Cinemascope! Blogathon: House of Bamboo (1955)

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10 Reasons You Should Drop What You’re Doing and Watch Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo Right Now

1) Samuel Fuller. Samuel Fuller did not mess around. His films are usually described as “in-your-face,” “pulpy,” and “crude.” They are, and they are magnificent. Fuller made films about things that mattered to him, and you can tell. He said films should start with a punch, and at least one of his films, The Naked Kiss (1964), does exactly that. Not a fan of establishing shots (meant to help orient the viewer in a new scene or space), Fuller was a natural editor. He wanted every shot, every move, every word, to count. Fuller would never sacrifice the raw emotion or the heart of a story just to make a point. But a few jagged edges on the plot were just fine.

House of Bamboo, like other films of Fuller’s, has an integrated cast, though there aren’t a lot of Japanese characters. (Four years later, in The Crimson Kimono, there are two interracial relationships.) Because this is a studio picture, its politics are pretty submerged, but the more control he had over his films, the more apparent Fuller’s politics were, as well as his proclivities. The hero of his film might be a prostitute, as in The Naked Kiss, or a pickpocket, as in the awesome Pickup on South Street (1953); the setting might be a mental hospital, as in Shock Corridor (1963), or the Korean War, in The Steel Helmet (1951), in which Americans execute a prisoner of war, royally pissing off the real U.S. Army. Fuller insisted he’d seen it happen during his service in World War II.

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Of course, he also took to starting shooting by firing a pistol, and he dribbled cigar ash everywhere. Nobody’s perfect.

Here’s some classic Fuller from the shooting of House of Bamboo: “To make matters even messier, Fuller shot [Robert] Stack hoofing it around the pachinko parlors of Tokyo without letting the local citizenry know that a movie was being filmed. When Fuller commanded Stack to be attacked by an angry mob, he didn’t bother to let his unpaid extras know that Stack was acting… and the mob nearly killed the actor right there in front of the hidden cameras. Stack was none too thrilled by the turn of events but Fuller was in his glory.” (From Richard Harlan Smith’s post on TCM’s Movie Morlocks blog)

Twentieth-century Fox wanted a heterosexual relationship and a happy ending in House of Bamboo, and they got that. Sort of. Fuller made some compromises in for the studio; the relationship between Robert Stack’s character, Eddie, and his “kimono girl,” Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi) is one of the bigger ones. But only a fool would think that the film is about Eddie and Mariko. It’s about Eddie and the crime boss he betrays, Sandy, played by the incomparable and underrated Robert Ryan. Which brings me to…

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2) Robert Ryan. You probably don’t spend as much time as I do thinking about how amazing Robert Ryan is, but you might, if you watched this movie. One of Ryan’s specialities is a barely suppressed rage that’s constantly in danger of erupting into violence. Depending on the character, carrying around this rage can seem to wear him down or give him the volatility of a downed power line. He isn’t especially violent in this picture, but with Ryan it’s those moments when you’re afraid he’s about to crack someone in the face with, say, the cue ball he’s been holding that stay with you. Fuller knows how to milk those moments.

Ryan played a lot of bad guys, but he seems to have played racist bad guys more often than most actors, especially in the 1940s – 50s. Just off the top of my head, he’s an anti-Semite in Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947, which got him an Oscar nomination), and a bigot in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Perhaps he was so good at these and other bullying roles because, in real life, he campaigned for civil rights and opposed McCarthyism. He knew injustice and cruelty when he saw it. Plus, he was 6′ 4″. I can almost guarantee you that there’s not enough Robert Ryan in your life. You should do something about that.

