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Tag Archives: Abduction

High and Low (1963)

high_and_low_jp_The films of Akira Kurosawa are so beautiful, I find myself mesmerized while watching them. He has become one of the most interesting directors I’ve ever seen. Most of his films I’ve seen are samurai films, with their own unique beauty rooted in the past, but High and Low is no less captivating for being set in the contemporary time of 1963.

It’s partly a crime drama, partly psychological, partly a look at economic disparity and despair. Toshiro Mifune is Kingo Gondo, an executive of National Shoes. He is engaged in a high stakes battle to control the shoe company outright and he has mortgaged everything he owns to do it. But when the son of his chauffeur is mistaken for own his son and abducted, Gondo has to decide whether or not to pay for the boy’s safe return. To do so would be to lose everything: his position, his large home, his entire life’s work.

This struggle actually only comprises the first third of the film. It could be divided up into three parts. The first part occurs almost exclusively in Gondo’s living room, which overlooks the city below, including many poor hovels. The second part is mostly police procedural, as the police – led by Chief Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) – try to track down the kidnapper. The last third is mostly devoted to the kidnapper himself (Tsutomu Yamazaki). By that time, the film has switched from Gondo’s apartment to the wide, seamy underbelly of the city where cocaine addicts, drug dealers, and the less fortunate live.

The film is almost like Psycho in that way – if Janet Leigh’s character got to meet Norman Bates at the end of the film.

(Spoilers ahead) In Psycho there is that riveting scene where Marian Crane talks with Norman Bates and they discover an uneasy kind of sympathy which so upsets Norman that he kills her later. Things happen a little differently in High and Low. Gondo and the kidnapper meet, but only at the end when the kidnapper has been sentenced to death. The sympathy seems to be all on Gondo’s side. Does he see a little of himself in him?

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Mifune listens to the kidnapper’s instructions

The kidnapper tells of his terrible suffering and how much he grew to hate Gondo, living up in that large house on the hill looking down on him. The film ends with him screaming and going mad in chilling fashion while Gondo sits quietly. It’s rather appalling and reads like a powerful indictment. The suggestion is of the crushing, maddening force of soulless economic conditions. The irony is that in hating Gondo, the kidnapper hates a self-made man who has an essential humanity in him. The other executives of National Shoes, on the other hand, seem to be missing that essential humanity, not caring much whether the chauffeur’s son lives or dies. In the kidnapper’s quest to hurt Gondo, many innocent people are hurt: the chauffeur, several cocaine- addicts, people the kidnapper clearly regards as of no value.

Also ironically, he might have actually done Gondo a service, albeit a painful one. Gondo is on his way to becoming like the other executives – his wife complains of it – but ultimately cannot sacrifice a child for his ambitions, however much he tries to talk himself into it. When he meets the kidnapper, Gondo seems a sadder, wiser, and more compassionate man. Toshiro Mifune is an actor with charisma to spare, which makes his quiet sadness all the more striking at the end.

After watching High and Low, it seems that Akira Kurosawa totally could have directed horror movies (or did he?). Especially in the last third with the kidnapper and his sunglasses, making him look like an eyeless monster as he moves through the flowers and preys on a cocaine addict. Even the junkies seem curiously zombie-like.

But Kurosawa’s unique touch is not just limiting to the last third. Even though the first third takes place almost exclusively in Gondo’s living room, the dynamic way he uses the camera, moving one way to pick up a character who is about the speak, moving in and out, is always gripping. No matter where you pause, you can tell exactly what emotions characters are feeling by their posture. There is also the way the police are obliged to awkwardly pretend not to be listening while Gondo is alternately begged by his wife to save the child, betrayed by a close business associate, threatened by bankers, and also while the chauffeur is so desperate to save his son that he bows down and begs on his face for Gondo to save him. It’s a gut-wrenching moment. And an emotionally powerful movie.

