high and low

© 2007 William Ahearn

Ed McBain has always been one of my favorite – and probably only favorite – series writer. Writing under his legal name of Evan Hunter, he scripted “The Birds” for Alfred Hitchcock and numerous other novels and screenplays. But, to me, he was McBain when he died. As the author of the 87th Precinct series – that began in 1956 with Cop Hater – McBain wrote some fifty or so 87th Precinct novels until his last one, Fiddlers, in 2005, just before his death.

McBain was one of the originators of the procedural police story in crime fiction. If you read McBain’s books, you always find a nod here and there to Jack Webb. Webb, of course, was the driving force behind Dragnet that was originally on radio and then moved to TV. Recently I happened to see “He Walked By Night” a 1948 crime drama based on police reports instead of newspaper accounts or a novel. If you’re a crime film fan, you want to see this film and you want to see Jack Webb as a geeky CSI in the police lab. Webb realized while doing this film that the procedural was his calling and he hired the police advisor to the film and together they started Dragnet.

"He Walked By Night" is also the DNA of the 87th Precinct novels. While I can’t provide a direct, substantiated link, it is so apparent as to be obvious. That takes nothing away from McBain’s work. If anything, it’s an interesting footnote.

Akira Kurosawa is one of my favorite filmmakers and a filmmaker with a very literate and literal understanding of American crime fiction and his classic “Yojimbo” is based on Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett.  One of many Japanese movie masters, he has worked in numerous genres.

When I found out that Kurosawa adapted McBain’s 87th Precinct novel, King’s Ransom, for the screen, I had to see it. It was one of a few McBain’s that I hadn’t read so reading the book and then seeing the film seemed interesting since McBain’s procedurals are thin novels with little character backstory that seem to clog so many crime novels. There isn’t a great 87th Precinct novel and yet all of them are solid reads and it wasn’t until near the end that the books began to lose that focus that made them such dependable crime entertainments.

King’s Ransom is the story of Douglas King – an executive in a struggle to control ownership of a shoe manufacturing company – whose son is the target of kidnappers. Not the brightest bunch of criminals, they snatch the wrong kid. They end up with the chauffeur’s son instead of King’s and King doesn’t want to pay the ransom since it will ruin his deal to take over the company. Dealing with the chauffeur, his own wife, the kidnappers and the detectives from the 87th Precinct, King tries to cut his own self-serving path through all the advice and demands.

The book is classic McBain in its minimalist procedural style.

Kurosawa’s film of King’s Ransom, titled “High and Low,” takes the sketch of the novel and expands it and adds a great deal of depth missing from the book and most other McBain books. Usually, this is where filmmakers go off on an unrelated or unnecessary tangent. As I mentioned, Kurosawa has a great deal of respect for the literature that becomes the basis of his film and “High and Low” is a perfect example. In the translation of geography, language and culture, I could still pick out the character of Meyer Meyer among the numerous Japanese police detectives.

It’s an old film so, in some parts, some people might find it slow compared to the dazzle and quick cuts of more recent films. Dazzle is one thing but an unwavering cinematic eye is something that will always be in style. The expansion that Kurosawa employs to flesh out King’s Ransom to the screen is true to the novel’s sensibilities. There are more procedural aspects to the film then there are in the book. The ending is different and a different kidnapper takes the kid and yet I never felt that Kurosawa exploited the novel. If anything, while this technically isn’t King’s Ransom, it is undoubtedly McBain. And that’s a very rare adaptation.


William Ahearn