House of Bamboo
Savant Blu-ray Review
House of Bamboo
Twilight Time Limited Edition
1955 / Color / 2:55 widescreen / 102 min. / Ship Date August 11, 2015 / available through Twilight Time Movies / 29.95
Starring Robert Ryan, Robert Stack, Shirley Yamaguchi, Cameron Mitchell,
Brad Dexter, Sessue Hayakawa, DeForest Kelley, Robert Quarry, Biff Elliot
Cinematography Joe MacDonald
Art Direction Addison Hehr, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor James B. Clark
Original Music Leigh Harline
Written by Harry Kleiner, Samuel Fuller
Produced by Buddy Adler
Directed by Samuel Fuller
I realize that this great picture is supposed to be a straight crime story, but we best appreciate it as a storytelling concoction that could only come from the fertile imagination of Samuel Fuller. The uniquely weird House of Bamboo represents the high point of the director’s relationship with Darryl F. Zanuck. Fuller first proposed a movie set in Russia. Zanuck countered with a dream assignment, to shoot 20th-Fox’s first picture in Japan, only ten years after the end of the war. Fuller came up with an adaptation of the earlier noir crimer The Street with No Name, combining it with an idea he had for a gang of crooks that strategize their capers along military lines. Beautiful CinemaScope photography in the streets of Tokyo lends the completed film a needed air of authenticity, because in almost every other respect the story premise is wildly unlikely.
Sam Fuller’s dynamic direction made him the darling of the French Cahiers du Cinema critics. This odd gangster epic forms a far-East duo with Fuller’s Hell and High Water, a much crazier comic book movie about Cold War nuclear insanity.
Tokyo, 1954. A gang of thieves hijacks a joint U.S.-Japanese army train under Mt. Fuji, bringing Army cop Capt. Hanson (Brad Dexter) into the jurisdiction of local inspector Kito (Sessue Hayakawa). The perpetrators are Americans, ex-G.I.s led by Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan) and his “Ichiban” Griff (Cameron Mitchell). Dawson plans his raids like military actions; he never leaves a wounded man behind. When one thief is killed, he’s soon replaced with Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack), a hothead loner from the States who tries to muscle in on Sandy’s Pachinko gambling parlors. Spanier becomes Dawson’s new favorite, much to the displeasure of Griff. There’s only one problem: the new man is really Eddie Kenner, a military policeman working as a mole inside Dawson’s unit.
House of Bamboo is one exciting picture, long a favorite of film students. It’s a crazy cross-cultural fantasy. In the middle fifties Americans were assured that Japan was a completely pacified nation with almost no crime and few weapons in civilian hands. American visitors felt safer on the streets of Tokyo than they might in their own hometowns. By and large that picture was true, but according to other sources Japan was giving birth to a thriving new organized crime syndicates, a Yakuza underworld that controlled gambling and vice.
House of Bamboo puts forward the amazing conceit that a gang of American criminals, most of whom do not speak the language, could operate Pachinko parlors while carrying out wild-west style armed robberies, holdups and murders right in the middle of Tokyo. Anyone familiar with a later films like Battles Without Honor and Humanity will immediately realize that Robert Ryan’s Sandy and his pushy crew would be turned into sushi the first time they tried any muscle business on Yakuza turf. Surely there were plenty of black market crimes involving servicemen and perhaps a few ex-servicemen, but the idea of Gangland USA operating on the Tokyo streets is comic-book stuff. We can imagine the Japanese authorities approving of the script, as it glosses over real post-occupation problems, denying the existence of homegrown Japanese crime.
Sam Fuller’s script is an ex-soldier’s escapist fantasy, an occupation daydream. Sandy and his men all have mistresses they call “kimonahs” (sic). When not serving formal tea, these pliant Japanese beauties do the Lindy Hop. This would seem to be the reward for victory — breakfast in bed with a smiling Japanese “kimonah.” No wonder Fuller alluded to protests following his film crews on the streets of Tokyo. He mentions the protesters scattering when he turned his cameras on them — the occupation was officially over but the fear of arrest must have been real.
Of course Sam Fuller had no intention of insulting the Japanese, quite the opposite. In its own way his film shows respect for the nation. It acknowledges that Japan’s separate culture is worth appreciating, an idea not often encountered in Hollywood pictures. Any other director would be intimidated by ridiculousness of the premise, but Sam saw a great story in an exotic locale and proceeded to make one of his most exciting and interesting pictures. If you want a little more verisimilitude, try Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza, which is exaggerated in other ways.