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3) It’s in Cinemascope. Oh, the glories of Cinemascope. No, it wasn’t perfect, but it remains breathtaking, even when you notice that little curvature at the edge of the frame’s width, even when you have to watch it on a television screen. Cinemascope films, with an aspect ratio of 2.55:1 (versus the old Academy ratio of 1.375:1) were meant to be shown (ideally) on 62-foot long by 32-foot high screens, give or take. The limitations of filming in Cinemascope, like those of silent film, the Production Code, and early sound technology, either defeat a picture or produce inspired solutions. Fuller took it as part of his job to push against limits of all kinds, and the results are invariably dynamic. This film in particular is incredibly visually satisfying. Fuller uses the screens common to traditional Japanese interiors to frame characters and to create staggered or layered depth of field (a screen opening on a room beyond the one, or in front of the one, which has our attention, for example).

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Notice, too, how a number of these shots have a sharp corner in the center of the foreground, rather than narrowing towards a point in the distance: the corners of buildings, offices, rooms. It’s an unusual (at least to me) way of creating depth in Cinemascope.

4) It was filmed on location in postwar Japan.

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Tokyo is dreary and smog-filled. The empty trees suggest that Fuller made a point of filming in late fall or winter—even the natural landscapes are brown and grey. And yet, the film is filled with color—in particular the colors of traditional Japanese culture. Though the Western protagonists seem to take a chauvinistic pride in refusing to even acknowledge that they are in someone else’s country, the audience cannot help but get a feel for this time and this place. Fuller makes sure that the sights, sounds, and customs that the men ignore are there for us to take in. One of Fuller’s interests in this film, as in some of his others, is the clash of cultures, and the gang’s pointed lack of interest in their surroundings is their own bigotry, not the film’s. A motif is one of these guys shouting into a phone, or at a person, “English! ENGLISH!”

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5) Fuller’s shot composition and staging

No, silly. This is the *beginning* of the movie.

No, silly. This is the *beginning* of the movie.

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Three pivotal scenes take place in this gazebo and in each the characters are framed differently, emphasizing their state of mind.

 

6) The ass-kicking ending. SPOILERS AHEAD. Obviously.

I mean the real ending, not the silly tacked-on one with Eddie and Mariko holding hands. The final sequence is bizarre and brilliant from the moment Sandy sets up his revenge, getting Eddie shot by the Tokyo police, to the end, a Hitchcockian chase through the rooftop amusement park of the department store they were robbing. The highest point on the roof is a rotating globe, and that’s where Sandy goes down.

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7) Bones!

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Dammit, Jim! I’m a doctor not an ex-pat hood in postwar Japan!

8) Love triangles and gender reversals. Robert Stack in the tub, Robert Stack showing some shoulder. Meanwhile Shirley Yamaguchi is completely covered. (There is one obligatory shot of her in a skimpy towel, but that’s before the two of them get to know each other.)

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A lot of the shot compositions also emphasize Sandy’s feelings for his “ichiban” (number one), first Griff (Cameron Mitchell), then, of course, Eddie. There’s at least one major plot point that doesn’t make much sense unless you understand that Sandy has developed feelings for Eddie. Fuller made it clear in interviews that he fully intended this homoerotic tension. Apparently, the only other person on the set who figured it out was Ryan, and there are a couple of scenes where he plays to this, and Stack/Eddie just looks blank, totally unaware of how important he has become to Sandy.

9) Kabuki. As James Ursini and Alain Silver point out in their DVD commentary, Fuller borrows a fair amount from Kabuki theatre in his staging and in the way he creates depth using the interior screens.

Yes, this is from the same movie.

Yes, this is from the same movie.

There’s also a Japanese party with traditional music and fan dancers that morphs into a sock hop. The women disrobe to reveal poodle skirts and bobby socks but keep their white pancake make up on. Because Fuller.

… aaaaaaaand this:

10) Having a heart-to-heart with guy you just shot. Dead. In his bathtub.

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Fuller’s pulp rendering of Marat’s assassination, the scene in which Sandy shoots first and talks later, is gripping, both for its total weirdness and for how it elaborates on Sandy’s feelings about the two men in his life, Griff and Eddie. Sandy cradles the dead guy’s head, keeps it from sinking into the water twice, as he tenderly explains why he had to kill him. It’s a speech that applies equally well, if not more so, to other relationships in the film: You weren’t responsible for your actions. You didn’t know what you were doing. I could see you had no control of yourself. Absolutely none.

