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.
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…
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.
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).
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.
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!”
5) Fuller’s shot composition and staging
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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?