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In the mid-1950s, using the same screenwriter (Harry Kleiner) and
cinematographer (Joe MacDonald) as in the original, the unpredictable Samuel
Fuller remade 1948's The Street With No Name as House of Bamboo. For
starters, he set in not in anonymous Center City but in post-war Japan --
the first American movie filmed there since the Second World
Even in color, Fuller's Tokyo has a grey, slummy look to it, punctuated only by women in blood-red kimonos shuffling through the Ginza. It's an open city where vice flourishes and where ex-G.I. Robert Ryan runs a string of pachinko parlors as a cover for a crime ring. Military investigators and Japanese police tumble to these activities when a U.S. guard dies during a train robbery. And thus enters Robert Stack, sent by the army to infiltrate the gang and solve the murder.
Fuller deals his cards from a deck shuffled differently from his predecessor, William Keighley (who directed Street). It's not clear at the outset who Stack is, keeping us off-balance for a while; there's also a cross-cultural love affair between Stack and Shirley Yamaguchi, the widow of a slain gang member -- Ryan's standing orders are to leave no wounded to tell tales. A twisted erotic charge links Ryan to his pursuer; hinted at in the original, here it deepens the dynamic of Ryan's jealous obsession with his "ichiban," or favorite lieutenants.(There are enough sliding rice-paper screens to fill all of Douglas Sirk's movies with metaphorical barriers, too.)
Far from merely capitalizing on the 50s fad for shooting on locations around the newly opened globe, Fuller seems to construct another metaphor -- for the Occupation of Japan as exploitative, parasitic. Luckily he doesn't press this too far, and House of Bamboo stands as an offbeat, deftly made crime thriller from late in the noir cycle -- albeit with Mount Fujiyama squatting serenely in the background.
House of Bamboo may look like a standard B crime-picture, but in
amongst the noirish trappings, the somewhat forlornly straight-forward
plot, the workmanlike performances, there lurks one of the few genuine
portraits of post-War Japanese life ever attempted by an American
filmmaker. The director, Sam Fuller, is clearly in love with Japan; his
fascination with Japanese culture, art, daily ritual, suffuses House of
Bamboo so completely that one almost forgets, at times, what it's
supposed to be about. Its story - an undercover army cop infiltrates a
group of ex-soldiers running a robbery ring in a rebuilding Tokyo -
seems little more than a pretext, an excuse for Sam Fuller to indulge
his Japanophilia, his fetish. But Fuller, always the pro, at least pays
some attention to his story between excursions onto the Japanese street
in search of background detail, local color, bits of peripheral
business, and manages despite his preoccupations to deliver a
satisfyingly vigorous, if slightly routine-seeming, exercise in crime
Fuller, schooled as a journalist, had mastered the art of hard-hitting, well-paced, detail-oriented storytelling, and House of Bamboo is one of his stronger, more tightly-structured works. It's set in Japan in the years just after the war, a time when there is still a strong American military, and criminal, presence in Tokyo. Eddie Spannier (Robert Stack) has just arrived in Tokyo from the U.S., intending to hook up with his old army buddy Webber (Biff Elliot); he learns to his dismay, however, that Webber has been killed by hoodlums, leaving him twisting in the wind. Some casual thuggery at a pachinko parlor brings Spannier to the attention of Tokyo's resident American crime-boss, Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan); after screening Spannier, Dawson decides to invite the ballsy newcomer into the gang. Spannier, we soon discover, is actually an undercover army cop (he never knew Webber, isn't named Spannier) trying to track down the perpetrators of a recent train robbery which left a soldier dead. As part of his cover, Spannier recruits the dead man Webber's ex-girlfriend, Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi, merely adequate), a Japanese woman, who poses as his "kimono girl."
