m film, it’s already done with the business dealings that dominate the entire first half of McBain’s book. The book strains to set in motion the machinations of King’s business rivals, his response and his underling’s betrayal; the film breezes it through like the preamble that it really is. By dropping the kidnapper’s “C story” entirely and fully integrating the police “B story” into the main narrative, the film is able to be more or less divorced from the novel 25 minutes in - and you don’t even feel like it’s dropped anything essential.
Comparing the two artworks is an object lesson in artistic economy, focus and awareness of the audience. There’s no denying the film is instantly engrossing and carries all of the thematic and narrative information that the book takes three times as long to convey. Two-third of the way through the book, Douglas King is still whining “why should I have to pay for his son?!” and repeating the basic set-up without the story moving in any particular direction.
What’s astounding about Kurosawa’s concise set-up is that it’s never dry plot-assembly; the claustrophobic, single-set opening of the film is just dynamite filmmaking. It wastes no narrative motion, but still manages to be packed with cinematic brilliance - it’s functional, but ornate and beautfiul. Like many of Kurosawa’s films, it’s a marvel of geometric composition and staging: multiple bodies crowd the frame, the camera effortlessly passes from character to character, carefully directing our attention in strikingly arranged frames.
For example, there’s the great minor, moment setting up the confusion over the two boys’ identity. The kidnappers take the wrong boy, the chauffeur’s son, because the kids are playing cowboys and indians and switch outfits. Kurosawa lets us consider the similarity of the children by framing them as though on a proscenium, Gondo, his wife and secretary looking on from the same position as the audience. It’s a clever, gorgeous shot packed with meaningful narrative information. Thematically, it conveys in concrete terms “what’s the difference between these boys? what is the difference in the value of their lives?” In terms of filmmaking, you just literally can’t do it better than that.
There’s so many great little moments in the mansion/single-set segment of the film - just look at the way Gondo’s wife (Kyôko Kagawa) clings to his back during the kidnapper’s call. She clenches him, desperate to listen in on the call, desperate like a tiny animal clinging to the protection of its massive parent. It’s a gesture of self-comfort but also an action, an expression of her terror that’s simultaneously an indication that despite her traditional kimono (worn for her husband’s business meeting) that she won’t play the submissive wife, that she won’t stay out of it.
There’s the way first the chauffeur and then his wife corner Gondo against the balcony windows. He stalks back forth like a caged beast, his shoulder ruffling the closed curtain and constantly drawing our attention to the border he’s pressed up against, constantly emphasizing the constraints, constantly emphasizing his inability to escape his moral dilemma.
This segment also makes interesting decisions in regards to time - it cuts away from the call demanding ransom just as it begins and we first hear it on police playback. By not having the audience experience the call in the initial frenzy and confusion, Kurosawa places the emphasis of the scene on contemplation, on thinking over a decision. The characters sit in silence, thinking and listening. It becomes a scene about their decision and not about their panic. Every character is forced inside of themselves, inside their own heads and hearts - we see them asking themselves: what should they do? What is the right thing to do? The film is filled with stuff like this and I’m hard-pressed to think of any comparable moments in the book.
Of course, the film has a major advantage that the book doesn’t and that’s Toshiro Mifune. He brings a gravity, dignity and intensity to Gondo that it’s tough for the written word to match. Douglas King reads like a bit of a self-involved dickhead and Mifune wrests the character away from its uglier implications. The performance creates a character that simply doesn’t exist in the book: a competent, principled man forced into an impossible position; an embodiment of righteous authority stripped of the dignity of righteousness: he goes from someone we side with against sleaze-bags in a business dispute to someone we’re appalled at for applying business logic to the life of an innocent boy. It’s a character we both sympathize with and hate, a man simultaneously right and wrong in a dozen different ways and half of the complexity is generated by Mifune’s gestures and expressions.
Look, what I’m sayin’ is this: Mifune is going to make your movie better. Those are the facts, kid - face ‘em.
