WAY DOWN EAST: HOUSE OF BAMBOO (1955)

August 18, 2015

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For his last film under contract at Twentieth Century-Fox, Sam Fuller directed House of Bamboo (1955), a film noir relocated to Japan. Daryl Zanuck took Harry Kleiner’s screenplay for The Street With No Name (’48) and dropped it in Fuller’s lap, inviting him to remake it on location in Tokyo. Shot in CinemaScope and Deluxe color, it is Fuller’s most beautiful film, and the new Blu-ray from Twilight Time (available for purchase at Screen Archives) looks flawless. Clearly inspired by his surroundings, and backed by an A-picture budget, Fuller works variations on the slashing lines of slatted bamboo curtains, sliding doors, and the increasingly vertical Tokyo cityscape, ending in a justifiably famous rooftop amusement park ride, a deadly trip around Saturn’s rings.

Fox promoted House of Bamboo as the first Hollywood feature shot in Japan, but that was all just ballyhoo. In 1951 RKO produced their anti-commie drama Tokyo File 212 on location, complete with approval from Douglas MacArthur, who was then Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan. Four years later the pressure to produce propaganda was lessened, and Fuller sneaks some subversive elements into the film’s double-agent drama. The film follows a military cop (Robert Stack) who goes undercover, using the identity of the dishonorably discharged Eddie Spanier. As Spanier, he worms his way into a growing Tokyo gang led by Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan), who use a string of pachinko parlors as a front. Spanier gets close with Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi), whose husband was a member of Dawson’s crew until he was killed in a heist-gone-wrong. Together they help destabilize Dawson’s group from within, with assists handed out by the Japanese police’s Inspector Kito (Sessue Hayakawa, the first Asian star in Hollywood – he starred in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat in 1915) and the American Captain Hanson (Brad Dexter).

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Fuller describes his additions to the script: “I moved the entire shebang to Tokyo, added stuff about Japanese contemporary life, threw in some sexual exploitation and interracial romance, and then, for some unexpected pizzazz, wrote a violent love scene between two hardened criminals.” The Dawson character is in a veiled relationship with his top lieutenant Griff, whom he calls “Ichiban”. Their bond is destroyed by the arrival of the cute Spanier, who Dawson begins to favor. At a post-heist party, Dawson seats Spanier next to him, which causes Griff to to have a drunken blow-up at his descending rank. Essentially Griff is upset at where Dawson positions him in the film’s mise-en-scene. This leads to the “violent love scene” to which Fuller refers, a brilliantly designed assassination in which a bathtub is plugged full of holes, life draining out along with the water. It plays as a scorned lover revenge killing, filled with rage and tenderness.

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The pecking order of Dawson’s gang is established introductory scene in the movie. While trying to prove his underworld bona fides, Spanier attempts to shakedown Tokyo pachinko parlors for protection money. On his second attempt he is coldcocked by Griff (Cameron Mitchell), crashes through a sliding door and into a backroom where Dawson’s crew is arranged in a semicircle around him, with Robert Ryan seated king-like on a riser in the center. This sequence not only establishes the power structure of Dawson’s crew – the farther you radiate out from the center, the weaker the hold – but it establishes Japan as a kind of Russian nesting doll of facades. As each character is hiding secret identities and desires, so the city itself has rooms within rooms, frames within frames.

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One thing Fuller hid from view was the resentment the Japanese people had towards the continuing American presence in their country, and the wide latitude granted to them in the Security Treaty signed in 1951. The relationship between the Japanese and U.S. military police is depicted as open and honest, as Inspector Kito and Captain Hanson exchange information freely in their investigation into Dawson’s gang. But while Fuller was filming, protesters would gather and “chanted anti-American slogans, trying to ruin the scene as best they could.” Fuller intended to use them as background footage – but once DP Joe MacDonald turned the camera on them, they dispersed, likely not wanting to have their faces caught on film.

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Traversing these labyrinthine spaces are Robert Stack and Robert Ryan. Fuller claims he wanted Gary Cooper for the Spanier role, but realized that location shooting would be impossible with such a huge star – any street shooting would be immediately mobbed by fans. So instead he went with Stack, who was recommended to him by his friend Budd Boetticher, for whom Stack starred in Bullfighter and the Lady (1951). Stack brings a wiry, wary quality to the role, a hopped up paranoia that works well in this film of double and triple crosses. Robert Ryan was recommended by producer Buddy Adler, and his lank, louche performance is as relaxed as Stack’s is wound up. They are matched opposites who end up chasing each other through the modernizing Tokyo streets. What starts at a luxe pearl dealership ends at the elaborate rooftop playground at the Matsuma department store. Fuller and MacDonald have fun with the possibilities, at one point sticking the camera on a children’s train ride, following Dawson as he stumbles through the crowd. All the dissembling and hiding in cataracts of secret rooms ends on an amusement park ride, a replica of Saturn with rotating rings. Dawson is chased up there like a treed cat, though with the advantage of having a gun and knowing how to use it. The ride looks rusty and is set at an angle, so the camera takes a canted look at the final movement, and it seems Stack, Ryan and the cameraman are in as much danger as Dawson and Spanier. But they complete the precipitous sequence, and Dawson is left dangling, having run out of hiding places.

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