Monday, 2 January 2012

House of Bamboo (1955)

Sam Fuller only contributed additional dialogue to the script for this, a film noir set in a deceptively Technicolored, widescreen-rendered Japan, and the difference is telling. The cute but essentially superfluous romance between hero Robert Stack and local geisha Shirley Yamaguchi doesn’t offer the emotional volatility or psychological nuance found in similar romances of Fuller’s self-penned The Crimson Kimono and Verboten! (both 1959), and that means for a lot of the running time the familiar snap-crackle-pop of Fuller’s bald, bold-type style and enriching humanist reflexes are kept on a leash. However, it’s a Fuller film and make no mistake: set loose on foreign soil with a large budget and a superlative technical crew, he builds House of Bamboo into a series of brilliantly directed set-pieces. The story is dark and murderous, full of deception, intimate violence, kinky jealousy boiling up amongst male partners-in-crime, and lusciously weird visions of a culture in a moment of violent upheaval. The opening shots are some of the most brilliantly orchestrated in the history of widescreen cinema, with the tourist-board friendly shot of Mt Fuji cut into by the huffing steam train, which is then brought to a halt by a peasant’s cart stuck on the train. This vision of technological, modernist, bluntly ugly age being stalled by a remnant of a culturally specific workaday object is keen enough; the subsequent images of men in the classical Japanese peasant garb assaulting the train drivers, shooting the one American amongst the guard crew, and making off with the military weaponry aboard, resolves in the image of a woman screaming over a splay-legged corpse in a visually acute blast of ironic inversion, from old to new, natural beauty to human ugliness.

The setting is 1950s-contemporary, in the waning years of the American occupation of Japan, with the slowly recomposing Tokyo and sense of reviving Japanese fortunes riddled with stark corruption and uneasy alliances, and shots of the street life and the urban environs bring out with a stark clarity just how transitory and provisional much of the architecture and infrastructure of the city was at the time. It’s the outsider’s view of a world familiar from the distracted, ground-level world of the era-defining Japanese filmmakers like Ozu, Kurosawa, Naruse, and Mizoguchi. Film noir was even by this time being caricatured as a series of black-and-white visual clichés, but Fuller here completely, but effectively, translates the style into Technicolor terms, offering bold, almost carnival-like hues and precisely composed frames that both evoke Hitchcock’s similarly radical sense of how to use colour, and also the visual acuities of Japanese art. The dominant theme is cultural collision and cross-pollination, as classically attired geishas and festival dancers rehearse on a skyscraper rooftop, and entertainers perform in traditional fashion, before suddenly stripping off their robes and starting to jitterbug. Fuller’s reportorial instincts and experiential sense of zeitgeist are given free reign in this material. He absorbs through endless succinct shots the fascinating processes of Japan's modernisation and westernisation, as he does the incidental yet telling similarities between the police and the villains, each methodically setting about their work, from the pin-pointed evidence of the initial crime to the painstaking preparatory work by chief bad guy Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan). Sessue Hayakawa prefigures his Bridge on the River Kwai resurgence (although dubbed by Richard Loo) in playing the Japanese equivalent of one of Fuller’s familiar no-nonsense authority figures, as the police inspector Kito. Dawson’s harsh policy to leave no wounded behind, killing anyone who gets clipped  rather than leave them to be grilled by the cops, provides both the first evidence that he and his fellow stick-up men are still fighting the war, having turned the arts and assumptions of warfare into criminal enterprise.

When Ryan’s mob try to finish off one member in such a fashion after a robbery, Webber (Biff Elliot), the Japanese police and their American liaisons manage to interview him before he finally expires, and he begs them to keep his nefarious activities secret from the local girl, Mariko (Yamaguchi), and keep her well out of the case, as his comrades had no idea about her. Webber’s shady, violent army buddy Eddie Spanier (Stack) turns up looking for his pal who offered him a job, a la Holly Martens in The Third Man (1949), and, after tracking down Mariko, begins trying to shake down local pachinko parlours for protection money, only to bring on Dawson’s wrath, for he runs the parlours. Cue one of the most memorable introductions in cinema history, and also one of the most inspired uses of the Cinemascope frame’s depth of field. As Spanier roughs up a parlour boss in a back room, Dawson’s main man Griff (Cameron Mitchell) stalks into the frame from the right, grabs Spanier, and clobbers him in the jaw, sending him crashing back through the paper partition behind them, revealing Dawson and the rest of the crew gathered and waiting for his crash landing on the other side. It’s classic piece of physically forceful yet resolutely simple staging, and both Mitchell’s overheated aggression and Ryan’s supine authority are clearly displayed in our first glimpse of both. Spanier, after getting roughed up and told off, is then recruited into the gang when his background check turns up an impressive array of priors, whereupon the bluff is revealed: the man pretending to be Spanier is actually US Army Sergeant Eddie Kenner, and he’s trying to both bust up Dawson’s outfit and find his inside man in the Tokyo Police.

