Stacked Deck

For hard-boiled journalist turned master filmmaker Sam Fuller, the Chicago Manual of Style has a double meaning.  Sure, that tabloid in-your-gut stiletto-sharp prose hits its mark, but the city’s history of gangland violence plays an equal part in the Fuller cinema legacy.  And Tokyo (with a side excursion to Yokohama), Chicago Style never had a truer meaning than in the director-writer’s magnificent 1955 contradictory (it’s a color-noir) HOUSE OF BAMBOO, now on limited edition from the folks at Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

I’ve always loved this movie, and, like so many of the great ones, it just seems to get better with each viewing.  The story, as written by Harry Kleiner (with iconic Fuller additional dialog: “He sure knew how to die,” “A strait-jacket would fit you just right.”), concerns a band of dishonorably discharged American GIs stationed in Japan who form a criminal cartel that rivals Capone’s Windy City mob.  When their crime wave escalates to knocking over a train carrying U.S. military munitions, the Army joins forces with the Japanese police to stop them.  It’s the how, why, where, what and when – you know, the newspaperman’s mantra guideline – that unravels the twisty narrative’s spidery cobweb of fear and deceit with sledgehammer tabloid fashion as the law enforcement factions plant a mole within the already paranoid gang’s top echelon.

Evil, the movie’s inside out moral tells us, is the root of all money – and, thus, its own undoing.  The gang’s motto is the tried and true “take no prisoners.”  Except they’ve freshened it up a bit; not only do they remove all pursuers, but, should one of their own go down, it’s a bullet in dead-men-tell-no-tales head.  This is a non-negotiable edict issued and enforced by the group’s corporate-minded psychopathic leader, Sandy, aka the wonderful Robert Ryan, one of the most memorable of Fuller’s many favorite-monikered Sandys, (to say nothing of Griffs, and there’s one of those too).

But their latest collateral damage sacrifice is clinging to life and semi-consciously reveals that there’s a secret woman who rocks his world, and that his best friend, Eddie Spanier (now doing time in the States), is due to join him upon his release.  Eddie, a vicious thug, arrives and immediately begins horning in on Sandy’s pachinko protection racket sideline.  Spanier’s raw propensity for blood and greed ingratiates him into Ryan’s favor, who risks offering him a top spot in the mob.  Of course, the real Eddie is under wraps in America; this Eddie is special agent Robert Stack, who infiltrates the malicious band as well as his dead “pal’s” squeeze (actually the gunman’s gorgeous Japanese wife), Mariko.  And that’s merely the beginning to this crazed, nightmarish descent into 1950s noirland.

There’s so much to talk about when seriously discussing the complex HOUSE OF BAMBOO, but I’m savvy enough to realize that time and space is of the essence, so I’ll stick to the basics.  First off, the cast.  Each selected actor and actress is letter perfect, although, ironically, Stack wasn’t the first choice.  Fuller insisted that the entire picture be shot on-location throughout the streets of Japan’s largest cities via hidden cameras.  Since the Fifties began, the indie star profit participation programs (where tax incentives were contingent upon highly-paid talent spending a good deal of the year outside the United States), Fox (and other studios) heavily promoted exotic locales for their A-product.  This was a win/win, as it also provided a scenic backdrop for the new widescreen processes.  CinemaScope was as important a selling point as a Clark Gable or Cary Grant or Susan Hayward.  Unquestionably, HOUSE OF BAMBOO was Fuller’s most extravagant and elaborate project to date, and, originally, it was announced that Gary Cooper (already taking advantage of the expat tax perks, a la Garden of Evil, Blowing Wild, Vera Cruz and Return to Paradise) would be playing Eddie.  Alas, test shots of the tall, gaunt actor strolling through the highways and byways of Tokyo aroused the American-movie-mad Japanese citizenry, who mobbed the star within seconds of the hidden cam’s rolling.  It was decided that Victor Mature would be a suitable replacement, but, he similarly, was too recognizable (Samson and Delilah and The Robe had been massive hits in Japan).  Next up was Stack, who fit the bill handily (his international fame in The Untouchables being four years away, and The High and the Mighty had yet to be released in the Far East territories).  This boosted second lead Robert Ryan up to star billing.  Ryan, of course, is terrific as usual – becoming a victim of his own mania.  As Sandy, he disregards his own rules by rescuing a wounded Eddie.  This doubly serves to explain his rabid treatment of Mariko, who has entered Stack’s life; Sandy’s misogyny and unusual compadre compassion is nothing less than his falling in love with Stack’s character, similar to Richard Boone’s attraction to Randolph Scott in Boetticher’s The Tall T.  Transcending the interracial romance, it daringly becomes BAMBOO‘s cloaked taboo.

