Monday Editor’s Pick: House of Bamboo (1955)

by on August 22, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Aug 26 to Thu Sep 1 at 1:00, 3:10, 5:20, 7:30, 9:40 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]


Robert Ryan goes out with a bang at Film Forum, in a new 35mm print of Sam Fuller’s rarely screened Technicolor and Scope noir. (Be sure to read Imogen Smith’s feature on Ryan.)


David Thomson in Have You Seen…?:

Get yourself the chance to see it. Ideally, that means on a big screen, where the CinemaScope photography can be seen and felt… The passion for form in the picture for dynamic, changing compositions, and for the unique way in which Japanese interiors can have paper walls that instantly rip apart to reveal fresh shapes – all these things are Samuel Fuller, and Fuller alone, and they are his greedy eye for the marvels of form that arise whenever different races try to live together. Years ahead of his time, when it looked more like miscegenation than friction and misunderstanding. The alleged innovations of, say, Ridley Scott’s Black Rain all fall away if you have seen House of Bamboo first. And it was made thirty years earlier.


The first thrill is just to witness and inhabit Fuller’s command of the screen and the image. And, truth to tell, he was so restless, so quick, so inquisitve, he can leave even Nicholas Ray and Anthony Mann looking overcomposed. Especially take note of Robert Ryan’s cold, intellectual, and cripplingly organized boss.



J. Hoberman for The Village Voice:

The most lavish of Sam Fuller’s 20th Century Fox contract jobs, House of Bamboo is a paean to post-war Japan—fervently picturesque and full of gratuitous local color. Fuller didn’t write the script, but he incorporated a favorite trope (militarized gangsters) and constantly reiterates choice bits of slang (“Who’s the kimono?” “I’m your ichi-ban”). Robert Ryan stars as a suave mob boss in love with Robert Stack, the surly, robotic cop who infiltrates his organization. The triangle is completed by the ridiculously compliant and servile Shirley Yamaguchi (in real life a future member of the Japanese diet) who serves Stack his bacon and eggs “Japanese” style. Paper walls are regularly crashed through but, as in Pickup on South Street, there’s some unexpectedly brutal stuff and an impressive top-of-the-world ending on the roof of Matsuma Department Store. Part procedural, part caper, House of Bamboo is essentially a fantasy of military occupation—it would make an illuminating double bill with Imamura’s Pigs and Battleships.


Keith Uhlich for Slant:

Quite simply, House of Bamboo has some of the most stunning examples of widescreen photography in the history of cinema. Travelling to Japan on 20th Century Fox’s dime, Fuller captured a country divided, trapped between past traditions and progressive attitudes while lingering in the devastating aftereffects of an all-too-recent World War. His visual schema represents the societal fractures through a series of deep-focus, Noh-theatrical tableaus, a succession of silhouettes, screens, and stylized color photography that melds the heady insanity of a Douglas Sirk melodrama (see, as an especial point of comparison, Sirk’s 1956 Korea-set war film Battle Hymn) with the philosophical inquiry of the best noirs.


The result is a rather uncharacteristic dual love story, one explicit (between the film’s mystery-shrouded, ugly American protagonist Eddie Spanier, played by Robert Stack, and his stunning Japanese mistress Mariko, played by Shirley Yamaguchi) and one implicit (in the subtly homoerotic relationship between Eddie and Tokyo-based American crime boss Sandy Dawson, played by Robert Ryan). The Mariko/Eddie love story complements the soft-spoken undercurrents of the Eddie/Sandy bond with big, broad colorful strokes and effectively accentuates the romanticism of Fuller’s atypically nonchalant portrayal of an interracial relationship, a union that, in the film’s final, beautifully composed long shot, seems graciously blessed by the gods. It’s the hetero yin to the film’s homo yang and it should ultimately be clear, as the saying goes, that you can’t have one without the other.



Dave Kehr for the New York Times:

One of Samuel Fuller’s best, a tough, sometimes nasty, but always exciting 1955 effort in ‘Scope and color that unites three of his favorite topics: military comradeship, the underworld, and the Far East. “House of Bamboo” transplants Harry Kleiner’s script for “The Street With No Name” to Tokyo, where, with considerable rewriting by Fuller, it becomes a monumental story of Japanese-American relations in the immediate wake of World War II. Mr. Widmark’s character [from The Street With No Name] becomes the equally driven and neurotic Sandy Dawson (a definitive portrayal by the perennially underrated Robert Ryan), a demobilized American soldier eager to apply his military knowledge to taking over the Tokyo underworld. His undercover nemesis is played by Robert Stack.


Fuller, working with what may have been the largest budget of his career, gleefully embraces the outsized CinemaScope format, offering, in one famous early shot, a gorgeous image of Mount Fuji framed by the splayed feet of a corpse. What may have been meant as an extension of Fox’s down and dirty newsreel style into the new format becomes instead a widescreen riot of sound and color, as Fuller transforms the Ginza district into his personal formal playground.


Richard Brody this week for the New Yorker:

The most exciting spasm of violence in Samuel Fuller’s wide-screen, color-splashed noir is one that doesn’t happen. It involves an American crime boss (Ryan) who runs a syndicate in Tokyo, a hard-noted expat (Stack) who has recently joined the gang and arouses suspicion, and a billiard ball. In the first Hollywood feature to be shot on location in postwar Japan, Fuller transports to an exoticized setting his usual concern: the conflict between the moral repugnance of violence and its visual and visceral thrills. The movie is famous for its gunplay – a bathtub shooting that’s sordidly funny, a police ambush of silhouettes seen through a rice-paper screen, and a climactic shoot-out on a flying-saucer-like carousel perched on a rooftop high above the city. But for one terrifying moment, captured in a single tense shot and embodied in Ryan’s seething, pantherish self-control, Fuller makes his fierce sympathies ambiguous even as he imagines gore beyond what Hollywood mores allowed – and hints that he enjoyed it.



