Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Hitcher (1986)

Ranking, purely on a level of sustained moodiness and visual authority, with the best of ‘80s American genre films, The Hitcher is nonetheless a frustrating piece of work. The Hitcher operates best as a waking nightmare, as the situation depicted in the opening scenes, and the blue-eyed malevolence personified by John Ryder (Rutger Hauer), seem to practically step out of a Jungian collective unconscious, grown cancer-like in the modern psyche where fear is the flipside to the nominal freedom of the highway, and the film itself a bleak inversion of late ‘60s and ‘70s road movies, which already displayed aspects of paranoia about just how open and bounteous being on the road would prove. Young Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell), beset by micro-sleep blackouts as he travels a desolate stretch of road in Nevada, picks up hitch-hiker Ryder, because, as he will explain later, he thinks a companion will help keep him awake. Ryder, emerging from the pouring rain and offering a peculiarly distracted line of patter, certainly wakes Jim up, not merely from driver fatigue, but from his hitherto cushioned urban upbringing and coddled sense of the world: he’s recently left Chicago for an adventure, having signed up with a pick-up driving service purely to get a vehicle to take to California, and Jim is from the first instant a naïve young man waiting for a shock. The first half-hour of The Hitcher is as good as any thriller ever made, generating a mood of lonely fatigue and lurking horror with fervent excellence, the images of red taillights soaking the rainy night with bloody tones sufficient to evoke the truth behind Ryder’s claim that he cut off a Volkswagen driver’s extremities, even before he pulls out his flick knife. Hauer’s sublime performance sustains a tone of bleary existential despair and psychic exhaustion even in feeding off fear and mayhem.

The visual pungency of the rainy night and the subsequent minimalist vistas of desert and dusty diners and lonely truck stops, conveyed with crisp yet muted colours, and methodical lighting and sound layers, make The Hitcher’s landscape authentic yet estranged, a richly atmospheric battleground that works well as both realistic milieu and Dali-esque dreamscape. It’s as bleakly interiorised and relentless in its study of the vulcanisation of a young man’s soul through torment in the face of the world’s evil as the same year’s similar Blue Velvet, and like that film hinges on telling images of severed body parts. Of more immediate kinship, it anticipates the same ethereal sense of the Midwestern night as a nightmarish cage in its vastness, populated by strange beasts, in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), likewise written by Eric Red, who must count as co-auteur on both films, which also share some essential faults. Director Robert Harmon’s work wears influences on its sleeve whilst maintaining a patina of consistent stylisation, with loud hints of Hitchcock and Paul Verhoeven, unsurprising with Verhoeven’s former golden boy Hauer on board. The Fourth Man’s image of a punctured eyeball is invoked through dialogue, and whether or not the villain is a demon or a mere murderer is left similarly opaque. The Hitcher also belongs in a class of new-age horror film with Michael Mann’s more oblique but similarly oppressive attempt to reinvent the gothic horror film with The Keep (1984), particularly in how Harmon uses Mark Isham’s spacey score like Mann used Tangerine Dream’s, to sustain the miasma of paranoid isolation and hazy veracity. 

Intimations of anticipated violation take on other dimensions as Ryder keeps the knife pressed in Jim’s crotch as they’re pulled over by a road worker, who takes the gesture for a queer rendezvous. Like another mid-‘80s horror movie, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, the seemingly inhuman killer provokes voluble metaphors for gay panic, as the threat of homoerotic violence lends a note of queasy knowing to Jim’s near-psychic link to Ryder and his actions during their absurdist chase. Ryder seems to embody an entrapping fact of identity that cannot be escaped, and certainly coming along when Jim is vulnerable and in the act of escaping his familiar life. Jim’s refusal to submit, that is, to complete Ryder’s dictated statement, “I want to die”, makes him the top, and Ryder, who seems to be devoutly wishing a consummation, nominates Jim not as victim but as nemesis, the one who must finally grow big enough balls to take him out, whatever the potential cost, as he provokes Jim at several points to kill him. Ryder begins exterminating everyone Jim gets close to, from policemen to holidaying families. The Hitcher suggests a Halloween campfire tale effectively illustrated, borrowing tropes familiar from urban legends: food spiked with nasty surprises; situations of solitude inviting the unknown danger. Whilst the opening and basic set-up seem to promise a focused set-piece built around an interpersonal cat-and-mouse struggle, a la Ida Lupino’s spin on the same idea, The Hitch-Hiker (1953), hewing to classic noir rules, or a The Twilight Zone-esque tale of the uncanny and the dissolving limits of the liminal, Harmon and Red soon move on to a Hitchcockian manhunt, albeit played by the far more expansive rules of ‘80s genre stylings, where infrastructure has to be totalled, guns fired aplenty, and explosions set off now and then. 