But Tatsuya Nakadai is no slouch either. As the detective leading the investigation, Nakadai’s smooth, leading-man calm makes for a great contrast to Mifune’s stalking intensity and eruptions of rage. Kurosawa had already smartly played Nakadai’s preternatural smoothness against Mifune in Yojimbo and Sanjuro and here he employs it as a complementary piece, the two actors fit together in a way that joins the two discrete halves of the film. At almost exactly 55 minutes into the movie, we finally leave the apartment on wipe to a bullet train, at an hour in they have the chauffeur’s kidnapped son Shinichi back and from there it become a police procedural with Mifune’s Gondo only glimpsed in flashes, slowly breaking down in the background.
By contrast, the return of the kidnapped boy is the book’s climax, so needless to say, over the half the film has almost nothing to do with the novel whatsoever. By the time we’re introduced to the kidnapper, a medical student living in his run-down apartment by a filth-clogged canal at the foot of the hillside atop which Gondo’s palatial estate looms, Kurosawa has created his own universe entirely severed from McBain’s work - it’s no wonder it wasn’t McBain’s favorite adaptation. Sure, there’s bits and pieces lifted from the novel (as in the book, they identify the kidnapper’s car based on tire marks and paint scrapings) but almost everything after the film leaves the single-set sequence behind is original Kurosawa material, built from only the faintest suggestions from the novel.
Take the bullet-train sequence for example - this is an amazing thriller set-piece that ranks among the greatest sequences in the director’s entire career. In the book, the plan (which is never put fully into action and comes at the very end of the story) is to have the ransom tossed out a car window off a cliffside curve down to a waiting recipient below, who will then drive off. It’s not clear how this plan is ever supposed to work, so Kurosawa switches it to a train window and, voilà, a ransom drop that you can actually buy working.
Kurosawa entirely drops any scenes of the child being menaced or threatened directly with death, drops any scene over which rape looms, ditches all of the cheap heat that McBain uses to goose his readers out of boredom (there’s no Meancing Heavy to be found in Kurosawa’s film and certainly no Fallen Woman with a heart of gold). Kurosawa does, however, go through with what the book is constantly threatening (to no purpose or meaning) and has the main kidnapper murder his accomplices - again, this is an idea suggested by the novel, but in practice a total reversal. Kurosawa assiduously avoids the books’ empty gestures, its hollow feints towards violence and horror. It either fills them up with narrative/thematic meaning or ditches them.
Instead, he understands that the basics of police work are fascinating on their own and that the passages of gruff detectives wearing out their shoe leather doing their jobs are the most compelling in the novel, so he bases the entire second half of his film around the police work. The film subtly passes off from Mifune to Nakadai, from thriller to procedural: at around 50 minutes in, before we leave the mansion, the film begins the switch. We see the process of acquiring the ransom money and the logistics of attempting (and failing) to record all of their random, non-consecutive serial numbers. There’s a great moment where Gondo helps the cops prep the drop-briefcases by getting out his old shoe-making tools and hiding tracking devices in the stitching for them.
Kurosawa passes the film from Mifune to Nakadai, from the claustrophobia and barely contained rage (Mifune’s explosiveness literally barely contained by a single living room) of the Gondo household sequence to unflappable smoothness and calm of Nakadai’s investigation. The two pieces of the film (single-set ransom drama and expansive city-wide investigation) so seemingly discrete on the surface, are perfectly integrated - in the domestic scenes, the cops disappear into the background. As the investigation emerges, the family recedes.
The investigation half of the film is spent tracking the kidnapper - parsing the recordings of the ransom calls (“I hear a coin dropping - check all the pay-phones in the area!”), finding the island that matches Shinichi’s drawing of the hideout, finding which train line that still uses single-cable trolleys, etc. We get drawn down deeper and deeper into an underworld, pulled out of Gondo’s heaven down into hell, finally finding ourselves in a “junkie’s alley” full of zombified addicts, sweating and writhing, clawing at them themselves in withdraw and rotting away in their own filth. We journey with the cops through junk piles and fetid rivers, from boisterous juke joints and cramped skid row motels to finally end the film in the abysmal confines of death row.
