House of Bamboo (Blu-ray Review)7 Sep, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Robert Stack, Robert Ryan, Shirley Yamaguchi.
According to the AFI Catalog for the 1950s, House of Bamboo’s working title was The Tokyo Story, even though Samuel Fuller reportedly studied up on his Japanese cinema before tackling this completely refurbished remake of 1948’s The Street With No Name.
Well, good luck on that one in terms of Ozu fans, but under any name, the result is still one of Fuller’s best efforts and proof of what he could do when he finally got a budget (though he had just directed what I believe was just the fourth CinemaScope/color movie: Hell and High Water (or “Bella Darvi in a submarine”). In any event, Bamboo is the handsomest treat of Fuller’s entire career, an assertion this smashing new 4K transfer makes fairly indisputable in terms of vivified color schemes. Of course, Fuller’s mastery of early 2.55:1 would still hit you in the face even were the print faded, which was the ultimate normal state of Fox DeLuxe Color — much to the chagrin of a later generation’s repertory theater programmers (take it from me).
Filmed on location courtesy of Darryl Zanuck’s deep pockets in Tokyo, Yokohama and a very snowy countryside (at the beginning), Bamboo was the first major Hollywood film shot on location in Japan, including a Tokyo that looks nothing what we saw in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation nearly half-a-century later (which, of course, makes sense). And as long as we’re talking about firsts, you can probably go to the bank when claiming that is the only movie you’re ever going to see in which Robert Ryan has a sexually repressed attraction to Robert Stack (according to Fuller, Ryan was in on this plot enhancer, though Stack was not).
The director also neglected to tell Stack that the real-life extras he’d hired to rough up the actor during some urban location shooting weren’t informed that this was “just pretend” — which explains the shaken-up look on Stack’s face after surviving some shoving by folks who’d been told he was a real street thief. Stack certainly looks like a punk decked out in a sartorially wanting coat that even Goodwill would probably reject — all part of his character’s image to help him infiltrate a Ryan-run gang of thieves and shakedown artists made up of World War II vets with service records that aren’t that far removed from Dirty Dozen territory.
This band apparently flourishes without any gripes from the local yakuza over territorial infringement — a credibility stretch that an amused Nick Redman alludes to in a spirited Blu-ray commentary with Twilight Time colleague Julie Kirgo. But these same hoods have recently killed an American sergeant during a military train heist of guns and ammo, which means that MPs (in addition to local police) may soon be getting on their on their tails. Playing one of the local cops, by the way, is an underutilized Sessue Hawakawa — soon to get a supporting Oscar nomination for, and to be all-out immortalized by, The Bridge on the River Kwai (for which he should have taken the statue). This is, in fact, a notable movie for casting familiar actors who don’t get to do much here. DeForest Kelley, not yet a household outer space dweller, is one of the hoods — and, as a munitions peddler who barely shows up in a couple scenes, Harry Carey Jr. is such a fleeting presence that I talked myself out of thinking the actor was Carey until I listened to the commentaries. (His boomer-remembered role in Disney’s "Spin & Marty" was only about three months away.)
There’s also a half-hearted Stack relationship with a gang member widow (the recently deceased Shirley Yamaguchi), but no one — Stack the actor, Stack the character, Fuller — seems all that interested in it. Much more compelling is the manner in which guileless Stack is photographed in languishing ways to capture the fancy of Ryan’s top dog, who’s almost always decked out in a suit-tie and otherwise as tightly wired as Richard Nixon (as in that famous photo where he wore dress shoes to the beach). It’s a gang rule that anyone shot in a robbery will be finished off on the spot, but Ryan allows wounded Stack to live — his downfall. Ryan, as ever, is great here in his first color noir (unless you consider Inferno as a noir qualifier). Bamboo is oft-listed as noir, though most of its exteriors are in daylight (and bright daylight at that). But as the Redman-Kirgo commentary notes, the film has the attitude of noir, even before its fourth-billed actor’s unforgettable dispatching.
As usual, Fuller scuttles subtlety and logic for pure effect, and he has a lot of local color, framed group shots and outdoor violence with which to work. And so does the still underrated Joe MacDonald — one of my favorite cinematographers ever for My Darling Clementine, Viva Zapata!, Niagara, Bigger Than Life, The Sand Pebbles and even The Carpetbaggers, which looks exactly the way a movie of The Carpetbaggers ought to look.
If you like Fuller, this is a gotta-have release pictorially, and there are more extras than usual (in addition to the Redman-Kirgo jewel, there’s another good voiceover by Alain Silver and James Ursini carried over from Fox Entertainment’s visually inferior standard definition release from many years ago). One potential extra you won’t (nor should expect) to find here is Andy Williams’ iTunes-available “House of Bamboo” recording, which Cadence Records released on a something-for-everyone single with The Village of St. Bernadette at the very end of 1959 — pretty well limiting any promotional tie-in value, wouldn’t you say? Oddly, Suddenly, Last Summer opened in theaters the same month — by which time, Ryan’s character (who, in the movie, has the sexually ambiguous name of Sandy) probably could have been at least a little less repressed on screen about which way he wanted to go.