Sunday 13 January 2019

House of Bamboo (1955)

Director: Samuel Fuller
Writer: Harry Kleiner with additional dialogue by Samuel Fuller
Stars: Robert Ryan, Robert Stack, Shirley Yamaguchi and Cameron Mitchell

Index: 2019 Centennials.

I’ve reviewed House of Bamboo before, but that was a decade ago and I felt that Robert Stack’s centennial was a good opportunity for me to revisit because I wasn’t as impressed with either his performance or the film as a whole as I expected to be. I enjoyed it much more second time through and I found additional appreciation by following up with the film that inspired it, 1948’s The Street with No Name. That was an old school film noir, shot in 4:3 and in black and white, with an overt message: that the FBI are damn good at what they do and they’re not happy about the return of organised gangsterism. I didn’t even know that “gangsterism” was a word, but, when it’s brought to life by a young Richard Widmark, it’s clearly something to be taken seriously! Two members of that film’s crew revisited it seven years later to reinterpret their work in rather different ways. That’s writer Harry Kleiner, who adapted his basic story to post-war Japan, and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald, who expanded his vision into colour and widescreen.

Watching the two movies in succession is a real eye-opener. Kleiner didn’t merely change the names and locations in his story so it would praise the Japanese equivalent of the FBI instead; he reworked it completely to fit a new time and place and restructured the aspects that didn’t gel; the part played here by Shirley Yamaguchi, for instance, couldn’t be more different to the equivalent played by Barbara Lawrence in The Street with No Name. That it’s a better part is beside the point; what’s important is that it’s a much more appropriate part given the other changes made. MacDonald’s work benefits from technical differences. I’d call out his composition of frame and use of light and shadow in the earlier film, but this is something else entirely. House of Bamboo was shot in colour and in CinemaScope, which meant that MacDonald had fully twice as much screen to fill. He did so magnificently, with what critic Keith Uhlich correctly described in Slant as “some of the most stunning examples of widescreen photography in the history of cinema.”

What remains consistent is the basic structure of the plot. In The Street with No Name, it was about a gang that’s run out of a boxing gym by Richard Widmark, while in House of Bamboo, it’s a gang that’s run out of a pachinko parlour by Robert Ryan. In each picture, the gang commits a murder in a club and the authorities send a man undercover to infiltrate and destroy from inside. Robert Stack is the undercover man in this one, though we’re not let in on that from the outset. In the earlier film, a police procedural, we watch his equivalent, Gene Cordell, be recruited and sent undercover as George Manly, so we knew who he was all along. Here, we have to discover that Stack—who calls himself Eddie Spanier and arrives in Tokyo after being released from an American prison to seek out his old friend, Webber—is really an undercover cop, Eddie Kenner. Initially, we believe that, after tracking down Webber’s secret wife, Mariko, and hearing that his ‘friend’ was recently killed by his own gang during a robbery, he seeks them out for revenge.

Stack is a little underwhelming here, odd given that he was known for his presence. What he’s best known for depends on the age of the person you ask, but odds are that everyone thinks of him in a dynamic role. The older generation will immediately associate him with Eliot Ness, leader of the Untouchables in the TV show of that name which ran from 1959 to 1963 and won him an Emmy for Best Actor in 1960. The generation not old enough to have seen The Untouchables is likely to know him instead from the decade and a half that he spent as host and narrator of the true crime show, Unsolved Mysteries, from 1987 to 2002. He also found fame for his voice work on cartoons like Butt-Ugly Martians and a string of comedy roles for which he found himself in demand after 1941, in films like Airplane!, Caddyshack II and BASEketball. When he made House of Bamboo, he was a mere year away from being nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for playing alcoholic playboy Kyle Hadley in Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind.
What I realised this time through is that Stack isn’t just playing a role, he’s playing a role that’s playing a role, and the delination is there if we pay attention. There are scenes where he’s merely playing Sgt. Eddie Kenner, military investigator, but there are many more where he’s playing Eddie Kenner playing Eddie Spanier, two bit hood, and the two are different. Maybe he remembered this when faced with Capt. Kramer in Airplane! Stack was a celebrity who versatile comedian John Byner notably impersonated and the Airplane! producers showed him a tape, then asked him to do an impression of Byner’s impression of him. As you might imagine for a Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker movie, he overdoes it, but he’s a lot more subtle here, searching for a balance between eager crook and capable follower and doing a pretty good job of finding it. He has to be an effective hood to attract the attention of Sandy Dawson and get hired but unimaginative enough to never threaten Dawson’s leadership. That’s why he often comes off rather low key.

