Sunday 8 November 2009

House of Bamboo (1955)

Director: Samuel Fuller
Stars: Robert Ryan, Robert Stack, Shirley Yamaguchi and Cameron Mitchell
There are certain things you might expect when sitting down to a film noir. Having Robert Ryan in the lead fits. Having Sam Fuller directing fits. But how about a film noir shot on location in Japan in Cinemascope and Technicolor? There can't be too many of those about, especially made as far back as 1955. Sure, Humphrey Bogart's Tokyo Joe was partially shot there in 1949, but it didn't show us what this film shows us of the urban landscape of post-war Japan. It's a crime thriller tied to the murder of an American sergeant during the hijack and robbery of a military train carrying American guns and ammunition.

By 1954, security in Japan had mostly returned to the Japanese but the US military were still hanging around with some jurisdiction. Such trains were jointly guarded by the US military and Japanese security forces but the death of any American invoked military investigation. They have no leads, until five weeks later when another American soldier called Webber is shot with the same P38. The difference is that he was shot by his friends while committing another robbery. The catch is that he dies of his wounds before giving up any of the men who murdered him, but the authorities do have one lead: a man called Eddie Spanier is due to fly in to see him after getting out of jail.

Eddie Spanier, or at least the man who arrives under that name, is played by Robert Stack. He talks in a deep monotone, as you'd expect for the man who four years would become the personification to many of the uncorruptible Eliot Ness. He's OK here but he doesn't shine, surprisingly as this was around the peak of his career as a young actor, receiving his one Oscar nomination a year later for Written on the Wind. As you may have guessed, given that he's played by fine upstanding Robert Stack, he isn't really a bad guy, he's really Sgt Eddie Kenner, going undercover to track down these killers.

The bad guy is Robert Ryan, always a great bad guy and this is no exception. What makes his portrayal of Sandy Dawson special here is that while he's obviously the real criminal mastermind from moment one, he does so without pandering to convention. He doesn't shout or scream, he doesn't get upset and he doesn't raise his voice, he's merely ruthless enough to not have to and even the nicest things he says are threats. He also has some notable names to back him up: already in the gang are characters played by DeForest Kelley, Robert Quarry and Cameron Mitchell, among others. It doesn't matter how important they are though, if they get shot on a heist the rest of the gang will shoot him dead rather than leave him to be questioned by the authorities.

Because the film was shot in Japan, there's a lot of Japanese actors playing Japanese characters, though most of them are in the background as Dawson's mob are all dishonourable discharges from the US army. Most obvious is Shirley Yamaguchi, born in Manchuria to Japanese parents, even though she doesn't look full blooded. She became a singer, then an actress and ended up elected to the Japanese upper parliament in the seventies. Most of her films were Japanese, but she appeared in a few American film too: Japanese War Bride, House of Bamboo and Navy Wife. The most notable is Sessue Hayakawa, whose notoriously thick accent seemed to be becoming clearer by this time, only for me to discover that he was dubbed by an American, Richard Loo. This film was a return to western film for him but it would be the next one that returned him to stardom: two years later was The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Sam Fuller movies are always interesting creatures and this is no exception, providing a glimpse into Japanese culture that is as uncommonly deep as it is matter of fact. There's more Japanese spoken in this film than any other American movie I can remember and none of it is subtitled. We don't need to know what it means because it's there for background flavour. With a single poor rear projection shot everything looks utterly authentic because it is, being the first American film shot fully on location in Japan. Sam Fuller must have an interest in Japanese culture as he returned to it for The Crimson Kimono in 1959, a story about American attitudes to the Japanese back in the US. I wonder where he got it as he didn't serve in that theatre during the war, his service being in North Africa and Europe.

Unfortunately the story unfolding against this background isn't as engaging as it could be. It's a remake of an earlier American crime movie called The Street with No Name, directed by William Keighley for Fox in 1948, but transplanted to Japan. It'll be interesting to see how that one plays and to see why it was picked for a remake by Sam Fuller. Stack is the worst thing about it but nobody really gets much of a chance except Ryan, who shines. It's him and the background that are worth the watch, the rest being mediocre at best. It's certainly the least of Sam Fuller's films that I've seen thus far.

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