blogging by Andrew Wickliffe


House of Bamboo (1955, Samuel Fuller)


I had a variety of ways I was going to open this post. I was going to make a Robert Palmer reference for my apparent target demographic (it would have read: Director Fuller has cranes and knows how to use them). Except it turns out… Fuller didn’t have a dozen cranes roaming the Tokyo streets. He shot it on a minimal budget for locations, and the city shots were done guerilla without permits. It’s okay, though, I think. The thank you to the Tokyo cops might’ve been bribes.

But I also thought about talking about the film as a relic from the past. It’s a crime saga set in post-war Japan, filmed on location. Also, on some very elaborate sets on sound stages, where Fuller presumably does get to use his flock of cranes (to excellent effect; he directs the hell out of Bamboo). It opens with Jack Webb-lite narration describing how military policing works in Japan, initially following American army captain Brad Dexter and Japanese official Sessue Hayakawa. They’re investigating a train robbery at first, and then the story jumps a few months, so there can be more narration when stickup artist Biff Elliot’s shot with the same gun used in the opening robbery.

Oh, yeah, there’s a big train robbery opening, with Fuller and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald taking full advantage of the wide, glorious CinemaScope frame.

Then the action cuts ahead a few more weeks with Robert Stack arriving. He’s Elliot’s pal from the service and just out of jail. He thinks Elliot’s got a gig for him, except Elliot’s dead, and his widow (Shirley Yamaguchi) didn’t know he was a crook until she read it in the paper.

Now, Stack thinks white guy Elliot is ashamed of Japanese wife Yamaguchi because he kept her a secret from everyone. Except it’s actually because the other Japanese women are shitty to Yamaguchi for marrying a white guy. The way it’s presented, with Yamaguchi the victim of bigotry on her man’s account, seems to be telling American women if they’re racist to their husband’s buddy’s war bride, they’re being as bad as a Japanese woman.

Also, Yamaguchi talks about how Americans could have no idea how the social pressure works… even though interracial marriages were still illegal. It’s peculiar. Bamboo’s very pro-Japan (well, pro-American colonization project Japan), but Fuller’s also sympathetic to particular plights (who wouldn’t want a wife “taught since childhood” to dote on her husband) and seemingly oblivious to others.

His obliviousness is a blessing at times, however. He made it through making the movie with Stack in the lead. The only thing worse than Stack playing tough guy is Stack playing sensitive romantic. See, he’s going to fall in love with widow Yamaguchi… at the same time, he’s asking her to pose as his squeeze to help him infiltrate Elliot’s gang.

Robert Ryan leads the gang. Ryan is mic-drop fantastic. No notes. Even when he seems to jump the shark, it’s to build up to something else later. Rising action is unfortunately rare in Bamboo too; only Ryan gins up enough momentum.

The supporting cast runs hot and cold. Yamaguchi’s okay in an endlessly problematic part and not bad opposite Stack, which is an achievement. She’s barely in the third act, though, because the movie has to acknowledge she and Stack aren’t ever going to kiss, so what’s the point?

Cameron Mitchell plays the second-in-command, who Stack inadvertently starts to replace, further engaging Mitchell. Mitchell’s great. Bamboo somewhat compensates for Stack’s wooden performance, with the other actors bringing the heat. Except Mitchell can easily do it, whereas Yamaguchi’s already got a lot on her plate. And Ryan’s supposedly enamored with Stack, but there’s no reason for him to be.

Ryan fills the gang with ex-military officers drummed out of the service for being violent criminals. Besides his lack of affect, the only significant thing about Stack is his ostensibly impressive criminal record. Only Ryan’s not using him for any of that stuff. Ryan’s just another goon. Plus, Ryan spends their scenes waiting for Stack to start acting, which everyone else has figured out isn’t happening.

But Ryan and Fuller seem sure Stack’s got to have something at some point.

Nope.

An uncredited DeForest Kelley also gets to upstage Stack as Ryan’s other named goon.

Bamboo’s a great-looking film. Fuller loves the wide frame, and he loves doing the Tokyo travelogue—including a finale set at a rooftop amusement park—but he’s got no sense for the script. Or at least how to make it with Stack playing it. Bamboo is an eighty-four-minute movie running almost twenty minutes too long. Stack’s a terrible lead in the first act. Eventually, he gets sympathetic because of the plot, but he’s an American bully, shoving his way around Tokyo and trying to intimidate everyone. However, he’s nice to kids, which is a tell.

Oh, and bad music. Bad in it’s from 1955, so, of course, it’s going to be “ethnic” themed. Except composer Leigh Harline one-ups it by going Hollywood Chinese music. When it’s just thriller music, it’s usually fine.

House of Bamboo isn’t a success, but it’s a superbly made film. Fuller does masterful work. And Ryan’s so good.


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