House of Bamboo is a work of near-genius as filmmaking, even if Harry Kleiner’s script doesn’t ever quite take things to the most ruthlessly intelligent level as Fuller was wont to do. The plotting leaves a few explanations to be desired, such as how a mob of westerners can, without disguises, repeatedly commit such daring robberies without bringing down the special ire of the local cops or, indeed, the local yakuza: the fact that the basic story has been transplanted without two much culturally specific thought from the regulation cop-infiltrates-gang American noir is all too apparent. Still, Fuller ransacks Kleiner’s script for nuances and radical interpretations. Unlike in Verboten!, the villains are not a subversive by-product of history and cultural collision, but an imported force of American hoods. Yet as in Verboten!, the tale clearly takes on an element of parable, warning about the dangers awaiting the new US hegemony in the Cold War era in depicting one of its newly conquered pseudo-fiefs. Dawson and Kenner are thus fittingly mirrored versions of the same, quintessential American male, torn between making the world its stamping ground and shepherding it back to self-direction, in a fittingly prognosticative move on Fuller’s part. The title suggests quaint exotic kitsch redolent of the other, badly aged Occupation-era movies like Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) and Sayonara (1957), but Fuller uses the motif of the bewilderingly (to western eyes) flimsy style of Japanese interior architecture, with paper walls and hanging screens, for a game of images, cutting the screen into box-like prisms and repeatedly separating characters with thin partitions. These range from that first wall Kenner crashes through to land at Dawson’s feet, locating the hard American force behind the seemingly cowed, slapdash façade of modernising Japan, to the blind that Mariko lowers between her and Kenner when they sleep beside each other in figuration of the personal, cultural, and sexual divide between them, and in the finale, where a silhouette glimpsed through a wall proves the undoing of Dawson’s attempt to have Kenner killed by his own side. Using different materials but similar in style are such moments as one of Dawson's men, Charlie (DeForest Kelley), keeps a clandestine watch on Mariko through the simple expedient of a huge reflecting bar-room mirror, and the scene in which Kenner, in his guise as Spanier, first tracks Mariko, as she darts through the halls of a bathhouse, trying to elude him, and then he tracks her through a park, Fuller’s panning camera revealing him hiding behind a tree as she hurries past oblivious, before he finally catches her in her apartment in a moment of distinctly sexualised frenzy. The film becomes through these layers of images a series of constantly shifting identities, permeable boundaries, paranoid surveillance, and changing allegiances.

This overt compartmentalisation has other ramifications. Whilst the romantic byplay between Kenner and Mariko takes up a bulk of the film’s pensive but overdrawn mid-section, the real emotional intensity and threat comes from the peculiar relationship of Dawson, Griff, and Kenner, where the need for absolute trustworthiness amongst comrades in enemy territory is not so subtly infused with aspects of homosexual devotion and envy, as Griff becomes increasingly frazzled and furious at Kenner’s slipping into his place, Dawson turning cold on his trigger-happy former partner and fixing with such immediate affection on the new boy that he forgoes the leave-no-prisoners rule when Kenner is wounded during a heist. The homoerotic tension is both displaced yet ratcheted higher by the self-consciously enforced regime of heteronormative relations, with the men being paired with submissive, emotionally inessential and yet forcibly dominated “kimono girls”. Kenner enlists Mariko’s aid against her reservations to stand in for his squaw, leading to long sweaty nights of discomfort as the pair have to pretend to be shacking up, with Mariko being treated as a pariah by her neighbours as a result, whilst their real attraction bubbles away. So dominant is this psychological obsession that when Mariko is spotted meeting Kenner’s army contact, Capt. Hanson (Brad Dexter), Dawson doesn’t assume she’s there to rat them out, but that she’s got other guys on the side, and he gives her a good slap to make to make sure she stays true. It’s like the ‘50s genre equivalent of The Iliad.

