Sunday, October 27, 2013

Movie Roundup #22: The Good

High And Low: Mifune, Nakadai and company talk it out.

High And Low (1963)

As compelling as the deepening moral abyss of Breaking Bad is (I'm now three episodes away from the end of what's available on Netflix and as they say, the sh*t done got real.) it's refreshing to watch this classic film by Akira Kurosawa, a crime story that turns on someone doing the honorable and right thing.

The film centers on Gondo, a shoe company executive played by Toshiro Mifune. He is plotting strategy in a struggle with some of his partners for control of the company when he gets a phone call telling him that his 8-year-old son has been kidnapped for a 30 million yen ransom. He frantically agrees to pay even though it would mean his financial ruin but then his son walks in the room completely unharmed. It turns out that the kidnappers mistakenly grabbed the son of Gondo's chauffeur, with whom his own boy had been playing but even when they realize their error, their demands don't change, 30 million yen or the kids dies. The question then becomes will Gondo pay the ransom money to save another man's child.

This story originated as one of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels, King's Ransom.  In that story the executive cannot bring himself to pay the ransom. Kurosawa flips that response and, in keeping with the self-sacrifice theme of some of his other films, Gondo, after a lot of soul-searching, pays the money. Much of the rest of the film is police procedural stuff of the police painstakingly tracking down the kidnappers while Gondo is forced out of his company and forced to start over while in middle-age.

The early part of the movie is laid out like a play. Set almost totally in Gondo's living room, the characters move through the scene's space often turning their backs to him in embarrassment as he rages about how he cannot pay while his wife and chauffeur plead with him. Later on as the focus moves to the cops' manhunt the movie starts to resemble Dragnet without narration, long scenes of conferences, interviews and suspect tracking that move through the differing levels of Japanese society. The scenes shift from open air markets to night clubs and finally, dope dens, far away from the rich man's house where the movie started. In the last scene Gondo confronts the kidnapper, now captured and on death row. He turns out to be a Raskolnikov-like medical intern who had never even met Gondo but just hated him because he was rich and lived in a big house on a hill. At the end Gondo, the ruined man, sits composed and at peace with his life while the kidnapper screams in denial of where he is and what's become of him.

Mifune, as usual, is excellent, raging and bellowing at the beginning but shifting to a controlled, philosophical resignation. In one beautiful scene the police have the suitcases to be used for the ransom money and are discussing where to put signal devices that would alert them if the cases are burned or dumped in the river. Mifune calmly gets out his shoe making tools and starts carving pockets into the cases to hide the devices. Tatsuya Nakadai, Mifune's nemesis in films like Yojimbo, plays the lead police detective while there are also plenty of faces from Kurosawa's regular stock company in small roles whom I don't know by name, with the exception of the great Takashi Shimura who shows up as a police official.

Akria Kurosawa made two of my all-time favorite films, The Seven Samurai and Ikiru. High and Low doesn't quite belong in that select company but it's damn close. Beneath the crime elements it has a respect for the decency and honesty of the individual that few filmmakers pulled off quite as well as him.

Carson Corners:  J'accuse - The janitor did it (or did he?)

"The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners" (1954)

Television drama was in a very different place than today in the early 50's.  There were no likable serial killers, sexy vampires, suburban drug lords, crime bosses with emotional problems, or psychotic government agents back then. Significant stories were still told. The best of them just worked on a lower keyed and more subtle level. Rod Serling's "Requiem For A Heavyweight" and "Patterns" are two of the more well-known examples of the period but the lesser-known "The Remarkable Incident At Carson Corners" written by Reginald Rose has something to say as well.

This drama was part of the Westinghouse Studio One anthology series and it told a very simple story. The kids of a small town called Carson Corners invite their parents to a special school project. When everyone has assembled in jolly "What are the little tykes planning?" good humor, the kids unveil their surprise. They are holding a mock trial and accusing the school janitor of the murder of one of their classmates.

Rose's most famous work was another Studio One play, "12 Angry Men" and you can see elements of that story here as some of the parents turn into an angry mob out for the janitor's blood while a few cooler heads try to get at the truth.  It turns out the kids are mistaken but as all the adults in the room are forced to reconsider the circumstances of the boy's death. The story follows one of Breaking Bad's (that show again!) guiding principles, The Law Of Unintended Consequences. Things done or not done that seemed harmless at the moment turn out to have contributed to the tragedy.

The show quietly puts out the message that we are all responsible for one another and if we neglect that responsibility something bad could happen, not a terrorist bombing or a drug cartel shootout, but something tragic all the same. The point is made well here without over-the-top histrionics or preachy dialogue. There are not any famous actors in early roles here as you sometimes get in these old shows, just a few faces recognizable to hardcore old TV fans like Frank Overton and Harry Townes. The relative anonymity of the cast keeps the message out front, not that the message is still that relevant. After all it's sixty years later and we all recognize the value of looking out for one another...right?

Virtue (1932) 

If you're an old movie fan and I were to tell you that this pre-Code film starred Pat O'Brien and Carole Lombard you'd be all set for a fast-paced, wise-cracking big city story and you'd be partially wrong. Virtue was made at Columbia not O'Brien's long time studio, Warner Brothers and O'Brien is not the fast-talking sharpie he usually was in Warners films even though the plot here could have been prime Warners material.

O'Brien plays a New York City cabdriver who meets and falls in love with Lombard who he thinks is an out of work stenographer. In reality she is a prostitute who just skipped out on a trip to an upstate work farm but that makes no difference and the two falls in love and get married. Things go along well for them even after O'Brien finds out the truth.  Then Lombard gives a sick friend $200 that O'Brien was saving to invest in a gas station and in the ensuing complications, he walks out and she gets charged with a murder.

Again this is a more subdued Lombard and O'Brien than you see in the fast-moving razzle dazzle of their signature movies and Lombard in particular shows a tough, dramatic edge worthy of a Stanwyck or Crawford, a side of her not apparent in My Man Godfrey or Nothing Sacred. The movie goes by fast, wrapping up in just over an hour without any overdone sentiment or annoying "comic relief" and showing some visual flair in a montage of a trip to Coney Island. It's a surprisingly likable little programmer.

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