Sam Fuller’s Tokyo-set neo-noir

The primary interest in “House of Bamboo” is the wide-screen CinemaScope color photography (by Joe MacDonald) of Tokyo ca. 1954 (with lots of fire-engine reds in most every scene). The final shoot-out has an interesting locale, but it and the rest of the movie lack the drive of the original (1948) undercover cop drama “The Street with No Name,” which had a prototypical noir look and a more complicated, more conflicted, and, in-short, more-noirish hero (played by Mark Stevens). The one here, portrayed by Robert Stack—who showed a dark side in other mid-1950s movies, notably “Tarnished Angels”—never shows the slightest doubt about the side he is on, never shows a glimmer of temptation to go over to the criminal side.

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Director Samuel Fuller gave himself credit for “additional dialogue,” though blame for the banal dialogue, particularly in long, slack expository scenes between Robert Stack and Shirley Yamaguchi seems to me more deserving of assessing than credit. “House of Bamboo” runs 11 minutes longer than “The Street with No Name” (102:91), but seems to meander at least half an hour longer. For a “thriller,” it is remarkably slack. There are a few visually striking scenes, shot from above or below (“Street” had a lot of upward camera angles), but even the fancy final shoot-out lacks tension. It also lacks the twist at the end that made “Street” particularly notable (though copying the set-up—literally prop-up—for the police arrival from “Street”).

The agonies of undercover work are barely touched upon. Getting the policeman planted is treated perfunctorily. It seems that the mole supplying information to the American mobsters operating in Tokyo in “House” is not even uncovered by the officials, which was a primary part of the operation in “Street”. The plot and dilemmas did not seem to interest Fuller (who had recently made a real noir, “Pickup on South Street,” with a low-life antihero played by Richard Widmark, who had played the narcissistic gang leader in “The Street with No Name”). I guess he wanted to go to Tokyo to shoot a movie and didn’t much care about the movie beyond that. As a police procedural tale, the movie is subpar.

To come out and say what I have only implied, Robert Stack herein is bland, seeming to go through the motions as Eddie. As Mariko, “the kimono” who falls for Eddie and whom Eddie comes to rely on very quickly, Shirley Yamaguchi is also bland. (She has a much bigger part than Barbara Lawrence had in “Street,” but does little more than look concerned.) Eddie’s handlers are rarely on screen. This leaves the movie to Robert Ryan, as the smug and usually ruthless gang leader, Sandy Dawson, who seems to have some repressed paternal or fraternal or erotic longing for Eddie (considerably more obscure than Ryan’s Claggart had for Terence Stamp’s Billy Budd), though no apparent jealousy of Mariko. The open jealousy is displayed by Griff (Cameron Mitchell) who had been Sandy’s favorite and second-in-command until Eddie showed up and became the new favorite (though not formally top lieutenant). This souring provides nearly the only interpersonal drama in the movie. It ain’t enough!… though it does end photogenically. OK, I’ll have to admit that Eddie and Sandy “meet cute” (worth at least a chuckle).

The ending is entertaining, seemingly influenced by the end of James Cagney’s gang boss in “White Heat” more than by the end of Richard Widmark’s in “Street With No Name.” As in an earlier shoot-out, the cops (including the US Army sergeant) are very bad shots and the robbers very good ones.

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Jean-Luc Godard, in his film critic days, proclaimed “House of Bamboo” and the preposterous Barbara Stanwyck western “40 Guns” Fuller’s best films. I can see a link between the perfunctoriness of them and Godard’s increasingly anti-dramatic movies (though not the high pitch of hysteria from “40 Guns”). The racial dynamics (American condescension) are much better dramatized in Fuller’s “The Steel Helmet,” which is also one of the best Korean War movies. I’ve already mentioned “Pickup on South Street” as far superior an underworld movie (and a real noir, shot in black and white and without a one-dimensional hero).

Since Fuller was not interested in making a noirish thriller, one might think he’d have used the opportunity to explore the place of the occupying 8th Army in the period of transition to Japanese policing and governing, but he had nothing to say about that. There is not even a hint that Japanese gangsters “yakuza” existed and might have provided some competition for the gang of highly conspicuous foreigner thugs. I’d be hard-pressed to infer anything about Fuller’s views of Japanese culture or the impact of American occupation of Japan on either the Japanese or the occupiers from the movie beyond a flicker of sympathy of the lot of the Japanese woman (Mariko) being ostracized for moving in with a gaijin (foreigner, that is, Eddie). There is no firm evidence that Fuller did not share the contemptuous view of the “kimonos” of the other gang members.

The bright (daytime) colors have been well preserved (or restored), but the movie was a major disappointment, even for someone unimpressed with Fuller’s (later) “The Big Red One” (which is similar to the marksmanship in “House of Bamboo” with the German soldiers unable to hit the five American ones as they more-or-less win World War II across the African and European WWII campaigns). Although I think Fuller is a director inordinately championed by French auterists and over-rated by American champions of “termite art,” I think that Fuller made some interesting movies (Steel Helmet, Pickup on South Street, Shock Corridor, Run of the Arrow, Verboten!, White Dog, and even Park Row).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

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