Richard Harlan Smith with some background for TCM:

Sam Fuller’s movies look like no other…they don’t even look like each other. House of Bamboo (1955) found Fuller sitting pretty, from a financing and distribution standpoint. He quit preproduction scouting in Europe for The Story of Esther Costello (1957) when Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck suggested he helm the first Hollywood movie to be shot in Japan. The studio had dusted off an existing property, Harry Kleiner’s screenplay for the inside man thriller The Street with No Name (1948), and asked Fuller to make it work for American-occupied Japan. This gave Fuller the opportunity to dust off an old story idea about American servicemen staging a daring bank heist overseas. Despite being pegged for Technicolor and Cinemascope, the project had the relatively low budget of $1.38 million. Fuller planned to get the most bang for his buck by shooting without permits, using hidden cameras to capture the flavor of urban life in Japan during the postwar reconstruction.


Andrew Nette for Noir of the Week:

All the elements associated with Fuller’s style are on display, his ambiguous politics, break-neck story telling style and pulp sensibility, overlayed on this occasion with an oriental aesthete that veers between homage and cliché. The film looks great. The United States occupation of Japan had been over for four years when Fuller arrived, and although the country was on its way to becoming an industrial super power, he filmed it as a bustling third world country, reportedly shooting a lot of it guerrilla style in the streets. Fuller told one interviewer he “got a thrill” out of making the film, “shooting in Japan, having a major studio budget and enough money and working counter to stereo-types. In terms of style, I wanted the wide screen and the colour. I loathe this cliché version of the underworld. Dark alleys and wet streets. I’ve done it. Everybody’s done it. It becomes fake and I don’t like it.”


The other fascinating aspect of House of Bamboo is the way Westerners make absolutely no concession to the fact that they are in Japan. They sit around looking and talking like American hoods. They don’t even speak the language. Spanier’s first words getting off the boat from America are “Any body speak a little English?” and he moves from pachinko parlour to pachinko parlour roughly asking “Where’s the number one boy?” Fuller juxtaposes these characters against Japanese interiors, lounging in furniture too small for them or prowling temples and teeming market streetscapes to accentuate their foreignness. In one of the film’s best scenes, Dawson’s gang are having a party to celebrate a successful robbery when the traditional female dancers in kimonos suddenly throw off their garb and start swing dancing.



Ian Johnston for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

“Film is like a battlefield,” Samuel Fuller famously pronounced in his cameo appearance in Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou, and House Of Bamboo certainly fits the bill: fuelled by Fuller’s background in tabloid journalism and his war experience, it’s blunt, brutal, energetic, and — in the spirit of Fuller’s later cigar-chomping persona — naively sincere. But the interest of House of Bamboo above all lies in the tremendous use Fuller makes of the colour Cinemascope frame. There’s very little in the way of conventional Hollywood shot set-ups or editing, a lot of wide shots and not much cutting within the scene; and in his own way Fuller is trying genuinely to incorporate Japanese culture and the Japanese location shooting into the visual design of the film.


Fuller builds up his shots around the Japanese icons he found on location. Sometimes he does this with a certain lack of logic: at the end of the opening train robbery sequence, for example, he suddenly cuts non-naturalistically to a new angle on the body of the murdered American guard; foreshortened, his legs are directed straight at the audience, positioned this way to provide a formal composition of Mt Fuji. Sometimes, as when we’re shown Eddie in long shot slowly making his way around some small boats at a wharf, the shot/scene is there just to emphasise the location. But sometimes it’s simply perfect: after we see Machiko a victim of reverse racism (being ostracised because of her association with a Western man) there’s a marvelous low-angle tracking shot following Machiko along a line of slightly ramshackle houses, an effect of both formal beauty and realism, attainable because of the location shooting. There are so many intensely colourful set pieces — take as another example the single shot that starts as a medium-shot of a single Kabuki performer on a rooftop, swings over to witness Eddie’s arrival, and then swings back to reveal the whole rooftop humming with performers — that all lead to the film’s climax. This is set in some kind of children’s amusement park on a department store roof and ends with a dramatic shoot-out between Sandy and Eddie on a revolving globe. Irrespective of the ludicrous basis for the storyline and the sometimes lacklustre performances, this final scene demonstrates the splendour of House of Bamboo: a paroxysm of colour and style.



Fuller in his memoir A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking:

I wanted to capture a certain mood in House of Bamboo that I hadn’t seen in either Japanese or American films: the clash between our culture and theirs. House of Bamboo was a financial and critical success for Fox. What made me proudest was that it broke race barriers implicit in American movies at the time. In the fifties, a white man still didn’t fall in love with an Asian woman in Hollywood. In those rare films with interracial couples, the ending was usually tragic. I wasn’t going to yield to that hypocrisy. Besides, I insisted on casting a native for my lead, not an American actress made up to look Asian.. Ridiculous as it may seem today, it was revolutionary to use ethnic actors at the time. I wouldn’t have done it any other way. Two years after House of Bamboo, Robert Rossen’s Island in the Sun told a love story with Joan Fontaine and Harry Belafonte. Hot love scenes? Passionate kisses? They don’t even touch hands. Hell, some love story! In my picture, Eddie and Mariko are plainly hot for each other, and they don’t end up regretting it, like the star-crossed lovers in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.


Making a movie in Japan is a grand experience. I consider my life richer for having done it. The light there is unique and wonderful. Colors come out looking postcard crisp. Even their blacks and whites are different, sharper and purer. Mount Fujiyama is velvety black, and its summit snow white. It’s a remarkable sight that I’ll keep in the back of my mind for the rest of my days.


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