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House of Bamboo
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by Jay Seaver

"Not the most complicated of films noir, but among the best-looking."
4 stars

There's a new 35mm print of Samuel Fuller's "House of Bamboo" making the rounds, and while it probably won't be as widely booked as other restorations, it hopefully means that Fox has plans for a new DVD and Blu-ray release. This movie may not pop up in many lists of "essential" films, but an American crime film in post-war Japan is certainly novel enough to be worth a look.

In the mid-1950s, Japan was still struggling to get back on its feet after the war, and the U.S. Army still had a strong presence. As the movie opens, a weapons shipment is robbed, the work of a gang of former GIs led by Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan). Part of the reason they've never been brought to justice is that they kill their own wounded men. This time, one survives, though only for long enough to point the investigators - Army Captain Hanson (Brad Dexter) and Tokyo Police Inspector Kito (Sessue Hayakawa) - in the right direction. So when one Eddie Kenner (Robert Stack) gets off the boat and makes contact with the gang and Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi), the dead man's girl, they've got no reason to doubt his bona fides.

If you were to line crime movies up and rank them by their moral ambiguity, House of Bamboo would probably be considered one of the simpler ones. Dawson and his gang are ruthless and opportunistic, while there's never much doubt about what "Spanier" will do when the chips are down, even before he and Mariko find themselves growing closer. Indeed, when the time comes that Eddie must do something a bit ruthless himself to maintain his cover, there's an especially loathsome guy there to take the fall. It's still film noir; just maybe not the most challenging form.

Of course, it doesn't necessarily look like film noir - rather than shadowy black and white, the filmmakers go for lush Technicolor in CinemaScope, shot on location in the land of the rising sun (one of the first American movies to do so after the war). It's a gorgeous film to look at and fascinating to examine, capturing the country still reeling from the war but rebuilding and modernizing quickly as amusement parks spring up alongside slums. The amusement park is the setting for the film's finale, one of very well-staged action scenes that Fuller gives us. The action, in fact, still holds up nicely today, with Fuller giving the audience the lay of the land before launching into a chase and not sacrificing a nice-looking picture to create a frantic atmosphere.

(I do kind of pity the people who first encounter this on even a good-sized television, though. Fuller and cinematographer Joe MacDonald are shooting with wide, movie-palace-sized screens in mind, where you can see the expressions on characters' faces even though the camera is pulled back far enough to show most of a convoy. Most modern screens just can't do that justice.)

The cast is pretty good, too. Robert Stack is a few years from becoming known as Eliot Ness on The Untouchables, but he's already got the gruff, no-nonsense demeanor down; he knows what notes to hit to play a good man credibly impersonating a thug. Robert Ryan does fine as his opposite number, making Dawson more amoral than anything else, but also projecting the intelligence and magnetism needed to hold the gang together even though every member knows just how expendable they are considered. Shirley Yamaguchi gives Mariko a little more steel in her backbone than was maybe present in the original script - the character could come across as the weak native girl who needs the brave white man's protection, but Yamaguchi makes her into something at least resembling a partner.

If nothing else, "House of Bamboo" can certainly be said to take film noir to a different place, both geographically and stylistically. That's at least something that allows it to stand out from its peers, and unlike many other films of the genre, it really shines on the big screen.

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originally posted: 12/15/11 12:20:53
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User Comments

2/19/18 Anne Selby geographical scenes striking plus good wins over evil 4 stars
4/03/11 brian Far from Fuller's best. Looks great, less filling. 3 stars
1/04/10 Josie Cotton is a goddess Doesn't always make sense (white yakuza?), but it's still great pulp entertainment 4 stars
7/04/05 jackal slow in parts but still worth a look 3 stars
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  DVD: 07-Jun-2005



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