 

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2017 in Movies

 

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Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson – A Vicarious Book Review

book-cover-clarissaLast week I came downstairs to find my sister in the kitchen, crying and eating up all the dried mango in the house (which was the only sugar we had). She had just finished reading Clarissa, a fifteen hundred page novel by Samuel Richardson. The heroine, she told me, took forever to die, and my sister had just spent the last three hundred pages of the book with tears streaming down her face.

As our friend Andrea said, three hundred pages makes a whole book! A whole book of tears. What was this book that could move my sister so strongly? I’ve decided to write a vicarious book review, based on my sister’s account of the plot and her reactions (vicarious reading, I believe, is a seriously underappreciated form of reading).

Clarissa was written by Samuel Richardson and published in 1748. He was much admired by Jane Austen and known for his realism, despite what sounds to contemporary readers as rather sensational plots. His novels were epistolary, that is written entirely as letters between characters.

The first thing to understand, my sister told me, is that Richardson wrote books that were meant to provide a template for how young ladies ought to behave. He was known for this and Clarissa Harlowe is a virtuous young lady trying to do good. Half her letters to her friend involvse the two of them discussing it. How does one do the right thing?

It’s especially difficult for Clarissa, because she seems to have the world’s worst family. Her parents have generally abdicated their responsibility and her brother and sister are running the show, trying to force Clarissa to marry a man she does not love. She even tells the man, Mr. Solmes, to his face that she does not like him, but he is not discouraged. She begins to fear that they will physically force her to marry this man. In the meantime, the charming libertine Lovelace has set his sights on Clarissa.

Through trickery, charm, connivance and a little hustling, Lovelace manages to get the desperate Clarissa (her family really is terrible) to run away with him. His goal is to seduce her and he is used to having his way. What he cannot understand is that Clarissa, as a person striving to do good, is genuinely repulsed by him…or at least the wrong things he does. This completely baffles and angers him and makes him even more desperate to humble her. What follows is a horrifying cat-and-mouse game between Lovelace and Clarissa. She is essentially a prisoner and he surrounds her with lies and people who he presents one way and turn out to be different. Clarissa does not initially realize just how bad Lovelace is. He’s charming, witty, educated and intelligent, but he’s also a skunk. My sister says it’s shocking how deceptive he is. He completely undermines himself and her through his deceit.

Robert_Lovelace_Preparing_to_Abduct_Clarissa_HarloweEventually, in desperation, he rapes her and that is the last straw. Previously, because she was a ruined woman and she was attracted to him, she had resigned herself to marrying him, even saying later that “she could have loved him.” She thought maybe she could redeem him, not understanding how deceitful he really was.  But afterwards, she doesn’t even want to see him, despite the fact that the solution of Lovelace’s family to the rape is that he marry her (!).

When she finally does escape from him, it’s like she’s lost the will to live. In the words of my sister, “he broke her.” He surrounded her with such a “cocoon of lies”, which takes her quite a while to sort out, that she doesn’t trust anyone anymore, especially men. Eventually, like a martyred saint, she fades away and Lovelace commits suicide via a duel.

It sounds like sheer melodrama, but the emotional scope, my sister said, is tremendous. And after spending fifteen hundred pages and two months with all these characters, she felt particularly invested and involved with them, making Clarissa’s extended demise all the more painful.  She said she just felt so sorry for Clarissa and that everyone else in the novel reacted to Clarissa exactly the way she did. People who meet her feel terrible for her.

I couldn’t figure out how that relatively simply plot could take up fifteen hundred pages, but apparently it does. My sister explained that there is a lot of back and forth between characters – deciding what to do, explaining what they are going to do, reporting what happened. Because of the lies of Lovelace, some of the interactions are even fake. There is basically a giant con going on in the middle of the plot and Clarissa has trouble discerning what is true and what is real. Another thing my sister found interesting was how Clarissa was attracted to Lovelace, but she did not fall in love. His character prevented it. It’s an interesting view showing that falling in love is not just a physical reaction, but also a choice.

After watching the sheer emotional investment involved in reading Clarissa, the angst and tears, the dried mango and two months reading time, the frustration and inevitable tragedy…I want to read it, too! Anything that can move somebody so deeply has to be worth checking out. I asked my sister if she regretted reading it and she said she did not.

