Samuel Fuller was never a director who was comfortable with domesticity. Perhaps for this reason he tended to avoid romantic relationships in his films, instead focusing on outsiders, soldiers, and people drawn to close confederations of friends and “colleagues.” His most compelling romances focused on characters of equally independent ferocity: the pickpocket and prostitute from Pickup on South Street (1953) and the gunslinger and land-owner from Forty Guns (1957).
His 1955 CinemaScope noir House of Bamboo features two romantic relationships, the first between two hardened criminals, the second between a “geisha-girl” and an undercover military police-officer. Set in post WWII Tokyo, MP Eddie Kenner is on special assignment to investigate a murderous gang led by ex-soldier Sandy Dawson. In working to insinuate himself into Dawson’s group, Kenner falls for Mariko, a murdered gang member’s widow.
By far the more compelling of the two relationships is between hardened criminals Dawson (Robert Ryan) and his ichiban (“number one”) Griff (Cameron Mitchell), while the second between Eddie Kenner (Robert Stack) and Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi) represents the low-point of the film. The moment (Spoiler Alert) where Sandy murders Griff in a bathtub and cradles his head after mistaking him for the rat in his outfit radiates with more passion and chemistry than all of Eddie and Mariko’s scenes combined.
If this had been the point then House of Bamboo could be described as one of the most subversive films of the 1950s. But the sad truth remains that the film emphatically insists on the centrality and importance of Eddie and Mariko’s romance. There are too many clumsy scenes of Eddie and Mariko furtively giggling with each other over cultural shock—you can practically hear the crickets chirping during one sequence where Mariko cooks Eddie eggs “shingle-style” while he takes a bath—too many swooning love themes, too much miscalculated earnestness for their courtship to feel like an ironic counterpart and/or commentary on Sandy and Griff. House of Bamboo takes Eddie and Mariko seriously. And unfortunately their relationship’s execution keeps the film from reaching the true heights of greatness.
All of this isn’t to say that House of Bamboo fails. In fact, despite the romantic hiccups the film largely succeeds as a taut, gripping crime thriller due in large part to Joseph MacDonald’s widescreen cinematography. Fuller’s films rarely felt quite so simultaneously nuanced and bombastic. Multiple re-watches reveal subtle details in Fuller’s compositions: Mount Fuji repeatedly poking through the scenery, a policeman blocked in the background of an early sequence at a crime scene so that he physically separates the American investigator from his Japanese co-worker, the expressionistic placement of the bullet holes in the aforementioned bathtub assassination (some of the bullets apparently turned at 90-degree angles after being fired).
But the deficit of narrative and tonal cohesion prevents House of Bamboo from matching or exceeding the quality of the film it was loosely remade from: William Keighley’s The Street With No Name (1948)—an admittedly greater film by an admittedly lesser director. House of Bamboo will always be remembered more fondly by critics and historians because of a) its significance as a film by one of American cinema’s great auteurs, and b) its unprecedented access to post-war Tokyo for on-location shooting. But if I may be so bold: if one looks beyond House of Bamboo’s reputation as an “important” film, it reveals itself as readily inferior to The Street With No Name. Shot by the same cinematographer and written by the same screenwriter (Harry Kleiner) as House of Bamboo, Keighley’s film represents a fascinating transition between the highly stylized studio noir of the 40s and the more documentary-style noir of the 50s. Instead of haphazardly juggling the two traditions it seamlessly balances a documentary-style first half and an expressionist second. What’s more, Richard Widmark turns in one of his best performances as the film’s sadistic, paranoiac gang leader.
Twilight Time’s recent Blu-ray edition of House of Bamboo boasts an impressive transfer but meager extras. The audio commentary tracks courtesy of film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini are most welcome, but the additional behind-the-scenes newsreel footage is both laughably over-exposed and utterly insignificant. Still, short of seeing it on the big screen, there isn’t a better way to witness House of Bamboo’s majestic beauty than with this Blu-ray.