There’s a constant thematic intelligence at work: the kidnapper sneers over the phone at Gondo about his air-conditioned mansion, mentioning that he’s stuck down where it’s a hellish 105 degrees. The police are caught somewhere in between: their meetings are cooled by ineffectual rotating desk fans (a far cry from central air), their wet shirts cling to their shoulder-blades as they chase down leads, the fan themselves and mop sweat from under their arms with handkerchiefs. They’re tasked with an existence caught somewhere between heaven and hell.
When the police stop by his home later in the investigation, we see Gondo in his business attire, mowing his lawn in the heat. He’s drenched with sweat. His air-conditioned home is no longer enough to keep the infernal heat of the city at bay.
In the book, there’s more or less a happy ending. The baddest baddies get their justest desserts, the good guys go home and sleep soundly, the ones who did wrong for too long (only to do right at the last moment) are given a gentle but tentative reprieve. The cops keep on the beat. Douglas King chases down the most villainous villain and punches him in the face. But Kurosawa’s film exists to explore moral complications. By the time Gondo comes face to face with the kidnapper on death row, he doesn’t feel much like punching anyone. His moral center has been wrecked.
There’s a nice irony to the film where Gondo becomes a cause célèbre and a national hero. Paying the ransom and getting back Shinichi leads to his financial ruination. His business rivals use the opportunity to thoroughly crush him and his creditors are pissed he paid a ransom without being able to pay them back first. But the people of the city and the press adore him, adore his sacrifice, adore his selflessness, see him as a symbol of all that is good and noble in humanity.
Of course, Gondo only pays the ransom because he has no choice. His secretary betrays him. The business deal gets ruined, his secret plan to best his rivals gets blown up by his closest confidant, a confidant who betrays him only for the reason that he paused for a moment to consider paying the ransom. It’s at the moment he rejects the idea of paying the ransom that his secretary drops the bomb that’s over. It’s too late. The rivals have mobilized with the secretary’s help.
His secretary acts (betrays) because he sees weakness - Gondo’s hesitation will ruin the secretary’s life as much as it will ruin Gondo’s own. It’s after witnessing Gondo’s hesitation that he takes the rivals up on their offer for him to play double-agent and stop being a flunky. Gondo doesn’t ultimately pay the ransom because he’s decided it’s the morally righteous thing to do. He does it because he’s already fucked. There’s no reason he shouldn’t pay it. And the public and press get it exactly backwards.
It’s a great irony, one of Kurosawa’s sharpest. But it’s not the only one the film has in its pocket: late in the film, the police determine the identity of the killer, but decide not to arrest him. They believe his sentence (as only a kidnapper) will be too light and think he deserves capital punishment. So, they set him up: they put the heat on him and induce him to murder an innocent heroin addict.*~** Just so they can be sure that he’ll be sentenced to death.
The second half of the film concerns the police manufacturing a moral outcome: they want the kidnapper to be guilty of what they believe him to be guilty of. That is, that want to induce a moral crisis in him that reveals his true self. This is, of course, the exact purpose of the kidnapper’s own plot against Gondo. At the end of the film, we find that he didn’t spend any of the ransom money. That the target and intent of his plan wasn’t his own gain, but Gondo’s suffering. He wanted to manufacture a moral crisis that would reveal Gondo’s true self. The businessman in heaven, finally corrupted by hell.
Just before his death, the kidnapper, now revealed to be a young medical student, requests a face to face meeting with Gondo. Again, Kurosawa’s direction and composition is brilliant - although divided by a cage that dominates the frame, each’s reflection is constantly present on the window between them. Their faces melding into one another.
“Why should you and I hate each other?” asks Gondo. “I don’t know. I’m not interested in self-analysis,” is the prisoner’s answer. Why do the poor hate the rich? Why do the rich hate the poor? When we are dead, will those of us in hell hate those in heaven? Will those of us in heaven hate those in hell? The soon-to-be-executed prisoner’s hands tremble, although he insists it is not out of fear.
“My life has been hell ever since I was born. But if I had to go to heaven? Then my hands would really tremble.”
He begins to scream and clings to the cage. Gondo looks on with an empty expression. We’ve seen that his entire home has been put up for auction. He’s lost his job and his fortune. He knows in his heart that he is not entitled to any of the righteousness projected on to him by the press and public. He’s fallen from heaven. Will his hands tremble in hell?
