Former crime reporter and much decorated war hero Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo shows up the director-screenwriter’s usual fascination with dual identities and loyalties and racial or ethnic prejudice. Considered the longtime resident of France’s most accomplished film by none other than Godard, the hundred-two minutes is in fact a relocated reworking of 1946 The Street with No Name, which J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI approved, facilitated and promoted.
The newly struck 35mm print is the final of nine offerings in the Japan Society-Globus Film Series “The Most Beautiful: The War Films of Shirley Yamaguchi & Setsuko Hara.” From Imperial national policy propaganda movies to international rôles to anti-imperialist politician and advocate for Palestinian refugees and former coerced Korean comfort women, the actress’ long career is more fascinating than her acting or her looks. To be fair, she is dealt an impossible hand as Mariko, tough-guy disparaged as the widowed “kimono” of one ex-GI and then the true love of Robert Stack’s Eddie Kenner aka Spannier. American military racism was to be confronted much more squarely in Sayonara two years later.
Her simpering obedient stereotype is no worse off then the rest of the figures. Admittedly, Spannier plays a dual part, arguably necessitating his stiff howlers to impress the real baddies, but contemporaneous similar portrayals by Mark Stevens and Edmond O’Brien and contemporaneous descendent ones by Johnny Depp and Sean Penn and others are much better.
Location-shot without permission in Tokyo-Yokohama, the CinemaScope noir zooms in on touristy sights without capturing the nation’s postwar trauma about to move into transformation. The “authentic American primitive” director evinces no feel for nuance here, neither of character nor culture, and his touted naked violence is a pale patch on the superior crime films it would ape, as for instance its finale which foolishly begs for comparison with Cagney-Cody’s incomparable “Top of the World! Ma!”
These are simple-minded thugs in expensive digs and expensive suits, bumblers said to be ruthless crooks, ex-cons and dishonorably discharged soldiers merely geographically removed from L.A. or N.Y. Even the almost always reliable nasty screen psychopath Robert Ryan is sleepwalking cardboard. His criminal mastermind Sandy Dawson is mistaken in his every decision, plan and assessment. Worse, he is laughably so.
For public consumption, his gang runs a bunch of pachinko slots, the vertical pinball parlors that have since grown into a thunderously noisy national obsession and here serve as a front and money laundering device for robberies that result in the opening murders during a theft of U.S. Army ordnance from a train. Puzzling included smoke pots are later extemporized into yet another lame crime caper that resembles kids playing at cops and robbers. The dead include a military guard and thus bring in sharp American investigators as well as Inspector Kito’s (Sessue Hayakawa) clueless spy-ridden Japanese police.
Sandy’s orders stipulate that wounded gang members to be killed, too, rather than left to be captured and interrogated. Through informers and contacts he learns of the arrival of Spannier, a desirable recruit, and sets out to incorporate him. The newcomer has come to see an Army buddy, a gang member fatally shot during the train holdup, and becomes involved with that dead man’s kimono secret widow, Mariko. The Boss grooms Eddie and makes a number of exceptions in his favor, arousing resentment among other “irresponsible” wild bunch underlings.
Only three years after the end of MacArthur-headed Occupation and still early in the astounding recovery and boom hastened by use as a base for the war in Korea and then by the Tokyo Olympics, Japan was an adventure for actors and crew. Nonetheless, the experience resulted in insipid trite filmmaking.
(Released by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; not rated by MPAA.)