Even as it shifts gears and genres, The Hitcher still maintains integrity and a compelling aura of dread, as Jim’s own cranking hysteria and will to survive begin to incriminate him as surely as Ryder’s mischievous murders. Relief for the folie-a-deux that is the Jim/Ryder death dance is introduced in the form of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s winningly blowsy diner waitress Nash, taking Jim under her wing eventually, as the promise of violent force from the cops proves as unnervingly extreme as any highway psychopathy, and the couple are conjoined by their wish to escape their lives: just as Jim’s rebellion brings on Ryder, so too Nash’s rebellion brings on the police with white-hot fury, which won’t abate until she is killed. References to Duel (1971) are hard to avoid, especially in the hero’s ordinary haplessness and the villain’s relentlessness, the use of setting, and the general story structure. Hitchcock is the common reference for both Spielberg and Harmon, with a helicopter swooping in like North by Northwest’s crop duster, on top of the transference of guilt theme. The problem with Harmon’s film is that whilst it hints at hallucinogenic fantasy, it doesn’t ever quite make up its mind, pursuing the basic narrative conceit with an increasingly improbable narrative that nonetheless never entirely gives into dream logic. The fact is that Red’s script under the influence of a much more recent genre model, becoming a variation on The Terminator (1984: James Cameron would of course produce wife Bigelow’s film of Red’s next script) with unstated supernatural or psychological causes, rather than sci-fi, to justify the Ryder’s inhuman capacity to shoot down said helicopter with a handgun, or plunge out of a bus and through a windscreen with barely a scratch. 

This attempt to blend the hyperkinetic high style that defined ‘80s American genre cinema with a tale based more in primal dread and near-subliminal anxieties therefore only works to a certain extent, as Harmon therefore sustains a note of cryptic but essentially earthy urgency. Then again, the film also bears similarities of vision with the following year’s White of the Eye by Donald Cammell, another tale based in versions of normality based in both everyday life and the templates of genre, increasingly untethered from both whilst invoking destructive forces in a desert setting. On a level of basic compulsive action, too, The Hitcher commits itself with admirably coldness to its singularly nasty proliferation of tricks, from the finger plucked and almost eaten from a plate of French Fries, to Jim awakening in a police station where he’s been imprisoned only to find the cops have all been murdered and the police dog lapping blood from its master’s neck. Most memorably and inescapably nasty, Nash, taken prisoner by Ryder, is suspended between two trucks, to be torn in half with the slightest release of the clutch, forestalling both Jim’s and the police’s hopes of delivering cost-free justice. Disgusted with Jim’s squeamishness and incapacity to kill his nemesis, Ryder exasperatedly lets the truck roll forward, killing Nash, a moment of chilling nihilism that vibrates within and around the work: it’s the rare horror film that has the courage of such taunting convictions to do such a thing to the nominal love interest. Interestingly, The Hitcher made a powerful impact at the time thanks to its intimate cruelty, yet it's actually very judicious in terms of what it shows: such unbearable spectacles as a slaughtered cute family and Nash's murder are actually left entirely to the imagination, and become perhaps all the more powerful for it. Many, far more gory films have been made before and since, and yet  there's something about The Hitcher's precise malevolence in this regard that makes it especially galvanising by refusing to play nice.

