Will Pfeifer: Crime definitely pays if you’re watching an Akira Kurosawa

Will Pfeifer

Legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is best known for his historical movies, such as “Yojimbo,” “Rashomon” and “The Seven Samurai.” But Kurosawa was no prisoner of the past, and during his long career he made several films set in modern Japan, exploring the social forces of the postwar era.

Now one of his best — in fact, one of the greatest crime movies ever made — has just been re-released on DVD. If you’re a fan of any sort of crime movies — heck, if you’re the sort of person who can’t resist watching “Law & Order” reruns — you need to see “High and Low.” Subtitles or not, it’s brilliant from beginning to end, with a killer premise, strong performances and a relentless, driving tension that makes its two-hour-plus running time zip by like nothing.

“High and Low” stars Toshiro Mifune (star of “Yojimbo” and other Kurosawa classics) as Kingo Gondo, a rich industrialist who rules his company with an iron hand. As the movie begins, he’s preparing a bold financial coup that could make him even wealthier — or bankrupt him. As this business subplot nears its climax (and it’s pretty compelling all by itself), Gondo learns his son has been abducted, and the amount the kidnapper wants will effectively ruin him. Then, in the movie’s great plot twist, Gondo discovers it wasn’t his son who was taken — it was his chauffeur’s. So that lets Gondo off the hook — except there’s no way the chauffeur can afford the ransom.

Quite a setup, eh?

From there, “High and Low” combines police procedural with character study. The cops come to respect Gondo’s pride and dedication, and he respects their hard work and intelligence. There’s a thrilling ransom payoff involving a bullet train (cutting-edge technology back in 1963) and a brilliant use of color when the kidnappers burn the money and a puff of pink smoke appears. (It’s a black-and-white movie otherwise.)

The riveting finale has the cops chasing the kidnapper through back alleys and dive bars, a stark contrast to Gondo’s luxurious home. (The original Japanese title translates as “Heaven and Hell,” and the movie delivers on that promise.) Those scenes are surprisingly gritty for a 1963 movie, with glassy-eyed prostitutes and jittery junkies filling the crowded frame. And the conclusion, where Gondo finally meets the kidnapper face to face, brings the “heaven and hell” themes to the surface and ends on a chilling, unnerving note.

This is the second time Criterion (the film fan’s best friend) has released “High and Low” on DVD, and it’s a big improvement over the earlier version. The beautiful black-and-white image has been enhanced, and there’s a second disc full of extras, including a solid “making of” feature and a rare interview with Mifune. If you’re a fan of crime films — or films in general — this DVD belongs on your shelf.

Will Pfeifer can be reached at wpfeifer@rrstar.com or (815) 987-1244. Read his Movie Man blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/movieman/.

Some DVDs out Tuesday…

“Get Smart: Season 1”

“The Grapes of Wrath”

“Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations Collection 3”

“Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers 20th Anniversary Edition”

“Masters of Science Fiction”

“Miss Conception”

“Nim’s Island”

“Star Trek The Original Series: The Complete Second Season”

“Sunset Tan: Season 1”

And CDs…

Ne-Yo - Year Of The Gentleman”

Lloyd, “Lessons In Love”

Keith Anderson, “C’mon”

Conor Oberst, “Conor Oberst”

Keanthony, “A Hustlaz Story”

Brazilian Girls, “New York City”

Amy Ray, “Didn’t It Feel Kinder”

Mike Gordon, “The Green Sparrow”

Darker My Love, “2”

The Laurie Berkner Band, “Rocketship Run”

Sources: dvdtalk.com, tophitsonline.com