Sam Fuller’s 1955 movie House of Bamboo isn’t one of the greatest film noirs ever made but it’s in there for one of the most interesting, and despite its flaws I have found myself watching it over again.
All the elements associated with Fuller’s style are on display, his ambiguous politics, break-neck story telling style and pulp sensibility, overlayed on this occasion with an oriental aesthete that veers between homage and cliché.
Fuller throws the viewer straight into the action, a precision heist of a US supply train as it speeds through the Japanese countryside by a gang of men dressed in traditional peasant garb, the magnificent snow-covered peak of Mount Fuji in the background.
They dispatch the crew without hesitation and unload the cargo into a waiting truck. Because the train was carrying small arms and ammunition and because one of the guards killed was a Sergeant in the United States military, the heat is on the local police to doing something.
We move quickly to the aftermath of another robbery. One of the assailants, Webber, lies squirming on a hospital-operating table. Wounded by police, he was left for dead after one of his own crew pumped three bullets into him before they escaped, the same bullets used in the train robbery.
As they try to sweat a confession out of him, the cops search Webber’s clothes, finding a wallet with a picture of a Japanese woman, his wife Mariko (Chinese born Japanese actress Shirley Yamaguchi), and a letter from a man called Eddie Spanier who wants to join Webber in Japan after his release from prison in America.
Fast-forward three weeks: a dishevelled Caucasian (Robert Stack) alights from a freighter from San Francisco. He hails a cab to Tokyo where barges his way through a Kabuki rehearsal and a female bath house until he tracks down Mariko in her apartment.
She’s afraid he’s from the same gang who killed her husband. He tells her his name is Eddie Spanier and that he’s come from America to work with her husband.
Spanier walks the streets of Tokyo, entering the first pachinko parlour he finds and shakes down the owner for protection money. He repeats this until he comes to a parlour where Tokyo-based crime boss Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan) and his crew are waiting.
Impressed with Spanier’s initiative and tough guy bravado, Dawson offers him a job in his gang, much to the jealousy of his other men – all ex-cons in the civilian life, ‘stockade hounds’ in the army – who are put out that their boss gets along so well with the new guy.
As soon as he leaves Dawson’s pad, the Japanese police detain Spanier on suspicion of stealing pearls. But it’s just a ruse, a way for the cops to contact Spanier, who is actually undercover American military policeman Eddie Kenner. Having infiltrated the gang, all he needs now is an alibi to deflect any suspicions and cover his movements. He shacks up with Mariko, making her his kimono girl.
The rest of House of Bamboo delivers few surprises. Dawson and Spanier become closer, so much so that when Spanier is wounded during a pay-roll heist at a local gravel works, Dawson breaks his own rule and stops one of his men from finishing him off.
Mariko falls for Spanier/Kenner, helping him by passing the details of a planned robbery to the police who foil the job. Eventually Dawson catches on to the fact that Spanier is a plant and tries to set him up to take the fall for another robbery. But that is bungled when the Japanese police arrive, setting the stage for the final confrontation between the two men.
Critics have spilt a lot of ink talking about the fact that the intense relationship of the film is not between Spanier and Mariko but Spanier and Dawson, no doubt encouraged by the fact that Mariko doesn’t put out for him and the only flesh on show is Stack’s while he’s in the bath or a wearing a kimono.
Whether this is evidence of homoerotic sub-text, or the fact that Fuller was limited in depicting an inter-racial relationship, is an open question. Certainly, as Mariko, Yamaguchi gets little to work with, having to utter lines like “In Japan a woman is taught how to please a man”. That’s when she’ not giving Spanier lessons in pigeon Japanese such as “Sayonara means good-bye”.
Dawson on the other hand positively seethes with pent up macho fury. He gets furious with Mariko when he thinks she might be two-timing Spanier and brutally kills his former ‘Ichiban’, or lieutenant, without hesitation when he thinks he’s ratted him out to the cops, rather than admit that Spanier might be the culprit.
Fuller knew how to tell a story, even when it wasn’t a very good one. The heist scenes are fantastic, as is the final confrontation between Spanier and Dawson in an amusement park when the two men shoot it out on a revolving platform that circles a giant globe over looking the city.
The film looks great. The United States occupation of Japan had been over for four years when Fuller arrived, and although the country was on its way to becoming an industrial super power, he filmed it as a bustling third world country, reportedly shooting a lot of it guerrilla style in the streets.
Fuller told one interviewer he “got a thrill” out of making the film, “shooting in Japan, having a major studio budget and enough money and working counter to stereo-types. In terms of style, I wanted the wide screen and the colour. I loathe this cliché version of the underworld. Dark alleys and wet streets. I’ve done it. Everybody’s done it. It becomes fake and I don’t like it.”
The other fascinating aspect of House of Bamboo is the way Westerners make absolutely no concession to the fact that they are in Japan. They sit around looking and talking like American hoods. They don’t even speak the language. Spanier’s first words getting off the boat from America are “Any body speak a little English?” and he moves from pachinko parlour to pachinko parlour roughly asking “Where’s the number one boy?”
Fuller juxtaposes these characters against Japanese interiors, lounging in furniture too small for them or prowling temples and teeming market streetscapes to accentuate their foreignness. In one of the film’s best scenes, Dawson’s gang are having a party to celebrate a successful robbery when the traditional female dancers in kimonos suddenly throw off their garb and start swing dancing.
It also allows Fuller to get away with portraying Dawson’s gang as untouchable. They pull violent, audacious heists and take protection money from half the pachinko parlous in Tokyo without anyone laying a glove on them.
But how smart is Dawson if he unsuspectingly takes Spanier under his wing then can’t even successfully frame him for a robbery? Given that the plot revolves around the supposed tension of Spanier being undercover as he tries to take Dawson down, it’s a major weakness.