HOUSE OF BAMBOO
Director: Samuel Fuller
Cast: Robert Ryan, Robert Stack, Sessue Hayakawa, Cameron Mitchell
(Fox, 1955) Rated: Not rated
DVD release date: 7 June 2005
by Cynthia Fuchs
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
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Keep that head of yours where it belongs, or some cop’ll blow it off, pretty boy.
— Stiles (Richard Widmark), The Street With No Name
I’ll say one thing. He sure knew how to die.
— Sandy (Robert Ryan), House of Bamboo
This is the whole thing with Fuller, he has no shame.
— James Ursini, commentary, House of Bamboo
“Victim: Helen Jannings. Occupation: housewife.” So begins and ends the narration concerning blond, briefly panicking Helen, who happens to be in a nightclub on the evening it’s robbed — spectacularly — by a gun-toting thug. The shot dissolves from her body, black gown tossed every which way, to an iris shot, pretending to be the view from a microscope, as the bullet that killed easily forgotten Helen has been shipped to “the FBI headquarters in Washington.”
“It was almost schizophrenic,” notes historian James Ursini on the DVD commentary track for The Street With No Name. “The very noir opening at the club, it’s night in the city, and the guy comes in and he’s got a kind of gangster-noir attitude, and he kills the woman. Then you go back to this stuff, which is all high key, the examination of the bullet, the voice-of-god narrator… the whole film sort of alternates between noir and documentary, which is very common for docu-noirs, anyway.” Hence, you know, the name.
Ursini and his commentating partner, Alain Silver, provide plenty of context for the film’s conventions, drawing from a range of genres (’30s gangster films, police procedurals, documentaries, G and T men sagas), industry background (this film is an “informal sequel” to 1945’s The House on 92nd Street), and stories about cast member careers (“For a lot of actors, noir was an image change because they weren’t getting A-budget parts anymore”). As well, they set up for a second DVD commentary, for House of Bamboo, Sam Fuller’s 1955 remake of Street With No Name. In both cases, Ursini and Silver’s conversations are smart, appreciative, and sometimes repetitive.
The comparisons they make between the films are entertainingly sharp, as they’re plainly enchanted by their subjects, from the great Richard Widmark, who plays gang boss Alec Stiles in Street (“This is a nice piece of business, the inhaler that Widmark uses,” notes Ursini, “to establish the neurosis he has about germs and control, and there’s a sort of obsessive quality to him”), to the vividly idiosyncratic Fuller (“He was always wanting to bring everything to the surface,” including the homosexual subtext in Street).
“Adapted from the files” of a real FBI case, Street is set in “Central City, where the underworld is populated by fast-talking men in natty suits, skulking in dark corners, carrying lugers, and calling each other Whitey, Shivvy, and Mutt. While the feds are on the case, as Ursini puts it, the docu-noirs are unlike classic noir, where “You’re asked to identify more closely with the main characters… Here, you know more than characters.” As you don’t tend to identify with characters in these movies, instead, the interest is in the investigation.” While Agent Briggs (Lloyd Nolan) is the ostensible hero, the closets thing the film offers in the charismatic vein is an undercover cop who goes by the perversely (or is it hilariously?) apt name of “Manly” (Mark Stevens). As Silver outs it, “Here you’re so deeply into the ironic mode, that just about every person other than the Manly character has some perspective that he doesn’t share.”
Among these is the supremely strange and so, completely intriguing, Stiles. As slyly unruly as any of Widmark’s characters (Silver describes the actor as “sort of an all-purpose, paranoid control freak”), Stiles is written to work the popularity of his psycho Tommy Udo in 1947’s Kiss of Death. He likes to watch his opponents and his fellows twitch, and he has a game plan, even if it’s not clear to the rest of us. “What’s the use of having a war,” he asks one associate, “if you don’t learn from it?”
Stiles is also brutally distrustful of his tough-talking girl (Barbara Lawrence), who slaps him back when he comes at her in a rage, challenging him, “Who do you think you’re shoving around? One of your dumb lugs?” He’s slightly smoother with those dumb lugs, and especially taken with his leather-jacketed new gang recruit, Manly. One scene between the men is as close to a seduction as you’ll see in such a procedural, as they lie on twin beds and “chat” about their upcoming job. “I’m building an organization along scientific lines. I need men who know their way around,” Stiles purrs, “That’s why I screened you.” Manly agrees to terms, and Stiles continues: “Buy yourself a closet full of clothes. I like my boys to look sharp.” (And yet, as Ursini notes, so astutely, “Manly never does get rid of his leather jacket.”)
