Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Won't Someone Please Think of the Children!?

Akira Kurosawa's HIGH AND LOW (1963) and Bryan Forbes' SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON (1964) make a pretty peerless kidnapping double feature. I basically stumbled into watching them back-to-back, and what a treat it ended up being.

HIGH AND LOW (or more accurately translated HEAVEN AND HELL) is one of Kurosawa's best and most complex films. It follows the downfall of Kingo Gondo, a wealthy shoe tycoon who lives in an opulent condo overlooking a sweltering city below. At the onset of the film, Gondo reveals that he has just managed to save and borrow over 50 million yen to complete a takeover of the shoe company he is a shareholder of. Just as this is revealed, Gondo receives an anonymous phone call telling him his son has been kidnapped and he will need to pay nearly all the money he has to get him back. But shortly after getting off the phone, Gondo's son walks into the condo unharmed. It seems that by strange mix-up, the kidnapper has accidentally taken Gondo's chauffeur's son instead. The kidnapper calls back realizing the mistake, but still demands the ransom anyway and threatens to kill the boy if not paid. This sets up the central moral dilemma that dominates the first act of the film. Indeed, the opening 60 minutes of the film take place entirely within Gondo's enormously spacious condo, as he communicates with the kidnapper and contemplates paying the ransom (thereby destroying his social status and economic standing) or letting the boy die. I won't give anything else away. All I'll say is that the first act is riveting and is rich and profound like great theater. The moral crisis is real, and it's impossible to take your eyes off of Toshiro Mifune as Gondo. Plus, the widescreen just makes the condo look massive and Kurosawa's use of blocking within the extended frame is masterful.

I actually thought the entire film would take place in the condo, until it shifted gears and became this wonderfully meticulous police procedural and tense thriller. The film is basically a play in four acts, and each act is as interesting, exciting, and thought-provoking as the next. It's an impressive and ingenious bit of filmmaking from the first second to the last. If you love procedure, detective stories, bold socio-economic and philosophical themes, and the richness of great literature then you will be floored by the film. I know I was. If anyone else has seen it or does see it and wants to talk about it, it'd be fun to write more about. I was quite impressed.

SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON impressed the hell out of me as well. I watched it anticipating a horror film, and instead got a really taut thriller about an emotionally abusive relationship.

SEANCE reverses HIGH AND LOW and takes the perspective of the kidnappers. Mary is an emotionally scared medium looking for a shot at fame, recognition, and wealth for her and her excessively servile husband Billy. Claiming to communicate with the couple's stillborn child, Mary urges Billy to kidnap a wealthy couple's child so that she can help the couple find the child using her psychic abilities, making her famous in the process. Billy, who is powerless to resist Mary anything, agrees to go along with the scheme and perform all the heavy lifting.

I won't give anything away from here because watching the film unfold is just too fucking good. It's extremely tense and fascinating, and there are some truly nerve-wracking scenes that just took my breath away. But, honestly, a lot of the film's impact comes from the outstanding performances of Kim Stanley as Mary and Richard Attenborough as Billy. Their interactions together are painful, complex, and moving. Kim Stanley in particular is just devastating as Mary; she completely inhabits the role. As great as the film is as a thriller, it may be even better as a character study focusing on the afflictions of this strained (but surprisingly loving) relationship. There is a lot of nuance to that relationship, and it makes for some very raw and truthful moments. It's a pretty awesome movie that should be seen more. I'll be curious to see if both of these movies make your'63 and '64 lists, Brandon. I hope so.

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