This is a natural close for discussing the film, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few of the many outstanding performances in this film. First, there’s Tsutomu Yamazaki as Takeuchi, the kidnapper. He gives a performance that’s equal parts chilling and sympathetic - you can see notes of his work in many of the cinematic “criminal masterminds with a moral agenda” that would follow - he gives one of the formative performances of the archetype. Yamazaki wasn’t one of Kurosawa’s regulars, although he was again featured with Nakadai in Kagemusha. Like seemingly everyone who ever worked with Kurosawa, he was in Red Beard - and he’s still kicking around these days. I noticed him a couple years ago in the Oscar-nominated (piece of garbage) Departures. Interestingly, he played the villain in the 1965 remake of Kurosawa’s debut film, Sanshiro Sugata.
Then there’s Yutaka Sada as Mr. Aoki, the chauffeur whose son is kidnapped by mistake. He’s got a great pathetic energy that makes his widowed character so pitiable, a man somehow only a supporting player in the story of a grievous crime committed against his only child. He’s heart-breaking at first and then repulsive later in the film in his attempts to pay back his debt to Gondo by berating his boy into remembering more about his kidnappers. A great, great piece of the film. He was a Kurosawa regular starting with I Live in Fear and continuing on through (of course) Red Beard. He’s in so many of the best ones: Yojimbo, Throne of Blood, Sanjuro, Hidden Fortress.
The last actor I’ll highlight is a relatively unimportant character, but really unforgettable: Taguchi, the bald, tubby, easily riled up cop played by Kenjiro Ishiyama. Ishiyama was a character actor with a long career and this was his break-out role. Surprisingly, he never worked with Kurosawa again, although he does appear in a lot of notable stuff like the “Black Hair” segment of Kwaidan and a fistful of Zatoichi movies. This film is packed with great performances in small roles and has unbelievable texture and richness as a result - even Ikiru’s Takashi Shimura (Kurosawa’s third mic) shows up as window-dressing playing a head detective. There’s no way to do justice to everything amazing in this film.
Finally, I’ll mention that, yessir, High and Low is where we got the name of this site. The police plant capsules in the briefcases holding the ransom that when burned will emit pink smoke. So the cops trick the kidnapper: they get the newspapers to plant a story*** *** that they hope will cause the kidnapper to destroy any evidence, specifically the briefcases. It’s a long-shot but it’s something. In the midst of an unrelated scene, Shinichi and Gondo’s sons, still best friends, call to their parents, “Look outside!” Gondo and the cops race to the balcony: in the distance, pouring from an industrial chimney, is a plume of pink smoke. The image is tinted with color in an otherwise black and white film.
This is a moment that could feel false, like a cheap gimmick. And I’m hard-pressed to explain why it works.
But it’s perfect.
Is there anything left to be said in terms of comparing the novel and the film? Probably not. But a piece like this requires some kind of a wrap-up, so here goes: way back at the beginning of this piece, I mentioned the critical tendency to be kind to vintage pulp material and old pop culture. I can understand the tendency: beating up on a novel that doesn’t particularly deserve it, doing that for thousands of words, doesn’t really feel that great. I certainly don’t feel some sense of satisfaction or superiority taking shots at some dumb ol’ book - and I definitely would be up for blowing my brains out if it were suggested that my criticisms had devolved into empty snark.
But “doesn’t deserve it?” Nah, I don’t agree with myself there. It’s a bad book that’s perfectly deserving of being called bad. Part of the problem of criticism is conveying respect simultaneously with negativity, of expressing enthusiasm with disapproval. I like reading books like King's Ransom, I like that sort of thing, but it’s a sign of respect to pull it apart and examine its failings. It’s a sign of respect to think about an artwork carefully enough to give it a sincere and heartfelt bad review. Or it should be anyway.
Is there anything to be learned from comparing High and Low to King's Ransom? Well, you can learn what separates a great artist from a mediocre one; a great artist’s work leaves you with a sense of the questions that plague them, of the deeply felt trials of their existence, the problems that mean something to them. McBain’s work is generic, both in the sense of “genre” and its moral resolutions. Kurosawa’s work is a piece of Kurosawa. It’s his fears. His panics. His hatreds and desperations. What I’m saying is maybe not profound, kids, but don’t you fucking forget it.
