Tuesday, July 12, 2011

House of Bamboo (1955)

The first thing you need to remind yourself when watching House of Bamboo is that this is a Sam Fuller movie. So if you’re going to get all bent out of shape over things like incoherent or downright plotting then you should hit the Eject button straight away and watch something else.

While superficially this might seem like a straightforward crime film on closer viewing it’s as gloriously and deliriously crazed as his monumentally weird early 60s films like The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor. It’s difficult to justify regarding this one as a film noir but any Sam Fuller movie is going to be of interest to noir fans.

This was a fairly lavish 20th Century-Fox production that features generous use of Japanese locations. Made in 1954 it marked the beginning of Hollywood’s fascination with Japanese culture. It’s hard to think of any movie that makes better or more effective use of exotic locations than this one. It’s also difficult to think of any movie that uses the CInemascope screen to better effect. Combined with stunning colour cinematography the result is a visually spectacular film.

Fuller clearly loved traditional Japanese houses and used the rice-paper screens very cleverly to construct some wonderfully dramatic visual moments. The shot that introduces Robert Ryan is pure genius.

In any case, let’s look at the plot. Japan is still under US military occupation. A munitions train is robbed and a US Army sergeant is killed. This brings the case into the province of the US Army Military Police who are cooperating with the Japanese police in the investigation. One member of the gang is seriously wounded and later dies in hospital.

The gang behind the robbery is comprised entirely of Americans, all ex-GIs. The leader of the gang, Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan), runs their criminal operations like military campaigns. He controls most of the pachinko parlours in Tokyo but his real enthusiasm is for armed robberies. You have to overlook the fact that it’s extremely unlikely that a group of westerners, none of who apparently speaks Japanese, could possibly run such a successful criminal enterprise in such an insular society. And it’s even more unlikely that the yakuza would allow such a gang to operate. This brings us back to plotting and it’s really best not to think about this subject at all.

Meanwhile a scruffy American two-bit hoodlum has arrived in Tokyo. His name is Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack) and he’s looking for an old army buddy who had married a Japanese woman. This old pal was in fact the member of the gang killed in the train robbery. He tracks down his buddy’s widow, a woman named Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi). Eddie is trying to set himself up in the protection racket, targeting the pachinko parlours, This brings him to the attention of Sandy Dawson, which was of course Eddie’s intention. Eddie is no hoodlum, he’s a US Army military policeman. Operating undercover is going to be a dangerous business but Mariko offers to move in with him and help him. She becomes what the gang members refer to as Eddie’s kimono, his woman. They don’t actually share a bed but it’s obvious that what started as a business arrangement is becoming a real emotional involvement.

Eddie has managed to gain a foothold in the gang and becomes something of a protégé of Sandy’s but he faces two major problems. Sandy has a strict rule that any gang member wounded in a robbery will be immediately killed. He doesn’t believe in allowing prisoners to fall into the hands of the police. The other problem is that Sandy is quite mad. It’s a quiet contained madness which makes it all the more disturbing. Sandy is the ultimate control freak. You know that if he ever explodes it’s going to be very very messy.

Much criticism of this film has centred on the supposedly homoerotic overtones of the Sandy-Eddie relationship. There’s certainly some subtext here and it’s reinforced by Robert Ryan’s intense but claustrophobic performance. Most of the relationships in the movie are problematic, the Eddie-Mariko romance because of almost insurmountable cultural obstacles and in fact of course all of the western characters in the movie are outsiders (often in multiple ways) and destined to remain so.

The scene in which Sandy angrily accuses Mariko of betraying Eddie could be read as demonstrating their romantic rivalry for Eddie’s affections. I don’t see it that way. To me it seems that Sandy has tried to create an artificial imaginary family, a family that he believes he can control completely. Sandy wants control, rather than sex or love. The homoerotic element may in fact be a red herring.

Not everyone likes Robert Stack’s performance but I think it works perfectly. He’s meant to be a blundering outsider and that’s how he comes across. His clumsiness and also makes the Eddie-Mariko romance rather poignant and emphasises the difficulty involved in crossing the cultural gulf between them. Robert Ryan was born to play roles like Sandy and gives one of his best and most subtly twisted performances.

The real reasons to see this movie though are for the gorgeous cinematography and the succession of superb and imaginative visual set-pieces that Fuller constructs. The climactic scene on the rooftop fairground is a tour-de-force of sheer cinematic style. The fact that it’s a children’s playground that he’s trapped in rather nicely mocks Sandy’s desperate desire for control.

And it’s a wonderfully entertaining movie whether it makes sense or not.

This is a movie that absolutely must be seen in the correct aspect ratio. Fortunately it’s available on both Region 1 and Region 2 DVD. The R2 DVD from Optimum looks terrific.

1 comment:

  1. It's dazzling stuff that seems to have influenced at least one Japanese filmmaker. Seijun Suzuki's Youth of the Beast features a newcomer strongarming his way into a gang much the way Stack does, but with a different though also righteous agenda. The two films'd make a neat double feature.