AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: November 11th, in the FULLER AT FOX, FIVE FILMS 1951-1957 Boxset, from EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT
RUNNING TIME: 102 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A military train guarded by American soldiers and Japanese police is robbed of its cargo of guns, ammunition, and smoke bombs. Five weeks later, a thief named Webber lies dying in a Tokyo hospital, shot by one of his own cohorts during a holdup in which smoke bombs were used. He refuses to implicate his fellow gang members but does reveal that he’s secretly married to a Japanese woman named Mariko, while police find among Webber’s possessions a letter from an American named Eddie Spanier, who wants to join Webber in Japan after his release from a U.S. prison. Three weeks later, Spanier arrives and immediately makes himself known to both Mariko and racketeer Sandy Dawson, who then offers him a job. But who is he really?….
For some reason I’ve had an interest in Japan and Japanese culture for many years, so I was very keen to see House Of Bamboo, which was the first American film to be shot in the country. Indeed it seems that Fuller was also fascinated by the same, because he ensures that you get a great flavour of Japan circa 1954, a country that still bore the scars of World War 2 and was [in fact it still is, though probably not to as great a degree] very much divided by tradition and modernity. Both of these things are frequently evoked by the film’s incredible Cinemascope photography, with Fuller and cinematographer Joseph McDonald employing the wide format to continually contrast themes visually, and to often have things going on one side of the frame while one or more of our protagonists, usually Spanier but not always, occupies the other side. Spanier can’t seem to go anywhere without passing, and our eyes therefore being partly but not entirely distracted by, small children playing what looks like a variation on Ring a Ring o’ Roses, a lady similarly entertaining some young kids by simply moving tiny figures, a kabuki theatre display, etc. One stunning early shot pans backwards from a single ceremonial performer and into a colourful sea of traditional dancers. Sure proof how interested Fuller was in this film, as are the astonishing variety of complex and unusual shots and set-ups, yet none of this manages to overshadow the story that he tells. The very noir-ish [despite lacking the conventional noir look] picture certainly has its familiar ingredients, but it’s continually engrossing. As with Hell And High Water, Fuller turns out a nicely balanced picture with something for most people, but he seems to be far more energised by this one.
This is actually a remake of The Street with No Name, a film which I actually saw a few years ago. Fuller wanted to make a film about ex-GIs pulling bank heists like military operations, but Daryl F. Zanuck gave him the screenplay for the 1948 film and promised he could shoot it in Japan. Fuller worked with screenwriter Harry Kleiner to adapt a new version of his screenplay from the original movie, inserting elements of his ex-GI heist film, though they didn’t really change very much. Joseph MacDonald served as director of photography on both films. Originally, Gary Cooper was to play the role of Eddie Spanier, but because he was too well known in Japan he couldn’t act incognito among passers-by without being recognised, so the less popular Robert Stack was used. Well, this is according to Fuller. Screenwriter Harry Kleiner says that Stack was the first choice and also that Victor Mature was originally intended to co-star. It was shot in and around Tokyo and Yokohama, Fuller keeping the budget low by filming some footage illicitly with a hidden camera. Stack has claimed that Fuller told an actor to go down “really low” when he passed a 50 gallon drum. Without informing him, the director had a sharpshooter shoot over the guy’s head and into the drum. After it blew up, the actor said, “Jesus Christ! Those were real bullets!” Fuller calmly replied, “Don’t worry. He knew what he was doing.” House Of Bamboo was fairly well received. For many years after its initial release, it was only seen on TV in pan-and-scan prints, leading many to believe that Star Trek‘s DeForest Kelley has a small role near the end of the film. When Fox finally struck a new 35mm CinemaScope print for a film festival in the 1990s, viewers were surprised to see that Kelley was in the film all the way through – he was just always off to one side and thus had been previously panned out of the frame.
A narrator informs us that this is indeed the first American film to be shot in Japan, and the year, and that we’re seeing an American military train. Some later voice-over is even more intrusive, though it eventually disappears. As we follow the train passing Mt. Fuji, we witness a violent robbery, a scene which largely takes place with lots of wide angle shots and Mt. Fuji often looming in the background, the contrast of ancient nature with these silly little humans running about. A local woman sees the dead bodies and her scream is immediately followed by the credits, which play over a terrific, lengthy panning shot of the woman running to her nearby village to tell of what she’s seen. I’m already probably praising the photography rather highly, but it really is incredibly good, and throughout the entirety of the film. The theme of contrast is already important too. When the police come along, we spend as much time viewing the onlookers as we do following the cops, trying to work out their thoughts at what they’re witnessing, before the scene is concluded by another terrific shot of a dead body lying with his feet towards the camera – while Mt. Fuji of course is seen behind. We follow the local investigation for a bit, then we switch to the rather mysterious Spanier who arrives in Tokyo. First of all he locates, after some trouble, Mariko, to find that her husband who he was supposed to meet for a business deal has been shot and died in hospital. Then he attempts to sell protection money to two pachinko parlour owners before being sent away with a physical warning by gang leader Dawson. He’s like the most arrogant tourist, expecting every native to speak English and thinking that speaking louder will make himself understood, and showing no interest in and respect for the local culture. He also looks like an idiot walking about with his coat done up only by the belt because it’s far too small for him, though that’s no doubt the intention.