Whilst House of Bamboo takes a little too long to compose and entwine its various themes, and doesn’t quite achieve the sheer compulsiveness of Fuller at his greatest, the combustive moments, when they finally come, arrive in a flow of moments of dazzling cinema. The heist on which Kenner is wounded is shot like a blend of jazz and kabuki dance numbers, the fleeing criminals photographed in a deft tracking shot against huge screen-like warehouse doors and twisting in choreographed flourishes of physicality, leaving behind their smoke bombs that fill the air with delirious smudges. Dawson has to abort a big heist, that sees him using a political broadcasting bus as a Trojan Horse, when his mole rushes to warn him that the cops are waiting for them: his assumption that it must have been the jealous Griff who ratted him out, causes him to march into Griff’s house and shoot him without warning in his bathtub, blasting holes that spit water with vividly telegraphed corporeal impact in a moment that anticipates the milk carton in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) as well possessing, again, a potent homoerotic force in the image of naked, defenceless Griff writhing as Dawson fills him full of holes. When Dawson and underling Charlie finally realise Kenner is an agent, they try to set him up for a violent death at the hands of the Tokyo cops, but instead German Expressionism is invoked when Charlie’s silhouette is shot at by a cop, rather than Kenner, as was planned. Dawson makes his last stand, evoking both the climaxes of White Heat (1949) and Strangers on a Train (1951), but staged more methodically than those two deliberately hysterical finales, on a globe-shaped tilt-a-whirl elevated high above the city, as if the story has slipped its immediate liminal situation, leaving behind the past, and becomes instead a proto-Space Race movie, looking to where the next phase in human aggression will take place. Kenner’s final gunning down of Dawson is underlined not with pomp but with a distinctive note of the downbeat that prefigures the forlorn, grim tone of the conclusions of antiheroic ‘70s cop movies like The French Connection (1971) and The Seven-Ups (1974): the “happy” epilogue of Kenner and Mariko walking together is so casually appended that it hardly dispels this final note of romantic tragedy. Stack is surprisingly sufficient to his role, managing to capture something of the sullen, truculent aggression Sterling Hayden or Richard Widmark would have brought to the role.  Ryan and Mitchell are customarily punchy.


Adam Zanzie said...

Oh, man. I think I actually saw this movie for the first time exactly a year ago. I remember loving the hell out of it -- even though I only watched it once. I agree with you that the romance between Robert Stack and the chick is pretty superfluous, although it didn't bother me too much since that's the kind of convention to be expected from Fuller's brand of melodrama.

That clip where Dawson shoots Griff in the bathtub was later featured in Minority Report, during the sequence when Cruise is getting his eyes taken out. Methinks Spielberg was paying tribute to Fuller because they'd worked together just decades earlier on 1941.

Roderick Heath said...

Hi Adam. Great to see you here. I suppose I'm more frustrated with the romance because Fuller usually created such roaring hot male-female relationships - a la Park Row, The Crimson Kimono, Shock Corridor, 40 Guns; he knew how to invest conventions with strange new life, and was particularly keen when there was some sort of overt cultural, racial, or political conflict surrounding the pair. But here it's just too cute, resisting his attempts to shake it up, whilst it dominates the film's middle, slow third. He also knew his way around suggestively gay themes too (I Shot Jesse James) and here he seems to pour his interest into that element by way of compensation for the problematic foreground romance.

Yes, Minority Report. Fuller was I am sure always a strong influence on Spielberg - there's just too much of The Steel Helmet and The Big Red One in Saving Private Ryan to be coincidence, for instance. Also, when Scorsese listed Fuller amongst his sources for The Departed, I think this one was what he was thinking of, with the dual-mole theme and the perverse closeness of anti-hero and villain.

Le Loup said...

I don' recall seeing this one, it was a long time ago if I did. Looks good, thanks for posting.

Roderick Heath said...

Catch it you can for sure, LL.

J.D. said...

Excellent review of this underrated Fuller film. Even fans of his don't seem to talk about this one much but it certainly has its merits and you so eloquently pointed out. Man, it has been too long since I've seen this. Must revisit.

Roderick Heath said...

Hi JD. I have, on the other hand had, over the years, encountered people who recalled it vividly, so it started to take on a mythic patina in my mind. The result isn't quite as Fuller-y as I'd hoped for, but as an example of great directing goes, it's the top.