King’s Ransom by Ed McBain (or, High and Low by Akira Kurosawa)

HighAndLow In the fifties, Ed McBain wrote a rather nondescript book, a crime thriller which had all the cliches and ingredients of a potboiler – wooden, flat characters mouthing banalities, the stereotype business tycoon, the tough cop etc. etc. There was, however, a distinct complexity to the plot, which though the author could barely leverage, but which the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa recognized and transformed into a far more potent and profound film. King’s Ransom, the book, became High and Low, the film. But apart from the basic plot, the difference between the quality of the two, if one could reasonably compare the contents of two differing media, is vast.

King (or Kingo, in the film), a shoe company executive, gets a ransom call from a kidnapper for an astronomical sum. But the kidnapper bungles. He mistakenly picks up the chauffeur’s son, the same age as King’s own, and who was dressed in the son’s outfit while playing cops and robbers outside the King mansion at the time of the kidnapping. But the kidnapper is unrelenting, and wants King to pay up all the same. King is aware of the stakes. He has bet his life’s fortunes, including his house, to secure majority stake in the company so he can oust his adversaries and take control, a deal that must be sealed within a few days. Paying the ransom would mean losing the opportunity. Not only that, he’d be thrown out himself, facing obscurity and financial ruin, a fact he tries to desperately make his wife understand. But nothing, to her, is more valuable than a boy’s life.

Kurosawa fully utilized this conflict to create a riveting drama of plot and character. While sticking to the basic premises of the original story, here are some of his master touches that transforms an ordinary book into an extraordinary film:

  • Gondo Kingo (King) is torn between the choice of saving a boy’s life or protecting his own (and family’s) interest. If he pays, he is a hero to his wife and the public, but loses everything he has worked his entire life for. Kurosawa adds a human touch to the ruthless tycoon image crated by McBain, when Kingo eventually agrees to pay. Gondo, played convincingly by the redoubtable Toshiro Mifune (Rashomon, Seven Samurai), transcends himself by this heroic act. This is the single most powerful aspect of the film, a dimension that Kurosawa invokes and the book neglects.

  • The criminal mind is explored far more thoroughly in the film. It adds a socio psychological aspect to the motive. The original Japanese title of High and Low is “Tengoku to Gigoku”, the literal English for which would be—Heaven and Hell. Heaven is where, at least from the miscreants low lying slum, the rich live in their beautiful villas on a hill, insulated from the sufferings of the world, the atrocities of the weather (the stiflingly humid Yokohama summer in the film or the barren cold of a mid-western autumn in the book).

  • Investigation and detection: This is where the book miserably fails and film soars to new heights. From the tracing of telephone calls, the ingenious bullet train sequence where money changes hands (I have a video clip at the end of this piece, that I could not resist adding*), to the eventual trail and pursuit, all are brilliantly conjured in the film. The book does little to grab the reader— the thug sort of falling into the hands of the cops in an insipid ending.

The end results underscores the fact that there is little correlation between the quality of a film to its original source. One could make a terrible movie out a literary masterpiece or sculpt a gem out of an inconsequential potboiler.

*Unfortunately removed due to copyright issues. But here’s an excellent recap from NY Times Critics’ Picks – 

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Alter ego of @thecallofwords Wandering in the flow of words

7 thoughts on “King’s Ransom by Ed McBain (or, High and Low by Akira Kurosawa)

  1. Nice post,

    I watched this movie a week ago too, was in awe of Kurusowa’s genius. It explores human psyche in a beautiful way.

    I watched it at Shri Ram Center . Did you watch it there by any chance.


    1. Thanks.
      I actually saw it for the first time in 2002, in Portland, Oregon (Thereafter a few times more on DVD.). I think I was fortunate to see the film screening, as they are quite hard to come by. Had wanted to read the book for a while, so there…


  2. I’ve never heard of this film, but I’m a big Ed McBain fan and only recently read King’s Ransom. I liked it bit more than you did, even with its imperfections. Thanks for the tip on this film!


  3. Long version: “In the 1590s. Wlliam Shakespeare wrote a rather bloodthirsty play, a supernatural chiller which had all the cliches and ingredients of a cheapjack melodrama – shallow, hysterical characters mouthing violent banalities, the stereotyped femme fatale, the hallucinating Scot, etc, etc. There was, however, a distinct complexity to the plot, which though the poet could baely leverage it, the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa recognised and transformed into a far more potent and energetic morality tale. The iambic farrago Macbeth became Throne Of Blood, the Movie.”

    Short version: Ed McBain is a serious writer, patronised or despised for writing in a popular idiom, but he attempted things in the novel form that no-one else has ever done. His star will rise as genre snobbery recedes. You really should give him another chance. Kurosawa wasn’t just rootling through the rubbish.


    1. I should probably read the book again. Did not intend to patronize or demean Ed McBain. Honestly, this is his only book I have read, and that too because of the movie. It’s just that I did not find the book half as good as the film.


  4. There are also contrarians who get their jollies out of championing “the other.” Anyone who’s ever read a McBain mystery and seen a single episode of Dragnet (episodes of the show predated McBain’s 87th Precinct series by a few years) would notice the gross similarities. McBain self-admittedly derived much of his technique and approach from the series, merely adding the element of “coincidence.” Brilliant, no one had ever done that before, certainly not Thomas Hardy.

    McBain not only wrote in a popular idiom, he reinforced cliches instead of creating new ones or at least subverting the old ones. That is not “attempting new things in the novel form that no-one else has ever done” (care to elaborate on that incredibly general statement by the way?).

    The reviewer wasn’t being patronising, merely honest. The symbolism and visceral reality of the film far outweighs such commercial aims as McBain aspired to. Next we’ll be getting defenders of Dean Koontz championing him as the greatest thriller writer in the history of abstract thought.


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