Wednesday 25 June 2008

The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Trust Sam Fuller to break whatever taboos were in place at any particular point in time. Here it's the one about miscegenation, which had had Hollywood in fits for decades. Even when it was OK for them to cast Asian actors in the lead, which really wasn't very often, they couldn't possibly get into a romantic relationship with a caucasian. Good grief, who could have thought such a thing? So Sam Fuller writes, produces and directs a crime drama featuring a pair of detectives who come from different races but fall for the same woman. And he has other taboos to break too.

That woman is Christine Downs, a painter at the University of Southern California, who is brought into the investigation because she painted the victim. The victim is Sugar Torch, a stripper who escapes a murder attempt in her burlesque house dressing room only to be shot dead on the street instead. The pair of detectives investigating are Det Sgt Charlie Bancroft, a white American played by Glenn Corbett, and Det Joe Kojaku, a nisei or first generation Japanese American, played by James Shigeta. Needless to say as she helps them with their enquiries and they shield her from assassination attempts, they both fall for her.

Race, and how it's defined on screen, is obviously the focus here, from the very first line: Bancroft and Kojaku open their questioning of Sugar Torch's manager with 'Does she have a Japanese boyfriend?' Kojaku is far from the junior half of the partnership, he's fully half of it, both professionally and as characters with wider interests than just work. Kojaku is a decent pianist, a kendo fighter and a war hero, having deserted a hospital bed to rejoin his outfit during the Korean War, where he won a Silver Star for his service. However Bancroft is no slouch either, having served in the same outfit and being a kendo fighter too.

The approach feels like it's deliberate but not just for the sake of political correctness. This is 1959, after all. It feels like Sam Fuller was pissed off that Asians had a raw deal in Hollywood but rather than deliberately showing how awesome they are, wanted to make the point that they're just people too, and what's more that they're people and friends and co-workers before they're Asians. Race can matter and it can make a difference, but when it does it's usually brought up for the wrong reasons and it can be brought up by any side, not just the ones that are politically correct.

It's really good to see this approach taken back in 1959. Asian Americans comprise many of the good guys in this film but they comprise many of the bad guys too. We see a Japanese nun, very correct in her pronunciation, but nobody points out that she's Japanese. We see part of a Buddhist ritual of remembrance, but it's just somewhere that someone needs to go on the way to somewhere. We visit a military cemetery, where nisei troops are particularly commemorated, but nobody talks about that. From Sam Fuller's perspective, these are just nuns, memorials, places of worship. Who goes there and what race may be involved is really of secondary importance until someone makes it so.

There's also plenty here that has nothing to do with race. Beyond Bancroft, the love interest is white and so is the most memorable supporting character, a drunken but highly incisive painter called Mac who is played with gusto by Anna Lee. Lee was a wonderful actress who I've seen many times. As in many Samuel Fuller movies, the supporting female cast are given many opportunities to steal many scenes and they take them. Corbett and Shigeta are fine in their respective debuts, and Victoria Shaw is fine as the woman they both fall for, but it's Anna Lee I'll remember most, along with Jaclynne Greene and Barbara Hayden in tiny parts. Them and Sam Fuller, who impresses me more and more with every thing I see him do. His importance to American cinema simply cannot be underestimated.

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