The most gracious explanation for The Crimson Kimono’s politics are it takes place in a universe where the U.S. didn’t concentrate 125,000 plus American citizens in camps during World War II. Even in that universe, there are problems, like white people Glenn Corbett and Victoria Shaw gaslighting Asian guy James Shigeta about his ability to perceive racism. Short answer: he can’t, and he’s projecting his own feelings of inadequacy (for not being white) on others. Then a bunch of the movie is just about white over the age of thirty not being able to compete with coeds and strippers for men’s attention, which is the true validation.
Except for that metric shit ton of worms, Crimson Kimono’s pretty great, actually. It’s director Fuller with a crane, tracking shots, and location shooting in L.A. He loves it. He also loves showcasing the Japanese culture as it exists in L.A. He even lets it get ahead of him, like when he lets an actual Buddhist reverend (Ryosho S. Sogabe) act in addition to performing a ceremony. The ceremony’s for Bob Okazaki’s son, who received a posthumous Medal of Honor in the Korean War (there was one Nisei soldier who did at the time; it took the military until 2000 to award the rest). It’s a lovely sequence, even if it’s a bunch of icky propaganda. Ditto the Big Red One recruiting poster in Little Tokyo.
The film starts as a streamlined police procedural. Stripteaser Gloria Pall does her number, goes backstage, and finds a gunman waiting in her dressing room. The gunman chases her out onto the street, where he shoots Pall dead. The cops show up—Corbett and Shigeta—and while interviewing Pall’s manager (a fantastic Paul Dubov), discover she’d been working on a Japanese culture-influenced act… The Crimson Kimono.
The act involves someone breaking bricks before Pall strips. Shigeta goes to find that guy while Corbett tracks down the artist of Pall’s portrait in the kimono. The opening titles are a time-lapse of the portrait being painted, so it all wraps together very nicely. Again, Fuller directs the heck out of Kimono.
Thanks to the Skid Row Michelangelo Anna Lee, Corbett discovers the artist is a fetching coed (Shaw). While he’s trying to get her to identify their prime suspect through sketches and mug books, Shigeta tracks down Pall’s stage partner for the new act, George Yoshinaga. Yoshinaga’s a delight. So’s Lee, but Lee’s a delight because of her performance and the script; Yoshinaga’s a delight because he clearly loves being in a movie. There are a few other background actors who also clearly think it’s a hoot, but Yoshinaga’s got the most significant part.
Except then Corbett puts Shaw’s sketch of the suspect on the news, making her a target, so she needs to move in with them.
Oh, right. In a bold narrative efficiency, Fuller’s script makes Corbett and Shigeta roommates. At a hotel. They were in the Korean War together; Corbett, the white sergeant in a Nisei unit, and Shigeta the guy who saved his bacon. Now they’re L.A. detectives; Shigeta’s trying to make sergeant, but it’s a strange red herring subplot—everyone forgets about it about four seconds after it comes up. But they spend all their money living in a nice enough hotel suite, splurging on room service every once in a while (though it sounds like every day).
When Shaw’s in danger, they move her in with them. But don’t worry about it being untoward; even though Corbett very much uses the close quarters to put the moves on her, they’re going to bring in Lee to chaperone. And supposedly the rest of the suite’s full of plainclothes cops (we never see any).
Having all the characters together means Fuller doesn’t have to go anywhere to get the love triangle going—Shaw goes for soulful Shigeta instead of pretty boy lothario Corbett (who’s such a man slut even the local nuns have the hots for him)—but also Lee’s around to offer womanly advice to Shaw when needed.
Awesome efficiency and kind of a great idea for a TV show, albeit it one with racial gaslighting and intense copaganda.
The acting’s all decent with asterisks. Except Lee; she’s just great. Corbett’s playing a few years older (check the gray streaks), which doesn’t quite work. He’s blandly good-looking, blandly charming, but not in bad ways. Shigeta gets to do more, but often against amateur actors. Not to mention the eventual gaslighting. Shaw’s fine, though given how Corbett possessively paws her without her reacting, it’s low-key terrifying imagining what the movie thinks her life is usually like when she’s not a police witness.
Great black and white photography from Sam Leavitt, occasionally, forgivably bad cutting from Jerome Thoms (Fuller was shooting amateur actors and locations without filming permits, I’m sure the footage was a delight). Fine music from Harry Sukman. It’s a good-looking, extremely inventive low budget production. Fuller and Leavitt luxuriate in those long tracking shots.
Fun uncredited bit part from “Batman” police chief Stafford Repp.
Crimson Kimono’s problematic in the extremis, but also a darn good picture.
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