Label: Twilight Time
Released: August 11, 2015
Genre: Film Noir / Crime
Synopsis: The loyalties of a tight-knit group of bank robbers are tested when a murder brings a treacherous thug into their trusting midst.
Special Features: Audio COmmentary #1 (2015): film historian Julie Kirgo and producer Nick Redman / Audio Commentary #2 (2005): by Film Historians James Ursini and Alain Silver / Isolated Stereo Music Track / 2 Fox Movietone Newsreels: “Behind-the-scenes footage” (2:03) + “Landing In Japan” (1:03) / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.
Although House of Bamboo is technically a remake of Harry Kleiner’s superb noir script The Street with No Name (1948), it’s really a re-imaging of the core story in which a government investigator infiltrates a gang to solve and put an end to a series of murders and robberies. Whereas Street was set in a seedy pocket of California and had an FBI agent assume the identity of a dead felon, Bamboo has a military detective gain acceptance of a weird gang of Americans who manage to live the high life and commit suave robberies without upsetting the local Yakuza in post-WWII Japan.
According to Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo on the Blu-ray’s newly recorded commentary track, Fox didn’t like the idea of contract director Sam Fuller idling in Europe, so they teased him back to work with a colour widescreen remake of Kleiner’s script, which Fuller could shoot in Japan.
Fuller reworked Kleiner’s material, and while there are key elements and plot points that remained in the final shooting script – the infiltration of an agent, the well-dressed gang who only bear arms when on a job, a mole on the police force, and the preposterous tactic of propping up the unconscious hero to be mistaken by the police and shot at the end – Fuller transformed a tough, taut classic docu-styled B&W noir into a tough colour noir with ugly Americans, culture clashes, and a homo-erotic relationship that may or may not have existed in Kleiner’s Street script, but was unsubtly exploited by Fuller in his highly eccentric thriller.
It’s actually a relief to hear Kirgo and Redman concur Fuller was ‘crazy’ – I thought I was alone in believing Fuller was tough-as-nails screenwriter / director / auteur who would inject weird and bizarre behaviour in his nutty but never boring movies – but he was crazy in a good way, not giving a damn what people (studio executives) thought, and blending genuine directorial artistry with his own bursts of extremism.
In Street, gang leader Stiles (Richard Widmark) is a smiling, semi-cultured nut-job (he plays the piano while his fancily dressed goons play poker) who takes a shine to undercover FBI agent Gene (Mark Stevens), and although there’s no overt leering between the actors, one could argue Stiles takes an interest in his protégé after a boxing match, seeing him in action and being virile and agile on his feet. (In a follow-up scene, Stiles has a quiet meeting with Gene in the bedroom – Stiles lying smiling on the bed, and Gene looking boyishly giddy at working for a smooth operator.) Stiles’ marriage also feels like a leftover from a prior life; a mistake that he wishes he could undo, but reluctantly retains for appearances because it covers the glee he gets in managing a band of archetypal tough guys.
Fuller may have read between the lines and felt echoes of longing should be more pronounced, and being Sam Fuller, naturally the shots have to linger a bit more to make it clear that the cultured (and unmarried) gang leader Sandy (a unisex name) really likes new boy Eddie (Robert Stack). Kirgo and Redman point out a variety of shots where Fuller makes Sandy a dominant, elegant leader who within a short time pushes his number one lieutenant Griff (Cameron Mitchell) aside, which brings out increasing jealousy and ‘spurned lover’ exchanges. More overt, though, is Eddie recovering from a gunshot wound in a loose-fitting robe, and Sandy being quite pleased with his new toy’s décolletage. Fuller doesn’t just linger on Stack, he has the actor sit in a demure, feminine pose with the actor’s eyes beckoning Sandy to make a move.
The homo-eroticism doesn’t make Bamboo a better film, but it certainly makes the dynamics among the gang more interesting, opening the door to tangential conflicts. The men can have flings with women, but they need to live in Sandy’s sprawling hillside compound, where the dear leader can easily keep tabs on his men’s activities, and perhaps listen in on bedtime activities through paper walls. Much of Sandy’s sexual interests are left to the audience’s richer imagination.
Eddie strikes a friendship with Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi), the widow of a murdered gang member, and while they do sleep in the same room on occasion, it’s for appearances, and fits in with Fuller’s script design where everyone is in fact wearing a mask, whether it’s a policeman pretending to be a thug, unruly ex-G.I.’s pretending to be sophisticated by wearing tailored suits, or leader Sandy using his calm demeanor to hide sexual frustrations and conning the local law into believing his band of good buddies are doing nothing nefarious.
Kirgo and Redman also make note of the Fullerian absurdity where the transposed Kleiner story occurs in a kind of Japan where the Yakuza (or any Japanese criminals) don’t exist. However they’ve managed to wrangle territory from native gangs isn’t important; this is a weird mythic postwar Japan where ex-military Americans scarred with dishonorable discharges can form a nearly invincible, highly profitable mini-corporation.