Still, killing off Nash only points to a basic flaw in Red’s script, one he would at least not repeat in Near Dark (which similarly stumbles towards the end with action movie shtick but recovers with a better finish). In wanting to stay a step ahead of the audience and cut off all familiar avenues, Red and Harmon leave their film without any real source of suspense in the last act, which, on top of the film’s wilful abandonment of believability, finally proves a ruinous drag. The essential point of The Hitcher is an interesting one, however, in that it seems to boil down to a depiction of achieving final maturity, an evolution which requires, sometimes, taking responsibility for unpleasant, even terrible jobs; it's a variation on “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” but inflected with an existential quality where, whether you win or lose in the war against fear itself, it costs you something dear to you. After Jim struggles through a Calvary-like moment where he contemplates suicide with a stolen police pistol, he once again chooses life. But life now means, therefore, accepting the persecution of Ryder and by the police as his new state of existence. Jim's unwillingness to shoot Ryder when he gives him the chance, and when he might have a shot at saving Nash, has a definite consequence: it means that Ryder, who has no concept of mercy, kills her, thus forcing Jim to be morally complicit in the act through his incapacity to meet monstrosity on its own terms. By The Hitcher’s end, however, Jim is as dead-eyed and relentless as Ryder, if still ostensibly righteous, when he turfs out Jeffrey DeMunn’s empathetic sheriff from his own squad car to chase down Ryder who, as predicted, stages an escape from a prison bus. The very finale gives the impression of a narrative motor finally running down for lack of petrol, no more twists or new revelations possible, as the binary necessity finally fulfilled, the traditional Reagan-era movie act of punitive punishment blended with an aspect of mercy killing, as well as self-exterminating consummation that looks forward to the bullet-induced cure for schizophrenia in Fight Club (1999). Even if it slowly degenerates into a lesser film than it might have been through trying to be too many kinds of movie, The Hitcher’s perfect first act and memorably ruthless highlights sustain an impressive and oddly haunting semi-classic. Sadly, Harmon's subsequent cinematic career, including his return to semi-abstract urban legend horror with They (2002) and Highwaymen (2004), has been disappointing, but his interesting telemovie work has included 2000's The Crossing, perhaps the best attempt to film the American Revolution made thus far.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

Classic Hollywood's reconceptualisation of much classic literature created versions that have sunk deep, almost immovable roots into the popular psyche. In spite of innumerable attempts to shift the impression, who thinks of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s Monster these days and not James Whale’s, or Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff and not William Wyler’s? Not many. The pairing of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson is perhaps the greatest example of this. The Conan Doyle fan in me cringes in appreciating Bruce’s version of Watson, who, although allowed moments of professional quality, is mostly used as a comical fuddy-duddy with a powerful dash of the old school tie, parochially bluff charm exuded by the dimly insulated English gentleman, defined so well by other early 20th-century pop culture fixtures, such as the writings of P.G. Wodehouse, or Caldicott and Charters from The Lady Vanishes (1938). The all-action version embodied by handsome movie star Jude Law in Guy Ritchie’s current, tedious reinvention is a complete, bold inversion of the image, only partly closer to the original mark. Notably, the only actor to ever remember that Watson was a wounded war veteran with a slight limp was Robert Duvall (bad accent and all) in The Seven-Percent Solution (1976). Rathbone’s Holmes, in appearance, could have stepped directly out of the old Strand magazines, and he embodied the character’s brilliance – the rapid-fire deductions, the delight in disguise, the shows of surprising physical agility – with a perfect flare, even whilst stepping back from the character’s egotism and more antisocial qualities, as a drug-addicted bohemian with contempt for British class distinctions and certain aspects of traditional morality. And yet, it's still easy to why this pairing of actors is still held in high terms by classic movie fans: they were just so good.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was already the most famous Conan Doyle Holmes novel and oft-filmed by the time this version came along; the first adaptation was, apparently, Rudolf Meinert’s 1914 German adaptation (which was strung out as a serial, with increasingly imaginative variations, a la Louis Feuillade), which saw Meinert lay some of the groundwork for the eruption of German Expressionism, as he would go on to help make Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1919). In any event, Sidney Lanfield’s 1939 adaptation was the first to unite Rathbone and Bruce, under the aegis of 20th Century Fox, and another period-dress film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, would follow hard on its heels before the series was sold on to Universal, where it would be transferred into a modern setting, and expert English quickie director Roy William Neill would take over for all but the first entry, which was handled by John Rawlins. Neill’s lucid, snappy sense of atmosphere and pacing, light touch with hints of Expressionism, and his interesting capacity to blend an unconvincing back-lot Blighty with a personalised sense of the material’s quintessential qualities and native insularity, would more properly define the series. 