Fuller's staging is remarkable from the first moments of the story; the train-heist is carried off with terrific economy and skill, a memorable three-tiered image of the train poised atop an overpass with Mt. Fuji looming in the background (the "real" Japan hovering over the new, American-infested one), punctuated by two grimly matter-of-fact images of the dead soldier's shoes sticking up from the snow. In Tokyo Fuller goes into Pickup on South Street mode, cluttered waterfronts, a sense of teeming life all around the action, if not the sweaty intimacy and sense of menace he brought to his Widmark-starred masterpiece. No one had a better sense of a location than Fuller, who jammed more side detail, more realistic human activity into a few frames of his under-estimated Western classic Forty Guns than exists in all of Fred Zinnemann's hopelessly limp, over-praised High Noon. A perusal of House of Bamboo uncovers such nuggets as the scene where Spannier, played by the disheveled, mainly inexpressive Robert Stack (he wears his trenchcoat like a bathrobe), happens upon a Noh theater rehearsal going on atop a roof, and a later moment where a quaint Japanese fan-dance suddenly morphs into a raucous jitterbug, the dancers ripping off their traditional attire to reveal the '50s get-ups underneath. These scenes are, of course, more than just bits of color; Fuller penetrates the surface of his melodrama by suggesting all sorts of simmering tensions, the sense of American culture bleeding into Japan, changing it maybe not for the better. This material makes up the real, underlying film, the incongruity of traditional Japanese costumes, architectural forms, performance styles finding their way into what would seem to be a standard Hollywood cops-and-robbers exercise, and the larger cultural struggle this would seem to embody. Only the scene where Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster happen upon the court of the Emperor of Mexico in Aldrich's Vera Cruz tops for aesthetic disjointedness the scene of an apparently half-wasted Stack in his comically shabby hood-just-off-the-boat get-up stumbling upon the garishly dressed and made-up Noh performers, and nearly being knocked off his feet by one of them.
It's amazing the way Fuller uses the camera, not just the fact that he conceives brilliant shots, but that he always knows how and when to use them. He has an almost Griffith-like instinct for the big moment, the expressive image: for instance; the scene where Webber lies dying on a gurney, Fuller shooting the entire thing from a wide, high angle, then slowly coming in when the interrogating officer shows him a picture of his girlfriend, at which point Fuller cuts to a devastating P.O.V., the photograph coming poignantly into focus. Another shot shows his playfulness: a Japanese guy sits at a desk, the camera pulls back, we see that the desk is actually poised atop a balcony over a frantic room where Robert Stack is being prodded by the Tokyo cops. The best moment is less acrobatic but far funnier: Spannier is trying to shake down a pachinko boss, he gets attacked from behind and thrown through a paper wall into an office where his mark, the crime-boss Sandy (played by Robert Ryan with a psychotic pleasantness, that strangely tender note in his voice contrasting his completely deranged behavior), sits balanced on a chair, waiting to greet him. There's always this touch of eccentricity in Fuller, this out-of-leftfield quality, which is what distinguishes his work from that of more predictable, generally better-publicized, unforgivably more-highly-regarded directors (Zinnemann, Kazan, Robson, et al).
After World War II, Hollywood saw the Far East as simply a new
background for familiar heroics... "House of Bamboo" was in fact a
remake of a 1948 gangster melodrama called "The Street With No Name"
with Richard Widmark...
An army cop (Robert Stack) with a charming widow (Shirley Yamaguchi) moves into undercover action in collaboration with the Japanese security authorities against Tokyo gangsters, and their leader Robert Ryan, an intellect mastermind racketeer, head of an impressive organization engaged in robberies, fraudulent businesses, and murder whose plots challenge the magnificent effort of the international police..
With fascinating Japanese locations and photographed in CinemaScope and Technicolor, the film depicted the wonders of Fujiyama, the extraordinary city of Tokyo and its back streets in water ways invoking mystery and intrigue...
This movie has similarities to THE THIRD MAN in that both involve
someone (an American) living comfortably in an alien culture as a
parasitic gangster in a war ravaged country just after WW2 with a good
guy (another American) in pursuit. In narrow cinematic terms, in terms
of the story as other reviewers point out, its not a great movie. There
is though very much more of interest to it than that.