P.S. The great Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa is also here, but you’d hardly know it. He looks uncomfortable and has a thanklessly dull part.

This is a movie that should be a lot easier to see, and, hey, Fox, it should be available in Blu-ray. Get on that, willya?

Russia in Classic Film Blogathon, Part 2: The House on Trubnaya (1928)

a-casa-da-praca-trubnaia_t47274_png_290x478_upscale_q90Thanks to Movies, Silently and Flicker Alley for hosting the Blogathon!

Despite what Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924) might have lead you to believe, Bolshevism did not destroy the Russian sense of humor. Although the “message” of The House on Trubnaya (1928) (aka The House on Trubnaya Square aka The House on Trubnaya Street) is, predictably, that the Soviet state is just super, the film does not throw its hands up in the air, in classic Russian fatalism. The House on Trubnaya is a hoot. Yes, you read that right, Soviet comedy is not an oxymoron.

Trubnaya takes on the country-girl-in-the-city trope. Rather than following the well-worn path in which the naive girl is taken advantage of by some unscrupulous city slicker and, “falling” pregnant, is forced to return home, where, of course, no one will have anything to do with her, however, Trubnaya sets it up and then has the naive country girl triumph, all thanks to the glorious Soviet system. Luckily, Trubnaya’s director, Boris Barnet, has a much subtler touch than that summary suggests. The story is genuinely funny, the only character we hate is the actual villain, and Barnet and his cinematographer, Yevgeni Alekseyev, have a lot of fun with the camera. Trubnaya puts a lot of the Kino-Eye-Constructivist-montage techniques to much lighter effect than I’ve seen in the canonical Soviet films, like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Dziga Vertov’s breathtaking Man with a Movie Camera.

The film opens on a lyrical set of images—a Moscow empty but for a few street sweepers. The city “looks in the mirror and begins to wash up,” the inter titles tell us. The next shot is a serene reflection of buildings in water on the street, broken the next moment by sweeper’s broom. Everything here is linked to everything else—it’s a political theory but also an aesthetic. Our focus shifts to the Trubnaya apartments and the film’s best set: a cut-away of the stairwell in a communal apartment building. It’s a great introduction to the characters’ world and the humor Barnet creates here sets the tone for the film.

trubnayaWe watch the stairwell come to life along with the rest of the city: neighbors shaking out rugs and curtains, chopping wood (yes, in the stairwell), tossing out garbage, shooing cats, and all manner of morning rituals. The beginning of the film doesn’t have much dialog, which allows us to better appreciate the images, the way they’re connected, and what they tell us about these people. The rhythmic movements of the morning rituals are a language of their own. The sequence reminded me a bit of a much more salacious one in the French film Delicatessen (1991), which moves from room to room in an apartment building, as everyone’s movements, no matter what they’re doing, fall into the rhythm of a very squeaky mattress being used by two tenants. During this sequence in Trubnaya, as the camera moves fluidly up and down, we gather that this communal space isn’t being used all that communally. We are introduced to the three tenants in particular, Fenia, the building organizer, and we later learn, a union organizer, Golikov, a hairdresser, and a driver, Semyon, who turns out to be from the same village as Parasha, the film’s country-girl heroine.

The film moves out into the streets again as we follow Semyon to work. Parasha is wandering, a bit lost, along the streets. Like all good peasant girls, she has brought with her a beloved duck in a basket. Distracted by some dolls in a shop window, she fails to notice the duck waddle off. A classic silent film chase ensues as Parasha tries to recover her duck. The two are finally reunited on the tracks of a tram, which we saw so many of in the opening shots. Naturally, there is a tram bearing down on them, and there is a wonderful montage of Parasha and duck, tram, the tram-driver’s foot, the growing crowd. Just as we expect her to be smooshed or saved, the film “stops,” and the inter titles point out that we don’t know how the duck got to Moscow. We rewind to the moment Parasha (or Paranya, depending on the translation) is getting on the train from the boonies to the big city. Unfortunately, at just the same moment, her uncle is getting off a train arriving in the village. We hurtle back to the “present” and watch the tram driver stop just short of turning them into duck-and-Parasha paté. As the crowd circles around her, Semyon discovers he knows this peculiar girl, crouching in the road, hugging a duck. He takes her back to Trubnaya.