A pure jobbing director, Lanfield’s handling here is languid, lacking compulsive pace or narrative compaction. This is partly because, as the film’s billing indicates with Richard Green listed as the star, this is an adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes novel, but one adapted in such a way that removes specific emphasis on the investigating duo. Holmes and Watson essentially become major supporting characters, and the story is rendered, by and large, a romantic melodrama based on a classic English novel, and an each-way bet in terms of audience appeal. The adaptation is faithful, and yet rather than tying the explication of the mystery to the investigator’s viewpoints, and specifically Watson’s reportorial zest, which balances Holmes’ detail-specific sensibility, here the story is spread out more broadly. Lanfield and credited screenwriter Ernest Pascal diffuse the mystery with too many cutaways and weird dalliances. Like making Dr Mortimer (Lionel Atwill) and his wife (Beryl Mercer) into spiritualists who stage an abortive séance to contact the dead Sir Charles Baskerville. Or including Holmes’ famous deduction that Sir Charles must have been running, rather than tiptoeing, when he died, from his footprints, but having Mortimer make the observation instead. And too much time is devoted to the wooden romance between the future Robin Hood and Inspector Nayland-Smith, Richard Greene, top-billed as Sir Henry Baskerville, and Wendy Barrie as Beryl Stapleton, step-sister to the villain, John Stapleton (Morton Lowry).

Unlike in the 1959 Hammer version, still by far the best if not the most faithful version, there’s also a general avoidance of analysing the material for deeper reflexes: whereas the Hammer version is one of the singular examples of the brilliant Terence Fisher touch in making Sir Henry the living, partly unwitting avatar of the sensual greed, rapaciousness, and cruelty of the worst aspects of the aristocratic past, and the Stapletons the degraded, ensnaring revenge for that past, here it’s essentially about the aristocracy’s paranoia about being supplanted by the petit bourgeoisie, and the darkly sexual undercurrents are drained off by making Beryl not, as in the book, Stapleton’s secret, much-abused wife, used by him as bait, but his sister proper. This constitutes Beryl not as half-willing femme fatale but as simplistic romantic proxy. The Hammer version also more sharply relieves the disparity between Holmes, man of pure rationality, and the mysterious hound, force of supposed supernatural agency, and the coherent way the miasma of history, sex, and violence entwine to bridge the rational and the irrational in a fashion that only Holmes is clever enough to discern. Here it’s just a straight murder plot, rendered in a fashion that robs it of essential pulpy force, especially in the film’s abrupt conclusion, leaving Stapleton’s fate up to chance and seeing the lone reference to Holmes’ cocaine habit tossed over the shoulder as a weird but amusing closing gag. The Baskerville manservant, Barrymore, is here amusingly rechristened Barryman, and played by John Carradine, perhaps, I can only imagine, to avoid any hint of satire on the acting clan, and Carradine, like Atwill, plays his role as pure red herring, all shifty obfuscation and halting line deliveries.

What this version does do well is the entirely expressionistic version of Dartmoor, a model sprawl of fog-licked hillocks, marshes, wizened trees and ancient ruins. The sequence in which Watson and Sir Henry delve into the foggy night in pursuit of the convict Selden (Nigel de Brulier) is a deliciously fog-bound, hazy adventure into the primeval, as too is the later scene of Seldon’s death, pushed from a cliff top by the marauding beast. Indeed, the hound itself is, for once, actually a pretty damn fearsome-looking animal. Lanfield offers a nice little sequence, usually left off-stage in other versions, in which Stapleton goes about his routine for unleashing his horrendous mutt, which he keeps in a pen underneath a gravestone, emerging from the ground with genuinely striking ferocity, thus lending its climactic attack on Sir Henry urgency and threat. Lowry’s Stapleton is good, a neatly sketched study in upright charm masking peculiarly English psychopathy, anticipating his equally callow characterisation in Don Siegel’s The Verdict (1946). Unlike many other versions, this one also seems interested in the resonances offered by the Neolithic ruins on the moor (although the character fascinated by these remnants is changed, for some reason, from Mortimer to Stapleton), as Sir Henry and Beryl meditate momentarily, in exploring the ruins, on both the mutability of their own immediate lives, but also on the recurring cycles of human existence. It’s also easy enough to see why the chemistry of Rathbone and Bruce was to make such a marked impression, particularly in the hilarious scene in which Holmes, hanging about the moor in the guise of a limping peddler, draws out Watson to his cave hideout. He maintains the masquerade as Watson, trying to achieve an air of authority, says that he himself is Holmes: when Holmes reveals himself, Watson flies into a huff, and Holmes delightedly increases the offence by regaling Watson with his screechy violin sawing. Here the Rathbone-Bruce duo, for better or worse, clearly stakes out the beauties of this variation on the theme, and a winning team is born.

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.