In historical terms we see Tokyo as it then was in 1954. We see the Japanese as officials, as policemen, as gangsters, the good, the bad, in their natural habitat rather than simply as massed cruel soldiery or suicidal pilots. It has elements of a travelogue with a fascinating glimpse behind the rice paper screen. The movie, which has really handsome colour photography, starts with the curious beauty of a snow covered landscape with Mount Fuji in the background and a murderous attack on a military supply train in the foreground. The ending too shares the same deliberate disjunction - dark violent justice dealt out in a sunny family setting - Top of the World, Ma?
Robert Stack here very much pre-figures his role as Eliot Ness in THE UNTOUCHABLES - dogged and brave in the fight against organised crime. Robert Ryan, tall impeccably elegant and seemingly entirely at ease as a violent mobster in a very foreign land.
Much criticism seems carping and misses the point. As was said of the dog that could walk upright - the question was not so much that he couldn't do it perfectly but that he could do it at all. This was a unique bold movie embedded in post WW2 underworld Japan really striving for authenticity. Not the customary montage of tourist sites and hotel interiors with a cast looking as if they'd gone no further than that themselves.
Were there American gangsters in this way in post war Japan? Presumably so if CATCH 22 is any guide. In this movie however the morality is old-fashioned, certain and unambiguous. By 1970 CATCH 22 served up satire and moral ambiguity to the Hippy generation.
A fascinating little bit of history as well as being a very watchable movie
It is 1954 in Tokyo and American soldiers and local forces are working
together to protect shipments of ammunition moving around the country.
Whenever a group of men rob one such shipment and kill one of the US
guards, the US army get involved in the investigation along with the
local police. The trail is cold until a different turns sour and an
injured criminal is finished off by his own gang using the same gun
that killed the US guard. The man dies of course and turns out to be a
former US GI; days later the dead man's friend (Eddie Spanier) turns up
in Tokyo and, finding his friend dead and no hope of work turns to the
protection racket, bringing him to the attention of the same gang his
friend was in a gang run by former US soldier Sandy Dawson. Eddie
gets into the gang thanks to his criminal record a record falsified
by the army in order to get him on the inside and take the gang down.
The daytime cable stations are littered with crime b-movies from the 1950's etc and they all pretty much try to stay to the same formula, what made me sit to watch this one though was the presence of Sam Fuller in the director's chair. The plot here is a typical crime thriller regardless of the Oriental setting and we have a man infiltrating a tough gang to bring it down. As a story it kinda goes where you expect it to and has some elements that don't really work but overall it is tough and gritty enough to entertain for the most part. The Oriental setting appears to be only a novelty and it isn't used to any great effect, with only Japanese stereotypes making it onto the screen and no real sense of place this could have been Chicago for all the difference the location makes to the story. The script makes up for this though by throwing in plenty of tough dialogue for the cast to work with and it is impressive in a typical b-movie fashion; meanwhile Fuller does frame a good shot and add a tense edge to the telling, even if he doesn't use his Japanese cast that well.
Stack and Ryan were another big draw to me; maybe not known as the best actors in the world but they can do gritty well enough for this film to work. Stack is good value as he does suggest angry layers to his character even if we are not allowed to see them certainly some sense of "justice" seems to drive him to take such risks for little pay and his demeanour backs this up. Ryan is much more relaxed and he suits the gang leader role, nicely cracking a bit towards the end. Using Yamaguchi seemed a bold move but really she is as American as you could get without using a white actress in gap jeans; her character is a little interesting but is ignored in favour of the tougher male dynamics within the film. The support cast are OK and buoy up the tough aspect of the film but really it is Stack and Ryan who own the film and it is best when they share tough scenes together.
Overall this is a standard b-movie that is worth seeing on that level while also having enough else going for it to make it an enjoyable film. Fuller's direction may not make great use of his exotic location but he still directs well whether it be tough talk on sound stages or the brutal shoot out on the fairground, high above the Tokyo streets. Stack and Ryan play off each other well and the dialogue is tough and crisp, making it an enjoyable piece of b-movie entertainment.