For McBain, Isola city is a fictional that exists only as a back-drop for a story about cops, crooks and Kings as archetypal and empty as a Disney fairytale.
From Kurosawa, High and Low expresses that hell is a place on earth. And that heaven exists to stoke its fires.
~ SEPTEMBER 28, 2016 ~
* Comparing the books on our bookshelves to the dvd’s on our… bookshelves? I don’t have a specific dvd-shelf. It’s a series about shelves and their physical-media-based contents is the idea. Which a lot of people don’t even have anymore. At any rate, Cribbs named the series, not me. And I stand by his appellatory activities. 100%.
** Kurosawa’s third go at the Bard (aka William Shakespeare), The Bad Sleep Well, is vastly inferior to Hamlet and one of the Japanese master’s least successful post-Rashomon works. Two out of three is not just respectable, but a decisive victory: Kurosawa is better than Shakespeare. Game. Set. Case closed. The Bard did always sympathize with the losers (and nothing can seem foul to those that win.)
*-* In my opinion, two shoes is the correct amount of shoes.
*** And weasel-y newspaper men! What would a law-and-order worldview be without a seething antipathy for the free press?
**** That’s Hitchcock’s nickname, right?
*** ** There’s one called The Frumious Bandersnatch, after the monster that appears in Lewis Carroll’s brilliant The Hunting of the Snark and Through the Looking-Glass poem “Jabberwocky.” Just for context on how long-running and expansive this series is, that book was written in 2003.
*** *** See? Cops don’t have to hate the free press!
*~** After this piece was written, I had a conversation with The Pink Smoke co-founder and Fletcher Cox super-fan John Cribbs about my description of the police's behavior here. Here's our e-mail exhcange with Cribbs in blue:
Cribbs: One thing tho - Your bit about the cops inducing Takeuchi to murder a heroin addict so he'll get capital punishment is kinda wrong. They've already tied him to the double-homicide of his accomplices and simply want to prove he's the one who did it. So the whole tailing of him is to link him to that; the junkie he kills is just a further nail in his coffin. It's true, they want him to get the death sentence, but to do so they want to pin the poisoning that's already happened on him. At least I think I'm getting that right?
But your follow-up paragraph about the cops wanting to reveal Takeuchi's absolute morality is brilliant. The facts leading up to it just seem a little off (unless you're suggesting that the cops could have prevented the junkie's death and didn't so they could nail Takeuchi?)
One other thing: Bad Sleep Well one of Kurosawa's least successful movies? I seriously disagree. Better than Hamlet! (And I like Hamlet. It's not as good as Strange Brew, but then what is?)
Funderburg: No, you're correct about my intentions. They suspect the kidnapper of killing his accomplices, so they (inadvertently) induce him to kill the junkie. They actually don't have any concrete proof that it's more than an overdose... so they set Takeuchi up and in doing so cause him to kill the junkie - they let a kidnapper go when they could arrest him and their actions directly cause him to kill someone. They abdicate their legal duties in favor of a moral set-up, they try to manufacture a moral outcome and in doing so get someone killed! Your version of what happens is more or less their version, but I'm skeptical of their moral righteousness in the matter and I think Kurosawa is too.
In any case, even if their plan worked, there's no fucking way their "proof" holds up in court! "Your honor, we know he intentionally killed his accomplices because they were junkies who died of overdoses." "Was there something suspicious found in their blood samples?" "No - just heroin. But like... really super pure heroin." "Wait, what?" "Hold on. To prove that the kidnapping suspect had intentionally given his accomplices super pure heroin (poisoned heroin junkies by giving them heroin, your honor!), we had the newspapers plant a series of fake stories which would cause him to go buy more super pure heroin and try to give it to them again." "I'm sorry... what... what were you trying to do?" "You honor, we were trying to make sure this shitheel gets a state-sponsored execution, now or are you with us or not!"
You're right about The Bad Sleep Well though. It's dumb of me to badmouth it even with the very mild criticism of "not as good as Sanjuro or Hamlet." Readers: The Bad Sleep Well is good.