Of course, Robert Ryan is anything but low key as Sandy Dawson, leader of this gang. He has an uncompromising policy by which he’ll kill anyone under his command who gets shot during a job. He believes that everyone will talk under the right circumstances and so refuses to leave anyone behind who can give information to the cops. That’s why we have a story. Webber was shot on one of Dawson’s jobs and so Dawson killed him and left him behind, the catch being that he didn’t die for a couple of days and the cops were able to figure out an angle in that short time. Enter a fake Eddie Spanier, who tracks down Dawson’s gang reasonably quickly through shaking down pachinko parlours for protection money until one gets him punched through a Japanese paper wall to land at Dawson’s feet. Like in The Street with No Name, Dawson tests him by having him picked up by the cops for stealing something he didn’t steal, so that the crook’s contact in the police department can run him through the system and find out who he is.
In that earlier film, everything was about the gang because that was the point. Gangs bad, FBI good. Here, with the always reliable Sam Fuller in the director’s chair, we get something more. Sure, he covers the same essential ground as The Street with No Name, a bit cropped here and another added there, but he shot entirely on location in Japan and the flavour of that nation seeps out of the pores of House of Bamboo like the film stock was soaked in sake, decorated with cherry blossoms and prayed over by a Shinto monk. MacDonald is most of the success because he captures beautifully and deeply a country in the process of massive change. Japan had been an isolated warrior nation for centuries but it had just been defeated in war with two of its cities wiped out by atomic bombs. While it remained an independent country, the U.S. effectively provided an occupying force for decades. What’s more, Emperor Hirohito didn’t just surrender; he renounced his divinity in the process. Oh yeah, the Japanese people had adjustments to make!

Shooting in CinemaScope allowed MacDonald’s camera to catch a vast amount of the culture of the day: rehearsals for a traditional dance performance at a theatre, traditional boats stacked up by a canal, even the structure of a traditional Japanese home, which is all the more minimalist in widescreen. There are scenes in parks, scenes at temples, scenes in women’s bathhouses. And, above all, there are scenes on the streets, which throb with life. People bustle by, all looking like they’re Japanese because they are. Everyday street life has so much flavour when it’s real. This emphasises just how much movies shot on sets can miss. In such, set decorators and production designers have importance that can best be quantified by imagining just how much they would have to have done to replace everything here on a backlot. They were needed here too, but not as much. There’s also more Japanese spoken here than in any American film I can remember and there are no subtitles because it’s there for background flavour not plot progression.
MacDonald’s composition of frame is impeccable here. I honestly couldn’t pick a most impactful shot, because he begins early with a train robbery that unfolds against a rural backdrop dominated by a mountain that I presume is Mount Fuji, and keeps on showing us postcard shot after postcard shot. One, on a walkway to a massive statue of the Buddha, includes a family being photographed in the foreground against the same background. However, he doesn’t just photograph with his movie camera; he captures scenes with movement too, including some truly glorious tracking shots. One features Dawson’s gang escaping from a robbery, running past an apparently endless set of numbered warehouse doors. Another showcases the prejudicial treatment that Mariko, Webber’s widow in truth if not general understanding, receives as she walks home past local busybody neighbours who believe that she’s shacking up with an American. Technically, she is but it’s not like that. They don’t have the whole story and they don’t care.

