Film Club Review: High and Low & The Innocents

You may have noticed a distinct lack of film club reviews here in the past month. Blame our amazing contributors for filling up our publishing schedule! In the interest of time and work load, I’ve combined the last two films we’ve watched in our club to this one piece, so enjoy a weird and wild mashup of Japanese social-realism and high Gothic horror.

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Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low is quite different from the movies you might know him for, Seven Samurai and Ran. No samurai are in evidence here, and his leading man (played by Toshirô Mifune with no less intensity as he exhibits in those action films) is a women’s shoe designer in post-War Japan. As King Gondo plans a takeover of his shoe company, his son is kidnapped and things get hostile. There are twists I don’t want to spoil, and this summary covers only the first ten or so minutes of the film. By its end, there will have been a large scale criminal investigation and a full understanding of why a seemingly enemy-less capitalist would be the target of the biggest kidnapping in Japanese history. The Japanese title translates directly to “Heaven and Hell” and both that and the film’s English title indicate Kurosawa’s spectacular focus on the dichotomies present as Japan transitions into a more Westernized economy and society. He depicts both the positive outcomes that one can achieve in a capitalist economy as well as the terrible disillusionment it can inspire in those who cannot climb the social or economic ladder.

Based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Truman Capote’s adaptation of the stage version of The Innocents builds on the Gothic sensibilities in the original text by making nature a vital element in the film. Outside the giant mansion where Deborah Kerr’s Miss Giddens goes to take care of two perhaps possessed young children the natural world thrives to the point of overgrowth. The wind whips through the trees and the crickets chirrup constantly. Inside the dark mansion, however, nature dies almost instantly and only survives through unnatural preservation, kinda like ghosts! The grounds are haunted by the former caretaker and his governess girlfriend who seem to have had inappropriate relationships with the young children they were supposed to care for, and the new governess gets immediately wrapped up in the impropriety that has, in her eyes, tainted both the grounds and the children. The film maintains some of the ambiguity present in the original text regarding the veracity of the ghosts, and Jack Clayton’s impeccable direction keeps things beautiful and spooky at the same time. It’s truly a masterpiece of horror even without many actual scares.

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Though these two films don’t seem to have much in common on their surface, both would be spectacular in teaching framing and composition techniques. Both shot in gorgeous black-and-white widescreen formats, they convey everything you need to know through visual information in the frame. High and Low is Kurosawa at his finest, first giving Mifune the space to expand and dominate the frame and then quickly crowding him in as the kidnapping continues to place pressure on him to do the right thing. It also has one of the best camera moves in all of cinema as a ground level shot of his house high on a hill pans down to a mucky river in which the kidnapper first appears as a reflection. It’s the film’s thesis in a single shot and it marks the turning point in the middle of the movie. Clayton, too, leaves lots of room in the frame but for him it is about the possibility of ghosts or other unspeakable evils that might be present, if only in Miss Giddens’ mind. Anything could be lurking in the deep shadows or, in a genre-defining moment, at a distance. There are a few shots of the ghostly governess which prefigure all the malevolent forces in horror movies (see: Michael Myers in Halloween) who quietly stand deep in the frame and terrify from afar. In both films the narrative is complicated by social forces which exert pressure on the protagonists to the point where it becomes unclear whether they are in the right or are part of the problem, and that tension is expressed so explicitly in the filmmaking that they become excellent teaching tools.

Tune in next week for a review of the seasonally appropriate Fantastic Mr. Fox for a nice and happy, if melancholic, change.

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