I had fun through most of House of Bamboo, Samuel Fuller's second
widescreen, first filmed out-of-the-US picture, even as I knew at the
end it wasn't too special. It's got some memorable scenes with the two
male leads, the kind of seemingly hard-boiled actors that probably
wouldn't shake much if you hit them with some punches. And the whole
plot line of the American crime ring in Tokyo in 1955 gives enough room
for Fuller to realize some of the acting, camera and editing
possibilities at his big-studio disposal. Robert Stack is in one of his
best early parts as a would-be big crook undercover for the US army who
infiltrates Robert Ryan's 'organization', where its tightly run to the
point where Ryan's ready and willing to kill his own if wounded in the
moment of crime. On top of this, Stack falls for a 'kimono' who was
married to a late-member of the crime team. But will the deceiving
The majority of the film works under the crime parts of the story, where in some scenes (maybe or maybe not in the new cinema-scope style) Fuller just keeps the camera on the scene without cutting. This room and space and time does create the right tension- and occasional humor- in the right spots. And Ryan is also up to task as the cold antagonist. Yet if there are parts of the film that are lesser than the bulk of it I'd say it would be with the 'Kimono' Mauriko, played by Shirley Yamaguchi. Her part in the story is mandatory to be sure, but it is just so-so in the writing and delivery, as far as such a formula would allow. And it is probably more of the writer's fault and even on Yamaguchi's end, arguably, than Fuller's. There are also some typical, dated bits of 'lost in translation' moments that may be part of the deal in making the very first Hollywood movie filmed entirely in Tokyo- they're 50/50 of doing the job for the entertaining parts of the picture.
Nonetheless, House of Bamboo is a more than decent example of what can be done with other material from one setting into another (both from a 40's noir, Street with No Name, and from US to Japan). There is also a sweet, if not greatly paced, climax in a wheel machine on a roof. It's gritty machismo with fun, with enough pure Fuller to suffice the studio standards.
What could be a very average, although well-made and fast paced, gangster story is made memorable by an unsettling oddness, a cockeyed take on the pervasive violence of its setting. Yes, it's highly implausible, but that's appropriate to the slightly surreal overtones.
Here's an oddity for a film noir: color and made in Japan and (at least
with the DVD) stereo sound. The fact that's color would disqualify it
from some purist's list of film noirs, but that's another subject
Without Robert Ryan, this would have been a yawner of film noir, not one of the better ones, especially for director Sam Fuller, who has done a lot better than this film. At least Ryan keeps it from being a complete disaster. He almost always played a villain on film and he's that here, too, but in here he is unusually low key. That's what made him to interesting to me. I don't think he raised his voice, just talked as calmly as can be but inside was a ruthless SOB.
In this story, Ryan was head of a mob operating in Japan about 10 years after the end of World War II. Robert Stack plays a U.S. government agent sent to Japan to infiltrate Ryan's mob and Shirley Yamaguchi is his love interest. Both of them are "fair" in here, nothing memorable, which pretty much describes the movie.
I vacillate on whether the 20th Century Fox studio claim that HOUSE OF
BAMBOO is film noir is really accurate or not. For one thing, it's in
color. For another, it's shot in Cinemascope. Also given it's made in
1955, I have to think of it more like a new gas/electric car: it's a
hybrid. But unlike most compact hybrids out these days, this one's a
There are action sequences that feel more like they belong in Frankenheimer's THE TRAIN or Sturges' THE GREAT ESCAPE than in a so called noir picture, but I'm not knocking them. They're well staged, and like the entire film, terrifically photographed. But then there is the use of silhouette and high contrast more akin to noir, and the story too feels more in that vein, although more on the sparse side; certainly not a Raymond Chandler THE BIG SLEEP kind of story! Honestly, I found it no less thin a story than Fritz Lang's THE BIG HEAT. As critical as the story is, if films were only that, I'd just be reading books. What's done visually plays a pretty big part in this format.
Speaking of the cinematography, some critics have stated the widescreen use is overkill here, but I must beg to differ. With so many modern films shot more and more like television, with only close-ups and two-shots, and barely a moment of establishing frame to see where everything is happening - and with action sequences and dance numbers shooting this way now - it was refreshing for me to see the entire frame used, with characters often at either end, and action allowed to play out wide, without fast moving camera-work to pump it up. Of course the problem is that many will view a DVD of the film now, where wide shots just look far away (unless you've got a large home theater screen). But that's not the fault of the filmmakers - Cinemascope was meant for the big screen.
