A loose remake of The Street with No Name, also a film noir released to DVD simultaneously by Fox, Samuel Fuller's House of Bamboo (1955) was one of the first American productions extensively shot in Japan. Unlike, say, Tokyo Joe (1949), which starred Humphrey Bogart but unconvincingly used a double for all the second unit footage shot abroad (there are a lot of shots of his double's back), Bamboo's leading actors really did travel to Japan for exterior footage. The fascinating scenery, all in eye-filling CinemaScope, along with Fuller's visually striking, gritty approach, overcomes the basic preposterousness of the story.
That story operates from the wild conceit that a gaggle of American gangsters could not only set up shop in Tokyo, taking over local pachinko parlors and other small-time rackets, like Bunta Sugawara in a Kinji Fukasaku movie, but also rob payrolls and knock off banks in broad daylight, with no attempt to hide their faces. In reality the movements of American civilians and military personnel were tightly controlled, and it's not as if Caucasian stars Robert Stack and Robert Ryan were inconspicuous in a sea of Japanese faces. Moreover, none of them could speak, read, or write in Japanese, which one would think would hinder their ability to plan capers effectively.
Curiously, at no time does the film even acknowledge the existence of a Japanese criminal element, let alone directly refer to actual yakuza, who on a less ambitious scale were actually doing what Ryan and his gang pull off in the picture. Fox was probably anxious to foster a good working relationship with the Japanese authorities needed to shoot the picture, and avoided any material that would put the Japanese in a bad light.
In the film, Sandy Dawson's (Robert Ryan) gang is infiltrated by undercover investigator Eddie Kenner (Robert Stack), posing as a two-bit career criminal named Spanier. Unlike The Street with No Name, in which Richard Widmark, in Ryan's role, takes FBI man Mark Stevens under his wing in a paternal teacher/student relationship, Dawson's interests in Spanier are clearly homoerotic. In surprisingly blunt terms by 1950s standards, Dawson clearly dumps his "ichiban" right-hand man and jealous lover Griff (Cameron Mitchell) when Spanier comes along. If there was any doubt of this, Fuller makes his intentions clear when, during one of those daring daylight robberies, Spanier is wounded and Dawson breaks his own cardinal rule of executing wounded cohorts then and there (lest they squeal under police interrogation). Ryan, one of the screen's greatest and most underrated actors, is outstanding and subtly menacing, acting rings around Stack who, by contrast, appears clueless about Fuller's approach and gives a two-dimensional performance. Still, the actor must have liked Japan; he returned there for the eye-popping disaster film The Last Voyage (1960), a title this critic longs for on DVD.
The other major difference between this and The Street with No Name, beyond the obvious geographical shift, is that the remake doesn't reveal that Spanier is an army investigator until 35 minutes into the picture. Fuller and co-writer Harry Kleiner (assuming that they actually collaborated) convince us up to that point that Spanier's a real S.O.B. Beyond his strong-arm tactics with local pachinko managers, Spanier's Ugly American is hard-boiled to the point of high camp. He expects everyone to understand English and instantly gets impatient when they don't. ("It's like they've got a different word for everything!" to quote Steve Martin.) When the bemused Japanese vendors fail to understand his tough-talking vernacular, he thinks he can make them understand by speaking louder. At times Spanier's literally shouting trying to be understood.
Fox, incidentally, made no effort to acknowledge that this was a remake. While it's very much its own animal, key plot elements are exactly the same. I'll bet there were those in the audience who had seen the original picture and were scratching their heads, overwhelmed by a sense of deja vu.
House of Bamboo does an admirable job, particularly for the time, blending the footage shot in Japan with that filmed on the Fox lot in Beverly Hills. Basically all the interiors were done at Fox; Addison Hehr and Lyle R. Wheeler's production design overflows with Asian knickknacks but in no way reflects real Japanese living. Rooms are far too spacious, doorways too high (6' 4" Robert Ryan, who positively towers over ingenue Shirley Yamaguchi, would've had to duck his head constantly) and, most inaccurately, everyone walks around wearing shoes while indoors. Ryan's impossibly huge estate also boasts a gorgeous view of a painted backdrop of Mt. Fuji, whose iconic image is overused in the film.
Except for Yamaguchi, a bonafide film star under contract at Toho before and after this, the other Asians in the films are generally minor character actors like Teru Shimada (You Only Live Twice) or bit players who obviously aren't actors but were Japanese and living around Los Angeles. Silent film star Sessue Hayakawa has a supporting part but vanishes from the film's second-half. His voice is obviously dubbed.
Some exteriors were shot in America, too, and they're easy to spot by the badly recreated Kanji (the Chinese ideographs used in Japan) painted on road signs, on the sides of trucks, etc. Mostly though, when there's action outdoors, it's in Japan. Filmed in Tokyo and Yokoyama just a decade after those cities were nearly bombed into nothingness, the film shows a fascinating city bustling with activity but still dominated by makeshift shacks and empty lots, a long way from the megalopolis it is today. The picture must have been in production during the winter of 1954-55, which doesn't show the country in the best light. Trees are dead, and the atmosphere is generally colorless. That the movie still comes off as an attractive part-travelogue that makes the country look exotically inviting is a credit to Fuller's direction and DP Joseph MacDonald's photography.
Whoever found the cut-rate rooftop amusement used during the exciting climax deserves a medal. Rooftop kiddie parks were not unusual then, and the roofs of commercial buildings are still commonly used by hotels and department stores as beer gardens and the like. Indeed, the Japanese used roofs for all manner of things, including corporate rallies (with everyone shouting Banzai!) and company calisthenics. The park featured in House of Bamboo was the closest thing to Disneyland in 1955 Japan, and features a dizzying, 20-stories-up planet-type attraction where riders sit on its rotating, Saturn-like "rings." The ride looks incredibly unsafe, as if at any minute it would fall apart like one of those collapsing Model-Ts in a Hal Roach comedy. I wonder if it exists now.
Video & Audio
House of Bamboo is presented in its original CinemaScope format in a great-looking 16:9 anamorphic transfer. By early widescreen standards the image is quite sharp with decent color, and comes with 4.0 stereo with lots of directional dialogue and good fidelity for Leigh Harline's score. Mono tracks in French and Spanish are included, along with optional English and Spanish subtitles.
The main extra is yet another Commentary by James Ursini and Alain Silver. Also included are a Trailer cropped to 1.85:1 widescreen (also 16:9) and a somewhat different Spanish one that's scope but missing text. Fox Noir offers the usual round of other noir trailers.
A nice bonus is raw Fox Movietone News footage, minus sound and in black and white full frame. Behind-the-Scenes Footage and Landing in Japan both offer a couple of minutes worth of Stack, Yamaguchi, Fuller and producer Buddy Adler on the set and arriving in a cold, rainy Japan.
House of Bamboo is a pulpy confection of outrageous gangster action, Fuller dynamism, and an outdated but endlessly attractive look at 1955 Japan. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.