Despite, or maybe because of this, Dawson has taken a shine to this seemingly arrogant person, and offers him the opportunity to join his gang of American ex-army thieves, though only after he’s engineered the theft of his passport and framed him for robbing some pearls. We’re supposed to buy that a group of very conspicuous white gangsters, none of whom seem able to speak, read, or write in Japanese, could set up shop in Tokyo and rob payrolls and banks in broad daylight, with no attempt to hide their faces – and without any yakuza, who would have dealt with these usurpers immediately, showing up. It’s daft, but I do wonder if the total avoidance of the yakuza was not to displease the Japanese authorities. We’re then told who Spanier is really working for, something that The Street with No Name reveals to us right at the beginning, and it probably won’t be a surprise. Spanier’s life then becomes harder and harder because he has to “participate” in Dawson’s criminal and violent operations while falling in love with Mariko, who is happy to pretend to be Spanier’s “kimono girl” to help both him and her, but because he’s a foreigner she begins to be shunned by others. There’s a lot of time spent on the romance, which flits between being appealingly unusual and very cliche, but which is constantly reinforced by the two having see-through barriers between them. Mariko seems to get over the deceased Webber absurdly quickly. He may have been revealed to have been a crook, but he was her husband, if only for two months. Nor does she mention any anger, even when the two of them are alone, at Dawson slapping her in the face. He did it to not give himself nor her [remember, she wed one of Dawson’s associates] away, but you’d think she’d voice some objection to it at some point. I think that some modern viewers may find Mariko to be overly submissive, though she does end up being pretty heroic. And, while they did use a Japanese actress, Susan Yamaguchi, she’s a tad caucasian in appearance, though no doubt this was a necessary compromise. And there are some genuinely cute scenes between the two, like when he takes a bath while she cooks and brings to him poached egg on toast. Robert Stack and Shirely Yamaguchi do have a rather off-kilter chemistry, even though Stack appears rather lost at times.
Of course if you’re a guy and in a film with Robert Ryan then you’re always going to come off second best in hardness. At first I thought that Ryan was winging it somewhat, as he’s very restrained, never raising his voice even when he’s obviously angry, but actually it’s a very detailed, subtle performance. He’s frightening enough that you’re always on edge as to what he’s going to do, and he convinces the viewer that he’s able to rule over his mob with his brain as more than the gun or the fist, while allowing him or her to still have a bit of sympathy for him even if this may not have been in the script. He’s given most of the best lines like,“If you don’t make a mistake, you never know when you’re right”. And there’s often a cruel logic to the character, especially his decision that any of his men wounded during a robbery have to be shot dead because anybody could crack under interrogation. Then there’s Cameron Mitchell in another well written, if still essentially cliched, role as Griff, Dawson’s second in command who resents it when Spanier begins to usurp him in Dawson’s affections – and affections they certainly seem to be, absurdly subtle by today’s standards but surprisingly blatant for the time. I’m surprised that the final scene between Dawson and Griff got by the censors. It’s intriguing that Dawson seems to come closest to exploding when he thinks that Mariko is cheating on Spanier. What with the emphasis on the love story and continual local distractions, House Of Bamboo may well have been a faster affair if it had come from another director, but suspense is still maintained and the film just about gets away with letting us know that a major event is going to take place, only for it then not too. To be fair, The Street with No Name did do exactly the same thing. And then Fuller goes full Hitchcock for the lengthy climax set in a rooftop amusement part which is a very fine example of its kind, utilising the surroundings expertly and genuinely exciting even though the score, which is nice if rather conventionally sappy at times, is not present. And wasn’t it still taboo in 1954 to show a gun and a gun victim in the same shot? It happens twice in this movie.
Fuller appears to be having real fun doing this film, often putting in quirky, amusing bits of business like a Japanese man sitting at his desk as the camera pulls back and we see that the desk is actually poised atop a balcony over a room where Spanier is being prodded by the Tokyo cops. And the number of crane shots is astonishing. His main theme is continually emphasised over and over again, from a performance by Geisha girls suddenly interrupted by jazz and the male watchers all bursting onto the floor to dance with them, to two gorgeous views from Spanier’s garden from where we can see a beautiful and pretty convincing matte painting of Mt. Fuji with loads of modern buildings in between. We are allowed to linger on colourful kimonos as women continually enter and leave the frame, yet otherwise the colour scheme is quite muted, often emphasising gray and brown outdoors, while interiors tend to beautifully contrast blue and red. After all, this changing, divided nation is also still very much shell shocked. The images of Fuller and McDonald say so much, and yet we never feel like we’re watching a documentary or having ideas being forced down our throats, which I wouldn’t be surprised is what would happen if this was made as an American film today – though I expect that a modern film would have made sure that the studio interiors were less spacious to accurately reflect actual Japanese interiors, and not had all these people walking around indoors whilst wearing shoes. The research side of things was rather shaky, though of course the majority of viewers wouldn’t notice or care, and in some other ways, such as the inter-racial romance [something Fuller depicted several times], House Of Bamboo was probably quite progressive. And on the whole, the combination of gangsters, romance, and local colour makes for a really infectious brew here. And my god – that photography [here I go again]. Wow!