When the camera does move, it's clever work. The blocking is also terrific and surprisingly fresh (or again perhaps just not used anymore and so fresh all over again to my eyes). Some say it's all too tricky, but it's far less tricky than all of the motion-control work we're used to seeing now, and often (in this film at least) more involving. Director Samuel Fuller is doing the right shots at the right time here, and that takes everything on screen up a notch.
I'm not sure why there's criticism over the location, but I found the setting in post-war Japan to be as crucial to HOUSE OF BAMBOO as post-war Vienna was to THE THIRD MAN, or for that matter Monument Valley to a John Ford western. Sometimes the setting becomes one of the characters, which when done right as it is here, can only be a plus for the picture. Fuller puts it all to good use. Perhaps it's the Hollywood techniques brought into play, but I can't think of another picture, including all of Kurosawa's work, that looks exactly like this. I'm not saying it's better, just a different take on the locations, and so enjoyable as such.
I'll make the argument that Kurosawa, for example, would film a Japan he knew, but overlooked images because he was used to them, just like I wouldn't take a picture of the Golden Gate bridge because I live 45 minutes away from it. But Fuller looks at it more like a tourist if you will, and so commits to film here things that are unique or uniquely shot. You have enough of these memorable images and you start to have a memorable film. If this were another kind of film, I might not think all those fascinating shots were of such importance. But if this is trying to be noir, then it's all about the atmosphere that the landscape and settings convey. Noir or not, it truly got me caught up in the story.
I have to admit being swayed by a great score from Leigh Harline (as conducted by none other than Lionel Newman), but that's what a good score should help to do: make a decent film good and a good film great. But I also must admit that if I just look at the pieces of this film, I would never rate it so highly. It's a case, for me at least, of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, of everything working together just right to make a solid piece of entertainment, noir or otherwise.
House Of Bamboo came out in 1955 three years after the Japanese Peace
Treaty effectively ended the occupation of Japan that began post World
War II. Americans must have been familiar sight on the streets of
Japanese cities still in 1955, we certainly had enough military
personnel there. If you don't recognize that fact than you will be
puzzled as to how a gang of Americans crooks could operate the way they
do in the streets of Tokyo.
For those of you who don't recognize it screenwriter Harry Kleiner took the screenplay he wrote for the Henry Hathaway classic, The Street With No Name and set in down in post occupation Japan. Robert Ryan plays the gang leader part that Richard Widmark had. He's recruited a gang of former military misfits who spent more time in the stockade than in combat and made them into an effective heist gang. Ryan's got other interests, but his main income is from some well planned robberies.
The USA military intelligence gets involved when Ryan hijacks a train with military hardware and kills a soldier. Going undercover is Robert Stack in the Mark Stevens part.
Unlike The Street With No Name, Stack's allowed a little romance here in the person of Japanese actress Shirley Yamaguchi. In The Street With No Name it was Widmark who had the girlfriends and Stevens was strictly business. Sessue Hayakawa is also in the cast as the Japanese police inspector.
There's a gay subtext in the film with the relationship of Ryan with his number two, Cameron Mitchell. When Stack starts to take his place in the gang hierarchy, Mitchell reactions are of pure jealousy. In fact Mitchell's reactions are what sets in motion the climax of the film.
Which you know if you've seen The Street With No Name. House Of Bamboo boasts some mighty nice location shots of postwar Tokyo which looking at it you would hardly believe what a difference a decade might make. The title House Of Bamboo is the place that Ryan lives in and it's a pre-war structure typical of the Tokyo before General Doolittle inaugurated US bombing raids. Those wooden houses went up like tinder boxes. Note the more modern look Tokyo has in 1955.
The color might disqualify House Of Bamboo from the genre, but the film as the look and feel of a good noir film. Which is as good a recommendation as I can give it.
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