Robert Stack’s Spanier character stomps through Tokyo like a thorough Ugly American, yelling at people for not speaking English and roughing up Pachinko operators employed by American gangster bosses. He finally connects with cool operator Sandy, who is impressed by his tough-guy manner. Fuller’s style might be called comic book/travelogue/graphic. At one point Spanier walks a complicated path of gangplanks between some boats on a canal, ostensibly to ask some questions but really to show off the undeniably authentic location. In search of Mariko, the widow of an American gangster (Shirley Yamaguchi), he comes upon a kabuki troupe rehearsing on the roof of their theater. Fuller obviously doesn’t have any lights to shoot in the theater below; he has them up there in the cold to get the color and costumes for a dynamic trucking shot. Most of the interiors seem to have been filmed back on the Fox lot in Los Angeles. Spanier meets Sandy in a nifty reveal when Cameron Mitchell knocks him through a CinemaScope-shaped paper screen. The entire gang is waiting on the other side.
With the trip to Japan being the film’s one fiscal extravagance, Fuller cut corners where possible. Most of the actors playing Sandy’s gang probably never left Hollywood, although Cameron Mitchell is seen outside a castle moat and Robert Ryan definitely shows up for the finale. A second look at the picture is required to catch all of the Japanese locations matched (presumably) with California stage settings.
It appears that ten years later, critic-turned-director Jean-Luc Godard used Eddie Spanier as a behavior model for his take on the Lemmy Caution character in his Alphaville. Both secret agents are strangers stalking through an alien culture. They show contempt for most everything they see, at least until an attractive skirt catches their eye.
House of Bamboo traces themes through decades of crime films. Sandy hands over a wad of bills for Spanier to use to buy a new suit. “I like my boys to look sharp,” says Sandy, a line that echoes Little Caesar while also adding a homoerotic streak to Sandy’s obvious psychosis. Other scenes like the execution of a wounded comrade during a getaway, and the way a train robbery is blocked with the thieves attacking from beneath a railroad overpass, point forward to The Wild Bunch, a movie that blends western and gangster mythologies.
The movie pays off with two kinds of spectacle. Fuller stages a (for 1955) wild shootout at a fascinating kiddie playground atop a multi-story department store. According to Fuller’s autobiography the store was owned by Nikkatsu of movie studio fame. A giant ride at the very top suspends the little kids eight or ten floors above the street, which to this parent seems like insanity. But it makes a unique location for a final duel. Besides Fuller’s realistic use of bullet impacts and stereophonic sound effects, the globe-shaped ride harkens back to the “Top of the World” theme from White Heat or the various mentions of “Cook’s Tours” and “See the World” in the earliest of gangster films.
An even more sensational pre-climax is the culmination of Sandy Dawson’s mania. It may have been invisible to all the actors save Robert Ryan, as Fuller claims, but Sandy’s preferential attraction to Robert Stack couldn’t be more obvious. Sandy asks the whole gang why he broke his own rule and saved Spanier, while Griff looks hurt and jealous in the background. Sandy’s military obsession is shown to be just one facet of his psychosis, as he takes personal charge of Spanier. Sandy makes it his business to supervise Spanier’s kimono Mariko, as if she were his proxy. With Robert Stack playing most of his scenes with the same blank stare, this is Robert Ryan’s film all the way.
Finally, Sandy’s mistaken revenge against a squealer results in the kinkiest violent act ever in a film noir: he bursts into a Japanese bath and without pause empties six shots through a wooden bathtub. Then he gently lifts the head of the man he’s just killed and explains why it was necessary. Even today, the scene is so jolting it often gets an unintentional laugh, an audience defense mechanism against the outlandishness of it all. Fuller’s staging and Ryan’s performance in the one-shot scene are remarkable.