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There, Parasha is hired by Golikov as a housemaid/drudge. Golikov is played with a weasely air of general disapproval by Vladimir Fogel, early proof that villains are usually more fun to watch. The rest of the movie is really a struggle between Golikov’s version of the world, in which he treats Parasha a slave rather than an employee, and Parasha’s expanding and much sweeter version of the world. Fortunately, Parasha has Fenia, the domestic workers’ union, and, ultimately, of course, the glorious Soviet state on her side.

Later in the film, Barnet borrows a (hilarious) scene from the second book of Don Quixote,** in which our hero(ine) watches a performance of the Storming of the Bastille at the Workers’ Theater. The odious Golikov has been drafted at the last minute, standing in for an actor too drunk to play the French army general. Watching the “general” thrashing a revolutionary on stage, Parasha is overcome with an understandable desire to protect the underdog and leaps up to intercede. She storms the stage, knocking the general on his can, and…the crowd goes wild.

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Vera Maretskaya as Parasha

This is one excellent example among many of how Barnet caters to the need for Soviet propaganda on the one hand, while on the other hand, lampoons excessive patriotic fervor. And he does it through a character who, like the knight from La Mancha, remains sympathetic. It’s quite a balancing act and a great pleasure to watch.

You can watch The House on Trubnaya with a Fandor subscription (or with their two-week free trial). There are also versions available for free on YouTube.

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Director Boris Barnet

For more Russia in Classic Film Blogathon posts on comedy, check out the following:

Two (!) posts about the short Chess Fever (1925), starring Vladimir Fogel, at Once Upon a Screen and The Moon in Gemini.

and another two posts about Miss Mend, a serial co-directed by Boris Barnet (and set in America!), one at Big V Riot Squad and Mildred’s Fatburgers.

For more Trubnaya reading:

An argument that Barnet’s film belongs on a list of “best ever” silents on BFI’s site.

The House on Trubnaya @ Fandor and an accompanying essay on Russian Silent Film

Interesting historical context on the film at Cinetext.

 

 

** “Don Quixote, however, seeing such a swarm of Moors and hearing such a din, thought it would be right to aid the fugitives, and standing up he exclaimed in a loud voice, “Never, while I live, will I permit foul play to be practised in my presence on such a famous knight and fearless lover as Don Gaiferos. Halt! ill-born rabble, follow him not nor pursue him, or ye will have to reckon with me in battle!” and suiting the action to the word, he drew his sword, and with one bound placed himself close to the show, and with unexampled rapidity and fury began to shower down blows on the puppet troop of Moors, knocking over some, decapitating others, maiming this one and demolishing that; and among many more he delivered one down stroke which, if Master Pedro had not ducked, made himself small, and got out of the way, would have sliced off his head as easily as if it had been made of almond-paste. Master Pedro kept shouting, “Hold hard! Senor Don Quixote! can’t you see they’re not real Moors you’re knocking down and killing and destroying, but only little pasteboard figures! Look—sinner that I am!—how you’re wrecking and ruining all that I’m worth!” But in spite of this, Don Quixote did not leave off discharging a continuous rain of cuts, slashes, downstrokes, and backstrokes, and at length, in less than the space of two credos, he brought the whole show to the ground, with all its fittings and figures shivered and knocked to pieces, King Marsilio badly wounded, and the Emperor Charlemagne with his crown and head split in two.”

Read the whole chapter (or better yet, the whole book—Book I first!), including Gustave Doré’s illustrations, at Project Gutenberg.

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