House of Bamboo (1955) Sam Fuller
The film is set in post war Japan, a time when there is still a strong American military presence. Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack) arrives in Tokyo looking to connect with his old army buddy Webber (Biff Elliot) who he learns from his Japanese wife has been killed. Upset over his friend’s death, though it seems more because he came all the way over from the states and his friend’s death has inconveniently left him twisting in the wind. To get by he attempts to muscle in on some protection rackets at a couple of pachinko parlors which only brings Eddie to the attention of Tokyo’s American crime-boss, Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan). After checking Eddie out with some inside sources Dawson invites the determined newcomer to join the gang (all made up of former G.I’s), soon becoming his right hand man much to the discontent of Griff (Cameron Mitchell). Dawson runs the gang and their heist like a military operation, though unlike the Marines whose motto is no man left behind, Dawson’s rule is if you’re wounded during a heist you are killed and then left behind.
We soon find out Eddie is really an undercover army investigator looking into a train robbery of military weapons and the murder of a soldier. The robbery and the murder are seen in a thrilling sequence in the beginning of the film with spectacular shots of Mt. Fuji in the background. As part of his cover, Spanier recruits the dead man’s wife, Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi) who reluctantly poses as his “kimono girl.” During one of the gangs robberies Spanier is wounded and against Dawson’s own rule of killing any gang member who is wounded during a shootout, he instead drags Eddie to safety. The breaking of his own rule seals Dawson’s fate when Eddie alerts his superiors of the next heist. In an interview with Eric Sherman and Martin Rubin (The Director’s Event: Interviews with American Filmmakers), Fuller explains further the relationship between Dawson and Spanier. Dawson tries to understand why he saved Spanier’s life during the robbery breaking his own hard and fast rule, “I don’t know why I saved your neck.” Dawson tells Spanier, then turns to his other men and says “Will anyone please tell me why I did it?” Fuller explains “That’s the big line, the cementing between them. I hoped it would get people a little nervous, because it’s usually a line that a man says about a woman: ‘Why did I marry her? What am I doing with her? Why did I go out with her? Will anyone please tell me why I did it?’ That’s as close as I could get to it when Ryan says that line.”
Before the next heist goes off Dawson abandons the caper when he finds out there is a stoolie, he soon discovers Spanier is the mole and attempts to have him killed in a climatic sequence that takes place atop an amusement park’s Ferris wheel with Tokyo in the background.
“House of Bamboo”, a loose remake of the 20th Century Fox film “The Street with No Name”, was written by Harry Kleiner with additional dialogue by Fuller based on Kleiner’s original screenplay. It was the first American film made in Japan and Fuller’s first location shoot which is magnificent and in CinemaScope no less with superlative shots of Mt. Fuji and the city of Tokyo adding an additional dimension to the story. Fuller lets the Japanese characters speak their language allowing an additional feeling of reality to it all. Betrayal and revenge, two common themes in Fuller’s films are again prevalent here along with multi-cultural tension (China Gate, Run for the Arrow, White Dog, The Steel Helmet). The military also a common subject (The Big Red One, The Steel Helmet, Merrill’s Marauders, Verboten!) is obviously present as well as newspaper reporters (Shock Corridor, Park Row).
For me Robert Stack has always been a limited actor capable of only two expressions, a cold stone look and blankness. Fortunately here he uses his cold stone look for most of the film. The acting kudos really belong to Robert Ryan who give his usual tough exquisite performance. This is one of Fuller’s best.
The Street with no Name (1948) William Keighley
“The Street With no Name” is one in a series of typical semi-documentary type “hard hitting” crime films that 20th Century Fox was so fond of making in the 1940’s. It was directed by William Keighley who previously did “G-Men.” The film contains the kind of straight forward pompous narration Fox’s documentary flavored crime films were noted for.
They were based on actual FBI cases, filmed in actual locations, and generally had the blessing of the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover. Here we get to watch the current up to the minute law enforcement techniques, and we get to listen also, in case we are too dense to understand visually what is going on, procedures and security actions that the FBI and local law enforcement take to capture criminals and keep America safe.
Filled with lots of good location work, and neatly dressed real life FBI agents in bit parts, “The Street With no Name” is a fairly routine crime film with some noirish elements. Highlighted by a great performance from Richard Widmark as Alec Stiles, a sharply dressed hypochondriac constantly sniffing nasal spray, who built his gang along “scientific lines” as he proudly states. Like his counterpart Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan) in “House of Bamboo”, he likes to dress to impress and likes his men to do so too. Widmark was fresh off his Oscar nominated debut performance in “Kiss of Death.” He seems to be the only one in the film who is really alive. Mark Stevens is rather bland as the agent going undercover and Lloyd Nolan’s FBI man, well Nolan is his usual unexciting father figure self.
When Keighley gets away from the procedural stuff he actually has some good solid tough scenes here and there with the most interesting, not unexpectedly, involving Widmark’s vile character whose nasty streak includes beating the crap out of his wife (Barbara Lawrence) in one brutal scene.
I haven’t seen the original, but House of Bamboo is strong stuff, especially visually with the widescreen location footage. It must have had some impact in Japan itself, because I’ve seen a Seijun Suzuki film, Youth of the Beast with a similar gimmick involving a tough guy strong-arming his way into a gang while holding a secret, more righteous agenda.
The Japanese location work is stunning, I agree with that and I would imagine the film had a big impact in Japan. Would be interesting to know for sure. Thanks!!!
John, I saw “House of Bamboo” a few months ago and quite enjoyed it. I think you were right to single out Ryan (did he ever give a bad or even mediocre performance?) and the great photography by Fox house cinematographer Joe MacDonald. I was surprised that a noirish crime drama like this was filmed in color and CinemaScope and with so much location work–it seemed like a real splurge on Fox’s part but definitely elevated the film above similar fare. The finale was pretty impressive too, reminding me a bit of “White Heat.” I also agree with you about Stack being a one-note actor. That was quite an interesting quotation from Fuller. I wondered if there was a subtext of repressed gay feelings on Ryan’s part towards Stack. He did seem to take a sudden shine to him and almost adopt him as a protege. I haven’t seen “Street,” but you make it sound as though it hasn’t aged well, especially in comparison to Fuller’s film.
No, I don’t think Ryan ever gave a bad performance, he is arguably one of the most solid actors to ever grace the screen. Good point about the bit of similarity between the ending here and in WHITE HEAT. I do think the gay sub-text was there is what Fuller was saying. When I was watching the film, Ryan’s character’s dialogue kind of struck me that way, and in rereading the Fuller interview his quotes for me confirmed my thoughts. It has taken me a long time to get around this one having not seen it before I am sorry to say. Now I am searching for a copy of THE CRIMSON KIMONO.