House Of Bamboo
My favorite Hollywood decade is the 1950's. Filmmakers working in peak form during this period included: Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, John Ford, Douglas Sirk, Anthony Mann, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and Samuel Fuller.
Fuller famously appeared in a party scene in Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou and pronounced his credo: “Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death....in one word, emotion." He wasn’t kidding. For Fuller, the central metaphor for life was war, which he once called “the world’s oldest profession, not whoring. It is as important as breathing.”
House Of Bamboo, which Fuller made in 1955, was Godard’s favorite of his movies, and the first Hollywood production to be shot in Japan. Robert Ryan plays a brutal ex-Army officer who runs an all-American crime outfit in Japan that extorts money from pachinko parlors (gaming joints). Fuller's war metaphor also translates to the paramilitary-model organization of Ryan's gang: they use military language, gesture at maps with pointers, and talk about "battle fatigue". They're applying lessons of war in the civilian world. A few observations about the film:
Fuller’s most fertile period lasted from his debut I Shot Jesse James (1949) to the glorious The Naked Kiss (1964). Of the seventeen films he made in this period, a third of them dealt with the Asian-American culture clash. In House Of Bamboo, Ryan recruits dishonorably discharged ex-cons for his Tokyo gang, “fine-looking ex-GI’s to mix with the politest people in the politest nation in the world.” (Imagine Ryan's most malevolent voice here, drenched with contempt for the Japanese.) Fuller throws the cultural differences into relief by contrasting the brutishness of Robert Stack (a new recruit to Ryan’s gang) with the elegant and courtly Japanese women he encounters at every turn.
Here’s another precious Fullerism that Jim Jarmusch has quoted: “If the first scene doesn’t give you a hard-on, throw the goddamn thing away.” Minutes into House Of Bamboo, we get a fantastic money shot: the boots of a dead American GI framing and cradling...Mount Fuji! Both an eye-smacking visual composition and a powerful symbol of the clash of two cultures, it is an unforgettable image.
The movie is a remake of William Keighley's Street With No Name (1948), in which Richard Widmark plays the gang boss. Widmark's shiny face opens up like a swiftly slit piece of fruit each time he smiles. A human lizard. With asthma. Fondling his inhaler. He's the best thing about the movie, but the original can't hold a candle to the Fuller remake, possessing neither its visual imagination nor its take-your-breath-away boldness.
I'm used to Japanese interiors being shot in a particular fashion — I involuntarily picture them the way they're captured in Ozu, with a low camera that hardly moves. Imagine my surprise when the first domestic interior shot in this film begins with the camera perched on the ceiling (!), the crane pouncing down parabolically to the door to coincide with the entry of a kimono girl into her home, followed by Robert Stack who attacks her and pins her to the ground. It's enough to rock you back on your tatami mat. Later, Stack and Mariko, the girl, become lovers. (Fuller's lovers never meet cute, only hard and violent.)
Ever the canny engineer of aesthetic collisions, Fuller — whose "shock cuts" have always reminded me of both Eisenstein and Ghatak — stages a trembling love scene: Robert Stack and Mariko, separated by the slats of a bamboo partition, lying in their beds late at night, gazing silently into each other's faces, a continent (and a bamboo curtain) away. It's so tender, it's shocking.