Shirley Yamaguchi is said to have been a Boston resident and accomplished actress; 3 House of Bamboo teems with other notables in roles large and small. Cameron Mitchell (Blood and Black Lace) is excellent considering that Fuller never really gives him a close-up. The same goes for DeForest Kelley’s unbilled henchman Charlie, he of the wicked grin and smart remark. Brad Dexter (The Magnificent Seven) is colorless as the military policeman and Sessue Hayakawa (Bridge on the River Kwai) has almost nothing to do as his opposite number in the Tokyo police. Members of Sandy’s gang without dialogue include Robert Quarry (Count Yorga, Vampire), Biff Elliott (I, The Jury), John Doucette and Harry Carey Jr.. Mariko’s uncle is played by Teru Shimada, the industrialist Osato in the much later You Only Live Twice. 1
Darryl Zanuck became an independent producer at this point, which ended his interesting collaboration with Sam Fuller. Their abortive Tigrero! project fell through and for the next several years Fuller proceeded to make remarkable but only moderately successful pictures. 2 It was at this time that he says he conceived his epic war film The Big Red One, which was eventually shot on a dime-store budget 25 years later. Only with Warners’ Merrill’s Marauders would Fuller again be able to film one of his personal combat films on an appropriately grand scale.
House of Bamboo is a truly eccentric fantasy of American crooks in a Japanese milieu. For credibility it’s several few notches above the bizarre Cold War pulp of Hell and High Water but it’s a much more accomplished picture overall. And watch out for that bathtub!
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of House of Bamboo is another winner, a vintage film with a transfer to rival new releases. The DVD was okay but the colors and sharpness really ‘pop’ here, making cameraman Joe MacDonald look like a top stylist. The film was reportedly shot during a cold Tokyo winter. Fuller’s travelogue-like Tokyo scenes look great, but so do the interiors done back in West Los Angeles. The sets are especially attractive, even with Fox’s strange house style that favors blue tones. Does anybody else sensitive to that trend? The old prints we saw at UCLA were slightly faded, and the blues were the first to go.
The disc features the expected Isolated Score Track plus two commentaries. Alain Silver and Jim Ursini’s track from 2005 is a good academic piece, and Twilight Time decided to add a new one with their Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo. A couple of Fox newsreel shoots are included, vault items that look as if they were never edited into a release. Julie Kirgo’s liner notes praise the picture’s visuals, calling House of Bamboo one of the most beautifully composed pictures ever. I don’t know about that, as we still get dialogue scenes with people arrayed across the frame in a flat manner. But the film’s overall dynamism keeps our interest very high. I still associate Fuller with the visuals of comic strips.
The 5.1 mix utilizes the film’s original 4-channel stereo. Fox’s audio department did good work beefing up Fuller’s brief action scenes — he was one director who knew from experience what the middle of a gunfight sounded like!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
House of Bamboo Blu-ray rates:
Sound: Excellent English 5.1 DTS-HD MA
Supplements: Isolated Score Track, commentary with Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, commentary with Alain Silver and James Ursini, Fox Movietone newsreels, trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 13, 2015
1. Great Info From Dick Dinman, 5.27.05:
Hey Glenn, Loved your review of Bamboo which I agree with 100% but wanted to point out that one of my closest friends Biff Elliot did indeed have lines —- he was the dying gangster at the start. He was originally set to play the Brad Dexter role but, thanks to Dexter’s “aggressiveness” was given the other role instead. Also, did you notice anything strange about Sessue Hayakawa’s voice? He was dubbed by Richard Loo and as a result of this film nabbed Bridge on the River Kwai on which David Lean went ballistic upon finding out that he couldn’t speak English and would have to learn his lines phonetically. — Dick Dinman
2. Correction & detail from “B”, 5.27.05:
Dear Glenn: Fuller was nonexclusive to Fox even while he was making films at the studio, then went basically independent as well — while Fox financed and distributed his 1957 Forty Guns and China Gate, both were actually produced by Fuller’s Globe Enterprises. Run of the Arrow and Verboten! were produced by Globe Enterprises for RKO; The Crimson Kimono and Underworld U.S.A. were Globe Enterprises productions for Columbia. While Fox controls the rights to Forty Guns, Republic seems to currently possess the rights to China Gate.
It’s a shame that the Fuller/Zanuck relationship was relatively brief; the two men evidently worked so well together. When DFZ returned to run Fox in 1962, of course, he became corporate head and was largely based in NY; his son Richard was in charge of production. It’s too bad DFZ couldn’t have done a little moonlighting back then and shepherd a few Fuller vehicles through the system; it might have stemmed the director’s long, fairly difficult spell after 1964. Best, Always. — B.