Directed by Samuel Fuller
Expectations: High. Sam Fuller.
If Hell and High Water was Fuller’s ability to shoot CinemaScope within confined spaces, then House of Bamboo is Fuller proving that he can apply the techniques to shooting wide-open vistas and dense cityscapes. House of Bamboo, while definitely being a minor Fuller film, is one of the best shot CinemaScope films I’ve ever seen. Literally every shot is gorgeously composed and full of vibrant life. Modern filmmakers using the widescreen ratio definitely need to sit down with this one, as they could stand to learn a lot from it and Fuller in general.
House of Bamboo is a tale of Westerners in Japan, but not like you’d expect; it’s a heist noir with heavy overtones of melodramatic interracial romance and homoeroticism. I’ll admit that I didn’t see much in the way of homoeroticism while watching House of Bamboo, but after reading a couple of essays on it (and Fuller’s own words), it is clearly his intention. I guess I have a tendency to take everything too literally.
What really bogs down House of Bamboo is the middle section where Robert Stack and Susan Yamaguchi have a blossoming romance. It not only derails the awesome heist storyline, it is completely unbelievable. Yamaguchi’s character is so weak and desperate that she literally goes from being slapped in the face by Robert Stack in one scene, to staying the night with him, getting up at the crack of dawn to get made up for him and draw his bath, and then prepare his breakfast just how he likes it. All of this is accompanied by that syrupy-sweet 50s scoring that almost always gets on my nerves. I’ll give Fuller credit for having an interracial romance on-screen long before it was politically correct to do so, but I can’t call it a successful one. This is personally disappointing to me because I thought he handled the subject well in The Crimson Kimino (a later Fuller film). Perhaps he learned from his missteps here and rectified them in that film.
House of Bamboo wasn’t a Fuller-generated project, and perhaps that explains why it doesn’t feel as hard-hitting and primal as his other work. Initially Fuller wanted to make a film about ex-GIs pulling bank heists like military operations, but Daryl Zanuck was more keen on making a couple of other films adapted from novels (which were both later made by other directors). Eventually Zanuck convinced Fuller with the promise of shooting in Japan, and gave him the screenplay for the 1948 film The Street With No Name to craft his film on. Fuller adapted the script into one of his own (even though the on-screen credit indicates otherwise), inserting elements of his ex-GI heist film. This results in a film that feels somewhat watered down compared to Fuller’s best films.
House of Bamboo is also laced with tension resulting from the then-current Westernization of Japan, and the ever-present abrasive American spirit. Maybe it’s just the film noir feel to the dialogue, and the introductory scenes of Robert Stack’s character going around and attempting to rough up Pachinko parlor bosses for protection money, but the Americans are definitely the assholes here. As Fuller is generally concerned with presenting a heightened, melodramatic version of reality in his films, the holier-than-thou asshole Americans rings true. The Tokyo locales and the cultural aspects that Fuller ropes in also add an undeniably interesting layer to the film, and one that, coupled with the beautiful photography, is really the shining achievement of the film. I couldn’t have asked for a better man to capture post-war Japan in the 1950s than Samuel Fuller.
Despite loving aspects of House of Bamboo, the film is something of a disappointment to me. Through its first two-thirds it tries hard to be a romance/crime/noir film, but for me it never quite comes together until the third act when the romance and the noir are ditched for pure crime action. The film is also Fuller’s most studio-like film yet, and as someone who adores his reckless, independent spirit in films like The Steel Helmet and Park Row, this sort of rubs me the wrong way. That’s personal preference and unrelated to the actual quality of the film though, which for all its missed opportunities is still pretty good. I just wish that middle, romance-heavy section was shorter. Star Trek fans will enjoy seeing DeForest Kelley as one of Ryan’s gangsters in a fairly prominent role with a couple of good lines. And this is stupid of me, but with Robert Stack in the lead, every time he spoke I kept thinking of Unsolved Mysteries. That voice used to haunt me whenever my parents would watch that wonderful, creepy show.