Sandy may have a greater awareness of Japanese culture, but it’s murky as to whether he genuinely respects it, or respects its order rather than its people. A scene where Sandy’s number one man beats the crap out of Mariko’s uncle is especially nasty, and he seems to enjoy walking among locals knowing at any moment of his pleasing, he can have them snuffed out, or abscond with their hard-earned money and valuables.
Interestingly, Fuller retained Street’s original cinematographer Joseph MacDonald, a truly gifted craftsman who proved equally adept in gorgeous colour and CinemaScope. (MacDonald also filmed another noir remake, Broken Lance, transposed to the western genre.) Bamboo is especially notable for its documentary-styled location footage of Tokyo as the city was rebuilding itself from the ashes of WWII, but prior to the heavy cluster of skyscrapers that would replace the more rustic, sprawling commercial districts.
Street boasts tight editing and fluid camerawork and a striking finale in which characters run around the bowels of a factory; for Bamboo, Fuller literally upped the ante with some stunning tracking shots as the men race to escape after Eddie’s first robbery with the gang, and the elaborate finale which could easily play out as a silent movie: with the police tipped off, Sandy changes plans and goes for an impromptu jewelry robbery housed in one of the city’s first crop of skyscrapers, the Matsuya Department Store.
Fuller actually hints at the chase location early in the film when Eddie moves around a Kabuki troupe on the roof of the Kokusai Theatre, with the Matsuya skyscraper and its planetary ride visible in the distance.
That finale is as amazing as the location: a family playground with toy train, Ferris wheel, petting zoo, and a giant planet ride (!) seemingly hanging over the corner of the building. The shootout that determines Sandy’s fate is extremely tense because the ride has low railings and is a bit wobbly, making that pass over the building’s corner especially scary.
Yamaguchi may not have a meaty role in Mariko – she’s a slight love interest, more cultural ambassador for American audiences, explaining cultural differences to Eddie (and us) – but it’s a more integral role than her Street counterpart, Stiles’ wife Judy (Barbara Lawrence), who gets yelled at and brutally smacked around before disappearing from the narrative.
Fuller’s cast is filled with some of the period’s best character actors, including always underrated Mitchell as jilted Griff, former singer / actress Yamaguchi (whose prior career in Chinese anti-Japanese propaganda films provides some interesting commentary discussion), Sessue Hayakawa (Bridge on the River Kwai), and unbilled DeForest Kelley (Star Trek) as one of Sandy’s smiling, slimy goons. John Ford stock company veteran Harry Carey Jr. has a tiny role as a munitions seller.
Stack is fine as Eddie; the actor’s tough guy persona works well for the character, especially the early scenes where Eddie is the walking, talking embodiment of the ugly American, a rumpled English-only goon who stomps into street shops to extract protection money. It’s a comportment the character uses to attract the attention of Sandy in one of several key plot points from Kleiner’s original story.
The real star is Robert Ryan, and it’s not surprising Kirgo rhapsodizes about the actor’s skilled, often subdued acting style that always fitted trouble characters consistently struggling with violence and a faint sense of human decency. Ryan was one of Hollywood’s greatest character actors, and he never pushes Sandy’s quiet sleekness into caricature; he remains a believable and compelling villain for whom you feel a bit of regret in the finale.
What’s remarkable is how Fuller’s reworking of a formal noir still works when transplanted to Japan; one can theorize that the resettling may not have been so fluid had Fuller not injected the film with his own eccentricities.
Twilight Time’s Blu sports the new 2015 commentary track, plus the equally engaging James Ursini-Alain Silver track from Fox’s prior 2005 DVD which further details the making of this film. (The pair also recorded a detailed and similarly conversational commentary for Fox’s Street DVD.) Two vintage Fox newsreels have Yamaguchi signing autographs before entering a soundstage, and the silent second shows Stack, Yamaguchi, and Fuller ‘deplaning’ in Japan.
The 4K transfer from which this Blu was derived is gorgeous, showing the brilliance of MacDonald’s stellar camerawork and the striking Japanese locations shot in the wider 2.55:1 ratio of early CinemaScope productions. The uncompressed DTS sound mix is clean, and the score by Leigh Harline (who also scored Broken Lance) sounds great, especially in the isolated stereo music track.
Fuller’s quirky (and sometimes batshit crazy) canon isn’t for all tastes – his next films, China Gate (1957) and Forty Guns (1957) are precursors to his masterworks Shock Corrider (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964) – but for connoisseurs this is an underrated gem that also honors the tropes of the noir genre, keeping a substantive level of action on location to give the drama needed grit.
© 2016 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review