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2016 in Books

 

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My Name Is Julia Ross (1945)

my-name-is-julia-ross-movie-poster-1945-1020493690I’d read of the movie My Name Is Julia Ross described as the ultimate example of what a good B movie is. Only 65 minutes long and made on a small budget, the film has an excellent cast and crew and is quite a chilling little film. It was a breakthrough film for both the director, Joseph H. Lewis (who went on to more high profile film noirs like Gun Crazy and The Big Combo) and Nina Foch (best remembered from An American in Paris, as Milo Roberts).

Described as a “gothic thriller,” My Name Is Julia Ross has a relatively simple plot. Julia Ross (Nina Foch) is out of work, alone, and apparently friendless in London. She answers an advertisement and is quickly hired to be secretary to Mrs. Hughes (Dame May Whitty – about as harmless and aristocratic as a person can appear to be). Mrs. Hughes has a son, Ralph (George Mcready), who looks quite respectable…though he likes to play with knives. Julia doesn’t know that, however.

I don’t really want to spoil the entire plot, but the movie is so short that to discuss anything is to give something away. But it’s not really a mystery. The audience has a pretty good idea what’s going on ten minutes into the film. What is excellent is the suspense and overhanging claustrophobia of Julia’s situation, beautifully, and creepily, shot by Lewis and cinematographer Burnett Guffrey.

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Nina Foch as Julia stands at the estate gates while Ralph and a gardener look on

Julia is supposed to be a live-in secretary, but when she goes to their home in London she is drugged and wakes up in a home in Cornwall, by the ocean. There is a ring on her finger, all her papers proving her previous identity have been destroyed and Mrs. Hughes and her son insist that her name is Marion, that she’s Ralph’s wife and that she’s been ill. She’s practically a prisoner in their home. Even the servants believe that she is really Marion Hughes, despite Julia’s frequent insistence on her identity.

The movie has been compared to Gaslight. It is a bit of a gaslight scenario, though different in that Julia never really doubts her sanity. She staunchly maintains her identity, never ceasing in her efforts to contrive a way out of the house, no matter how much people insist that she is Marion.

But her attempts at escape are frustrated by the fact that even the people in the village believe that she is suffering from a nervous breakdown. It is an interesting scheme that Mrs. Hughes has concocted. Very improbably, but brilliant, in a way. It hinges on the fact that people’s natural impulse is not to get involved in other people’s affairs. When Mrs. Hughes say that Marion is ill, they believe her, no matter how much Julia insists that she is really Julia Ross and begs them to remember her name and get help. They believe Mrs. Hughes because she is rich and respectable, because she told them her story before Julia had a chance to, and because she looks sane. Dame May Whitty does not project malevolent scheming.

Dame May Whitty - would you trust that woman?

Dame May Whitty – would you trust that woman?

Despite our general insistence that we have suspicious minds, most people do generally believe what they are told (what we don’t believe stands out to us, because it’s relatively uncommon). It’s an interesting idea. If someone told me that their daughter-in-law was ill and I met that daughter-in-law and she told me that she was being held against her will and that she was really another person, would I believe her? Probably not. And even if I did, would I know what to do, who to go to, or be afraid people would laugh at me? It’s a brilliant psychological calculation on the part of Mrs. Hughes, thinking that she can get away with such an extraordinary masquerade.

It’s quite well-acted, especially by Nina Foch as the desperate, though resolute, Julia, a normal working girl caught in a mind-boggling and frightening situation. And Dame May Whitty as Mrs. Hughes, never overplaying her villainy, though definitely able to project menace when she needs to. George Macready is also excellent, in contrast, as her psychotic son, Ralph. The script is the apotheosis of taut script writing, with every scene and every bit of dialogue important and weighted with meaning. Highly atmospheric, quite tense, it is definitely worth seeing.

My Name Is Julia Ross can be viewed here on youtube.

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2015 in Movies

 

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