In House of Bamboo, this not-quite-coy flirtation is made more overt. Robert Ryan plays the Widmark character, renamed Sandy, with full-blown neuroses and very visible excessive desires. This time his gang is holding up U.S. ammunition trains Fuller (whom the commentators note takes a “tabloid journalist approach to cinema”) moves the action to Tokyo, 1954, where the stoic undercover man is now Eddie (Robert Stack, deemed by the commentators, “anachronistic, a gangster out of place and time,” and frankly, an awkward actor here). The setting is established in traveloguey long shots, showing off the Tokyo locations and local color (including Pachinko parlors and a kabuki theater troupe). Eddie appears rumpled and gnarly, a function of Fuller’s effort to make him “not the hero of this piece, but to make him, in a way, the villain, the ugly American,” working with the astute Inspector Kito (the great Sessue Hayakawa), but also inclined to gangsterish swaggering and violence.
Here again, a woman is an object of desire and violence. This time, though, she’s Japanese, and the widow of a gang member Sandy had killed. At once drawn to Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi) and determined to keep focused on his job, Eddie abuses Mariko in front of Sandy, to perform his meanness and earn the boss’ trust. The mutual attraction between Sandy and Eddie (homoerotic, thrilling, spastic, undeniable, forbidden and unspoken) occasionally gets in the way of Eddie’s potential interracial relationship, and tends to be marked by Eddie’s objectification and Sandy’s looming in the frame as he works his own sort of magic on Eddie, and Eddie’s own version of cat-and-mousing. “I had to get you pinched so I could screen you,” Sandy tells Eddie as they lounge in a garden setting. “Here,” he says, handing Eddie a wad of test-passing cash, “Get yourself a suit with style. Make yourself presentable. And report back to me after you do.” Ah, points out Ursini, “His great failing is he falls for this guy. If he fell for a woman, she would be a femme fatale.” But here, the risk of the attraction can’t even be acknowledged.
And so their relationship is rerouted through any number of bizarre set pieces, the sort of brilliant incongruity that Fuller loved to wreak. At one point, he stages a contemporary, swingy dance number, with women in colorful kimonos. Here the dress marks a tension between times, but in another moment, when Eddie or Sandy appears in a kimono, they’re not just acclimating to the culture, but also flirting, either with Mariko, or more often, each other. Sandy frets that his boy isn’t dedicated to their work together, and calls out Mariko as the problem, when she wonders what’s wrong. “What do you think’s bothering him? He never seems to enjoy himself,” Sandy begins, then whomps her with his conclusion: “You’re what’s bothering him.” (As he makes this announcement, Ryan rises with such alacrity that both Yamaguchi and the camera jumps back; as Ursini observes, Fuller left in the imperfect shot, the camera’s rough bump, and so captured the emotion.)
Sandy’s insanity finally spills over so that not even his desire for Eddie can focus it. He believes a lie that his longtime second-in-command, Griff (Cameron Mitchell), has betrayed him, and so goes to kill him, approaching his target as he’s bathing in a wooden tub. (Silver admits that it “makes no physical sense for the bullet holes to appear in the tub quite that way, but it looks great.”) But no matter the physics of the scene, Ryan’s delivery is consummate:
Why did you tip off the cops, Griff? I’ll tell you why. Cause you weren’t responsible for your actions. Remember? I told you. You didn’t know what you were doing. I could see you had no control of yourself. Absolutely none. And I knew, Griff. I knew, when you started blowing your buttons for no reason whatsoever. I wish I hadn’t been right. But I was Griff, like always.
The speech, the whole scene, really, is beyond great: Sandy chatting with his dead compatriot, bloody water seeping out the holes in the tub, the light gorgeous slanting across the frame. And Sandy is always right, except regarding Eddie. He confronts Eddie, “I never could figure a guy who’d betray a friend,” he coos. “It must take some, uh, special kind of guy, a guy that gets a kick out of worming his way in and, uh, just when you get to like him, in goes the knife, right?” Errr. Eddie’s stuck for an answer, and Sandy just charges on ahead. During their next meeting, Sandy holds Eddie at gunpoint, and Ryan slings his leg over Stack’s in a loony, lovely, menacing way, even as Sandy does the monologue thing, explaining his plan and how brainy it is. “How do you like that for top-level strategy?” he smirks. Eddie won’t back down, even with that leg slung over him: “A straightjacket’d fit you just right.”
It seems the ideal moment for a showdown, but the film extends to one more loopy scene, the famous amusement park scene, deemed “really flawless” by Silver and Ursini. The “pretty nutty” location allows for any number of peculiar angles, shots through park machinery and rides, the gangsters shooting at one another with kids running every which way, and at last, and Sandy’s astonishing ascent to the top of a spinning globe. Finally unable to dominate the frame or intimidate his nemeses by any insinuations, he is the ideal Fuller rogue, too large for his world.