That’s probably a Sam Fuller touch, that racism runs both ways. The gang look down on Mariko, whom Eddie has to involve for the sake of an alibi and who becomes his accomplice, because she’s just ‘a kimono girl’, but the local women harshly judge her too, for fraternising with the enemy. Race is oddly not a major focus here, though it does come into play. Fuller cast Japanese actors in the Japanese roles, which might sound entirely obvious—both for logical reasons and because he shot in Japan—but it wasn’t a general practice at the time. Other directors might have cast a Japanese actress as Mariko—Fuller cast Shirley Yamaguchi, born in Japanese occupied Manchuria to Japanese parents, who was a singer turned actress who would be elected to the Japanese upper parliament in the seventies—but wouldn’t have followed suit with a Japanese police inspector. Fuller hired the legendary Sessue Hayakawa for that role, one movie before he’d be cast in The Bridge on the River Kwai. However, he also had Richard Loo overdub his lines.
There’s a lot here that repeat viewings help to highlight. Where The Street with No Name was a crime drama, this is that and quite a lot more. It’s a cultural artefact, asnapshot of Tokyo at a critical point in its history. It’s a romance, albeit a polite one, between the undercover military inspector and the Japanese lady who helps him, even though he isn’t the friend of her husband that he claims initially to be. It’s an action flick, with a showcase finalĂ© in an amusement park, including a gun battle on a rooftop ride. It’s also an intriguing human story of loyalty. The bad guys, who include such names as Cameron Mitchell, Robert Quarry and DeForest Kelley, are loyal to Sandy Dawson and some have found a fair homoerotic angle in all this. They may all be former GIs, so following orders ought to be second nature, except that they would have probably been dishonourably discharged. Kenner is loyal to the authorities. Mariko is loyal to her deceased husband and she extends that to Kenner, even after he explains his deception. What a tangled web!

I should add here another interesting aspect of MacDonald’s cinematography. The key players here are Dawson and Kenner, with both Mariko and Griff, Dawson’s right hand man, third wheels who affect the progression of the story, but there are a lot of other people in each frame. Whether it was Fuller or MacDonald, someone made a conscious decision to shift the characters on the edge of the story over to the edge of the frame. Naturally, they didn’t think about how the film would look cropped down for television broadcast. That’s how it was seen for years, in a pan and scan version with a distinct lack of actors like DeForest Kelley, who wasn’t there until he’s leading a pivotal scene late in the film. Watching in CinemaScope, of course, he’s there throughout, lounging at the edge of the frame like one of the apostles that you can’t name in the Last Supper. Suddenly, pan and scan doesn’t just seem like an abridged version of a film, it becomes a simplified children’s version with most of the characters ditched for the sake of effect.
I’ve never found a Sam Fuller movie I didn’t like, but this one felt like a weak entry in his filmography on my first time through. I wonder if I saw it in that pan and scan version in 2007. Now it feels much stronger, even if the cinematography outstrips all other aspects, including the performance of birthday boy Robert Stack. He does pretty well here, even if Robert Ryan found influence in his role as a thief to steal every scene he’s in. Being known predominantly for television, it’s harder to find a film that’s interesting enough to choose to celebrate his life on his centennial and has enough of him in it to make that appropriate. His first credited role was as a lead, but he was only in First Love to be Deanna Durbin’s love interest. His character joins the Nazi party in The Mortal Storm, but he was fifth billed after four major names. Nothing really notable shows up in his career until his lead in Bwana Devil, the first in the fifties 3D craze, but I reviewed that for Sid Pink’s centennial in 2016.

That’s not to say that there aren’t roles of interest in his film career, but many of his leads were in B movies that aren’t as worthy as House of Bamboo. I was tempted to plump for The Iron Glove, a pre-horror William Castle period feature in which Stack’s Irish captain joins the army of James Stuart as he attempts to depose George I from the throne of England. I’ll get to that one day, because Castle is always interesting, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it yet. Another William Castle picture is Conquest of Cochise, in which Stack’s cavalry officer, Maj. Tom Burke, is tasked with keeping the peace with the Native American leader Cochise, played by John Hodiak, born in Pittsburgh of Ukrainian and Polish parents. Like I said, seeing Japanese actors play Japanese characters in House of Bamboo is very refreshing. Stack also played John Paul Jones in the biopic of that name, the first half of the title in Bullfighter and the Lady and even the voice of Ultra Magnus in The Transformers: The Movie. I’ll stick to this one, thank you.

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