Then there’s the beguiling casting of the sensuously beautiful Shirley Yamaguchi, whose bio is far more fascinating than any character she ever played:  WWII Rising Sun propaganda cinema queen, accused Chinese double-agent traitor, celebrated singer (heralded as the Judy Garland of Japan), one-time wife of famed artist Isamu Noguchi, American movie star and, last (but definitely not least), Japanese right-wing pundit and politician. Kuso haii, Shirl!  For the actress’s scores of admirers, Yamaguchi’s come-hither wet look, as she alights from a communal bath wrapped only in a towel, remains a key poster graphic, indeed one of the most overtly sexual American movie promotional images of the 1950s.  Eat your heart out, Ann Coulter (on the dubious premise that you have one).

The rest of Ryan’s gang is certainly worth mentioning (Biff Elliott and Robert Quarry), but particularly DeForrest Kelley (slimily Iago-esque) and, in his Fox contract specialty of Hot Head Third Male Lead Who Always Gets Killed (Pony Solider, Garden of Evil, The Tall Men, No Down Payment), Cameron Mitchell.  My fave person of interest in this rogue’s gallery is the brief, yet potent appearance by Harry Carey, Jr., as Ryan’s traveling weapons supplier, essentially a precursor to Steven Prince’s role in Taxi Driver.  Aside from fire power, he also delivers my favorite line in the picture.  Proudly exhibiting his formidable stolen Army wares from a bulging satchel, a cynical Stack sneers, “You must know the ordinance sergeant.”  To which Dobe snarls back, “I AM the ordinance sergeant.”  Yes!

The “good guy” side ain’t chopped liver either.  In a rare positive role, Brad Dexter nails the honest (but kinda thick) military official, while Sessue Hayakawa (dubbed by actor Richard Loo), two years from making an American comeback (in Bridge on the River Kwai) from his silent screen leading man days, is believably calculating as the police Inspector Kito.  And Fuller himself appears as a Japanese policeman!

As indicated earlier, the locations in CinemaScope comprised a major attraction of big-budgeted movies of the era, and HOUSE OF BAMBOO is no exception.  In Fuller’s gifted hands, the spectacular compositions are not merely FitzPatrick Travel Talk rectangular-framed background wallpaper, but play an integral part of the scenario.  Tokyo’s teeming asphalt passages during a planned robbery’s execution are breathtaking, but not as much as perhaps the most amazing, jaw-dropping location in any movie (certainly a noir) – a tense, suspenseful chase and shootout in a sprawling amusement park, built entirely atop the city’s Matsuma department-store skyscraper.  Of course the photography must be mentioned and the various set pieces are superbly staged by Fuller and the great d.p. Joe MacDonald.  The soundtrack, likewise, must be praised; I greatly admire the score by Leigh Harline, specifically the incredibly beauteous intimate theme that audibly captures the growing relationship between Stack and Yamaguchi.

I asked Sam’s widow, actress/producer/writer Christa (Lang) Fuller, if she had any interesting background info on this movie, and, through an email, provided a couple of nuggets that I felt worthy of mentioning.  Not surprisingly (as they were both adhered to the same political ideology), Fuller and Ryan bonded during the filming of BAMBOO.  For years, they seriously discussed forming a production company, a dream that sadly ended when Ryan was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  In a more humorous vein, Christa revealed an incident involving Stack.  “Robert Stack almost got killed by [a] mob during the shooting, because Sam did not tell him that the crowd was not informed about a film being shot and [they] threw themselves on him when [paid extras began to shout] ‘THIEF.’  Stack forgave Sam though because he met his lovely wife Rosemary through him…”

Christa also suggested that interested Fuller fans check out A Fuller Life, a marvelous personal yet comprehensive chronicle of the artist’s career and achievements by their daughter Samantha (http://chrisamfilms.com).  To say that I strongly second that suggestion is an understatement.  The documentary is a quintessential companion piece to the director’s fantastic autobiography A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking (a volume recommended without reservation, and one that contains an entire chapter on HOUSE OF BAMBOO).

The Twilight Time Blu-ray of HOUSE OF BAMBOO is a stunner.  If one had previously purchased the 2005 Fox DVD, they are probably saying, “Hey, this looked pretty good.  Why switch?”  True enough, but, like all excellent Blu-Rays, this master goes one better, more bang for your buck (and there are lots of bangs).  The colors pop just a little bit more to make a difference, and are accentuated by the vastly clearer imagery (in 2.55:1, as opposed to the usual CinemaScope 2.35, narrower to account for the original release’s stereophonic mag track).  The sound, re-mixed from the 1955 stereo elements, in 5.1 DTS-HD, is movie-theater dynamic (with Harline’s aforementioned score available as an IST).  To sweeten the pot, Twilight Time has not only included the DVD optional commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini, but has added a new alternative audio supplement featuring Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman.  There’s also related Fox Movietone newsreels and the theatrical trailer.  Remember, this is a limited edition, so, noiristas, when this is gone – it’s sayonara.  Go Sandy, my fellow movie addicts, and take no prisoners!

HOUSE OF BAMBOO.  Color.  Widescreen [2.55:1; 1080p High Definition] 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  CAT # TWILIGHT165-BR.  SRP: $29.95.

Limited Edition of 3000, available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment (www.screenarchives.com) and www.twilighttimemovies.com

HOUSEBAMBOO_COVER

 

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