Judge Paul Corupe likes his mobsters like he likes his sushi—dead.
Mobsters turning Japanese? I really think so.
With Warner Brothers and Universal liberating a goldmine of film noir classics from their shadowy vaults, it was only a matter of time until the other studios followed their lead. A little late to dinner but still welcome at the table, Fox has finally debuted their first DVD collection of gritty noirs built around their crown jewel, Laura. Of all the titles released in this batch, however, none is more surprising than the debut of Fox's eleventh-hour noir, House of Bamboo. Director Samuel Fuller's flawed, if interesting, 1955 reworking of The Street with No Name (also available this round from Fox) supplants grimy back alleys with the crowded streets of post-World War II Tokyo.
Facts of the Case
With a gang made up ex-G.I.s, neurotic but ruthless mobster Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan, Crossfire) uses military tactics to carry out daring heists on military supply trains in U.S.-occupied Tokyo. When one of Dawson's men is shot and killed, the American military police send undercover agent Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack, 1941) in to infiltrate the organization by contacting the dead man's widow, Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi, Navy Wife). After checking out his army-doctored criminal record, Dawson recruits Spanier, who quickly becomes his favored goon, much to the irritation of previous right-hand-man Griff (Cameron Mitchell, Carousel). As the gang plans to knock over an armored bank vehicle, Spanier reveals his true identity to the now-swooning Mariko, and asks her to deliver the robbery plans information to his superior officer (Brad Dexter, The Asphalt Jungle). But before the cops can bust the hoods, Dawson realizes the betrayal and calls off the operation to draw out the snitch.
By 1955, film noir had pretty much run its course, with only a few bona fide classics—Kiss Me Deadly, The Killing and Touch of Evil—left at the bottom of the genre's existential bag of tricks. When Samuel Fuller, who had cut his teeth as a noir screenwriter in the 1930s and 40s for films like Gangs of the Waterfront and Shockproof, had the unique opportunity to shoot the first Hollywood film in the recently accessible Japan, he took the easy route out, and simply imported a tried and true noir plotline into this new, exotic locale.
Now, House of Bamboo isn't a terrible film by any stretch of the imagination—it's a well-shot, relatively absorbing exercise in crime cinema, but for a director who had just impressed audiences a few years back with his quintessential thriller Pickup on South Street, this film has to come as a disappointment. Fuller was obviously intrigued with The Street with No Name's concept of criminals abusing the combat skills that they had learned from their own country, but by simply recycling a decade-old plot without adding that extra punch that might set it apart from its peers, House of Bamboo is painfully average. Worse yet, the idea that a small handful of men could take over the Japanese underground is hardly believable in this transplanted setting, and the Tokyo background becomes little more than a cheap gimmick, an exploitable twist that a talented director like Fuller never really needed in the first place.
House of Bamboo's real value should come as a peek inside post-war Japan, but for the most part, Fuller sticks to shameless location work and travelogue-styled sequences, using his full CinemaScope canvas to present audiences with a panorama of Asian splendor. Although the highly theatrical bamboo-and-paper interior sets were no doubt shot back on Hollywood soil, Fuller loads up on local color, including a randomly appearing kabuki theater troupe, towering pagodas, low-rent pachinko parlors, a Shinto shrine and even a Japanese children's amusement park.
On the plus side, Fuller does manage to squeeze some solid performance out of his actors, including a neat twist in the introduction of Robert Stack's undercover officer Eddie Spanier. At first, Spanier appears to the audience as another imported American thug, pinballing through the streets in a battered trench coat, roughing up locals for protection dough. In these early scenes, Spanier is the hardboiled highlight of the film, a self-destructive brute who has seemingly stepped right out of the black and white noir thrillers of early 1940s. Confronted by the gang, he even engages in some classic tough guy dialogue as Dawson interrogates him about his still unclear motives:
"Who are you working for?"
Once Stack's true identity is revealed and he is forced to accept the weight of by-the-numbers heroism, the movie falls into the lap of noir veteran Robert Ryan, who offers an intriguing characterization of Dawson, emphasizing the script's homoerotic insinuations between the crime kingpin and his "boys." By the time that Dawson blows away a suspected squealer in the bathtub in one of the film's most dynamic scenes, it's clear that Dawson's pistol-blazing White Heat-influenced last stand will be a memorable one.
Visually, House of Bamboo looks incredible here in an extra-wide 2.55:1 transfer, which does wonderful justice to cinematographer Joe MacDonald's eye-catching portrayal of the Japanese landscape. Detail is just excellent and colors are extremely bold, with not a speck of dust or debris to be seen. This disc boasts an absolute first-rate restoration job by Fox, who seem to be paying attention to Warner Brother's respectful treatment of past classics on DVD. Sound doesn't fare quite as well, but it seems like it might be a problem with the source material. The film's original four-channel stereo track is obviously and badly dubbed, giving the film a slightly surreal edge at times, a feeling that is only furthered by exaggerated and inaccurate panning effects. Dialogue is mostly clear, however, and the score is big and booming. We even get a few extras on this disc, starting with Alain Silver and James Ursini's informative commentary track, which delves deeply into both the film and the director, making this an essential listen for Fuller fanatics. Two Fox Movietone News clips of the cast and crew arriving and working in Japan and trailers for House of Bamboo and the rest of the recent spate of Fox film noir titles fill out this DVD.
House of Bamboo is a visually engaging but otherwise unremarkable noir that lets its setting dominate the insubstantial story, rather than using it to drive the action. Fox has outfitted the film with as sparkling transfer and a smattering of nice extras, but this will probably only appeal to Fuller buffs and film noir collectors.
House of Bamboo is placed under house arrest.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by James Ursini and Alain Silver
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