The Region ‘A’ Twilight Time Blu-ray probably provided the source for Eureka’s release, based on a 2K restoration by Fox. Seeing as the others in the set are taken from 4k restorations, this may seem like House Of Bamboo will look inferior, but it’s actually quite a stunner, be it during the vibrant colour scenes or the night-time footage where blacks really are jet black. Grain is evenly managed throughout, detail is crisp, and there’s no visible dirt. Only one shot looked poor – and that was one involving a front projected actor which appeared really out of place!
Eureka’s release ports over the Twilight Time special features including the Isolated Music and Effects Track, a type of extra which doesn’t always make its way to the UK. The first of the two Twilight Time audio commentaries unsurprisingly features the late Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo, though without a third person this time. Redman is always eloquent and informative though Kirgo sometimes struggles to find interesting things to say when she’s not that knowledgeable about the film she’s talking about. House Of Bamboo is one of her favourite movies though, so she’s full of information, sometimes gets really excited, and actually talks more than Redman. She constantly praises the cinematography, proving that I wasn’t mad to go about it. Nor was I barking up the wrong tree about the homosexual element. We learn a lot, such as Fuller telling a large group of extras, oblivious that Stack was one of the main stars, to attack him for real, and Yamaguchi getting arrested in China for making propaganda pictures. A lot isn’t scene specific, and much time is spent going about Ryan, but I had no complaints on the latter score. This very fine track is followed by another. Alain Silver and James Ursini don’t possess the warmth of Redman and Kirgo [well, they did go on to get married!], with a few slightly terse moments and some gaps also, but nonetheless it’s worth hearing. Even though a great deal is repeated, it’s interesting to hear the difference of emphasis and even the odd slight variation, and you learn a few more tidbits. They also note the influence of Japanese cinema, and Silver doesn’t like the romantic scenes. I prefer the first track ,but this one’s no slouch. And then we have David Cairns going through the five films in this set, pointing out various things interspersed with passages from what are probably Fuller’s autobiography. This should probably have been on the fifth disc, as it gives away a lot about each film. I deliberately didn’t watch the portion on Forty Guns the fifth movie, but enjoyed the rest. If you haven’t done already, you’ll get a good sense of why Fuller is so highly regarded by critics, and may agree.
FULLER AT FOX, FIVE FILMS 1951-1957 LIMITED EDITION BOX SET [2000 UNITS, INDIVIDUALLY NUMBERED] SPECIAL FEATURES
*All five films presented on Blu-ray in 1080p, with Fixed Bayonets!, Pickup on South Street, Hell and High Water, and Forty Guns presented from Fox’s stunning 4K restorations, with House of Bamboo presented from a 2K restoration
*Original, uncompressed, monaural soundtracks for all films
*Optional English SDH available for all films
*FIXED BAYONETS! – audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin
*PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET – Interview with critic, filmmaker and programmer Kent Jones [32 mins]
*PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET – Interview with critic François Guérif [24 mins]
*PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET – “Cinema Cinemas” French TV interview with Samuel Fuller [12 mins]
*HELL AND HIGH WATER – Brand new audio commentary by author Scott Harrison
*HELL AND HIGH WATER – A documentary on lead actor Richard Widmark [45 mins]
*HOUSE OF BAMBOO – Audio commentary with Film Historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman
*HOUSE OF BAMBOO – Audio commentary with Film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini
*HOUSE OF BAMBOO – a brand new video essay by David Cairns looking at Samuel Fuller’s films produced for Twentieth Century Fox [24 mins]
*HOUSE OF BAMBOO – Isolated Music and Effects Track
*FORTY GUNS – Audio interview with Samuel Fuller from 1969 at the National Film Theatre in London [80 mins]
*FORTY GUNS – Interview with film critic Jean-Louis Leutrat [17 mins]
*FORTY GUNS – A Fuller Life [80 mins], a feature-length documentary directed by Samantha Fuller
*Original theatrical trailers for all five films
A 100-PAGE PERFECT BOUND COLLECTOR’S BOOK featuring essays by Richard Combs, Murielle Joudet, Philip Kemp, Glenn Kenny, and Amy Simmons; excerpts from Fuller biography A Third Face; and rare archival imagery