Friday, January 15, 2010

#96: House of Bamboo (Samuel Fuller, 1955)

Released: July 1, 1955

Director: Samuel Fuller; Screenplay: Harry Kleiner and Samuel Fuller; Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald; Music: Leigh Harline; Producer: Buddy Adler; Studio: 20th Century Fox

Robert Ryan (Sandy Dawson), Robert Stack (Eddie Kenner/Spanier), Shirley Yamaguchi (Mariko), Cameron Mitchell (Griff), Brad Dexter (Capt. Hanson), Sessue Hayakawa (Inspector Kito), DeForest Kelley (Charlie), Biff Elliot (Webber), Sandro Giglio (Ceram)

I know, I was shocked too when I found out that Robert Stack did something other than creep out young kids with his chilling narration and startling persona on Unsolved Mysteries

I’m kidding of course, as his greatest fame is undoubtedly as Eliot Ness in The Untouchables. But to those of my generation, he will almost always be identified as that scary guy who hosted Unsolved Mysteries. Here, though, he is paired with a director that is perfectly suited for an actor that can capably exude a tough guy persona. Stack is not only capable, but shines as this type of character, playing Eddie Kenner as a tough guy that feels very authentic. In many noir and gangster pictures of this era, the macho tough guys come across as caricatures or imitations of past celluloid hoods. Stack as Kenner, on the other hand, feels real, as does Robert Ryan for that matter, lending the key dynamic of the film a sincerity that elevates the film. Aside from the visuals, this is what sticks with me most from House of Bamboo – the genuinely brutal nature of principal characters. It doesn’t feel like fictionally created bravado, but rather the callousness that would be necessary to truly dominate a criminal empire.

This is a loose remake of 1948’s The Street With No Name, another classic-era film noir that (drum roll please…) I’ll go ahead and reveal will also be seen in this countdown. So I obviously enjoy the original a bit more. Still, it has to be acknowledged that the theme of an ex-con being used by the police to infiltrate a gang is not exclusive to The Street With No Name. The connection between the two is made even stronger, though, by the fact that both screenplays were written by Harry Kleiner, so there is no denying the direct inspiration and influence of the 1948 film. Fortunately, this remake is distinctive enough to stand on its own, due to both its production and its unique setting.

The most obvious change is the fact that Fuller’s film is shot in color and CinemaScope, which in the minds of some traditionalists goes against the true nature of noir. And while I’ll concede that I like to see the stark blacks and whites of the classic era, I disagree. In fact, the cinematography in this film is outstanding. It is also aided by being one of the first movies shot in postwar Tokyo. The nature of the locales has an exotic flavor, highlighting unknown entities like pachinko parlors, Buddha statues, the unique houses and buildings frequented by the various characters. Even though everything is shot in color, these Tokyo streets and parlors retain the gritty feel of underworlds across the globe. The outdoor scenes are beautiful as well, particularly the opening train robbery sequence in which Fuller and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald make full use of CinemaScope to highlight the wide open scenery of the Japanese countryside. The image of the train moving across an overpass, with the towering Mount Fuji in the background, is exquisite stuff.

It aspires to be something more than a simple cat-and-mouse crime story, but what holds it back slightly is the fact that it never elevates to that level. There seems to be a statement being made concerning the clash of the American and Japanese cultures, but the Japanese female lead tended to drag the story. It works best as the brutal crime film it truly is, allowing Fuller to craft that tough guy characters that he loved to work with.


  1. There are a few other films Dave, that visually don't conform to what we think of or see as "noir." I think of Henry Hathaway's NIAGARA, which used widescreen and color. And the neo-noirs of recent years of course have their own visual scheme. But I dare say I do think this is one of Fuller's best earlier efforts. (My favorite though is probably THE STEEL HELMUT) In the end as you concede it's a crime film. I remember well that scene of the train moving across the overpass with Mt. Fuji in the backround, and yes it's exquisite stuff.

    Most interesting choice here, and tidy piece.

  2. Wow. This is a Fuller film I haven't seen...AND it has Robert Stack in it! I need to see this ASAP. Great thoughts here, Dave. I look forward to tracking this one down (hopefully it's available via Netflix).

    Also...not to be too pedantic, but I noticed you have my blog linked on the side there (thanks by the way!)...however, you have my brothers name in parenthesis (who helped me design the site)...I don't mind sharing blogging credit with him, but just thought I would let you know that Hugo Stiglitz is my blog, and Elusive as Robert Denby is Troy's blog. Regardless...I thank you for adding me to your blog roll.

    I've already found this countdown to be rewarding and we're only a handful of selections in! I'm really looking forward to the rest.

  3. I haven't seen this Dave but you do make it sound appetising.

    The best of the Fuller films I have seen is Forty Guns - I particularly remember a quiet and intimate scene between Barbara Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan in a stable (I think).

    Of Westerns only Forty Guns and The Searchers have made much of an impact on me. I should look into this noir.

    Thanks Dave.

  4. For me anything with Sam Fuller's name on it makes it at least a decent film. Early color noir (Sam mentioned Niagara, and Slightly Scarlet is another)I think you have placed this just about right. Fuller has about a half a dozen or more films I would place above this one.

  5. Sam - Thanks for the good words. This is the first of the capsule-like reviews that I've posted that I've felt really good about, so hopefully things will continue to get better.

    Kevin - Honest mistake... I put your brother's name there because when you click his profile, one of the links listed is Hugo Stiglitz. It's been changed, though, so sorry for the mix up. And I'm glad to hear that the countdown has been good thus far. Thinks should only get better when we start moving into the cream of film noir.

    Stephen - I actually haven't seen Forty Guns, but I will try and check that out as I love westerns too.

    John - Agreed on these points. There are times in House of Bamboo that it seems like it's going to be an even greater film than it is. But, as you say, I think this is a good placement for it... still one for all noir and/or Fuller fans to check out.

  6. Dave, would you agree that there are at least two aesthetic categories for noir, the one being the familiar expressionist b&w cinematography and another being a kind of social realism characterized by urban location work? If so, then a color film shot even in exotic urban locations should qualify as noir with no protest, especially with the sort of brutal characterizations we get in House of Bamboo, whose influence on Japanese crime cinema is arguably visible in Seijun Suzuki's Youth of the Beast, which opens with a tough guy muscling his way into a gang, only to show a more righteous motive later. This is a beauty of a film and I'm glad to see it make the cut.

  7. Samuel - I would agree with that. The black and white cinematography is one of my favorite features, but I don't think that noir can exclusively be photographed in this way. In my opinion, this definitely qualifies as noir, regardless of the use of color or the location. My definition of noir is probably wider than most as it is, but I'm guessing almost everyone agrees on labeling this as one.

    I've said it many times in the build up to this countdown, but I really don't have any set definition for what is noir and what is not. It it feels like a noir to me, then it is. That simple.

  8. The one scene which sticks in my mind is the eerie speech Robert Ryan gives to a dead man, after blasting him into eternity in a wooden bath tub. What a great actor.

    Check out Ryan in :-

    Act Of Violence
    The Set Up
    Odds Against Tomorrow
    The Wild Bunch

    You won't be sorry. "The Set Up" is the greatest film on boxing ever made, and that includes "Raging Bull"...