One of the attractions of film for me is the the way it freezes time and place, a time capsule, in effect. Curiously this even works for science fiction films and their visions of the future; Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the future seen through the prism of the optimism and ambition of the1960s, one of many movie futures that never happened (we’ll be lucky to see Kubrick’s space station wheel or moon-base before 2101, a century ‘late’, and we have yet to see 2019’s flying cars of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner) but the point is, those future visions inform us of the times when a film was made and those visions created, something increasingly interesting as they become more removed from us.
But certainly the sense of films being time capsules applies chiefly to films of old, and its almost incidental to the storytelling process. A British film made and set in the 1960s is just a film made in the 1960s, they weren’t concerned with recording their milieu for posterity, but that’s what they have done- 1960s London being very different to that of today, and likewise Klute, French Connection or Taxi Driver all have visions of a New York of their time but now offering glimpses of a city long gone, for better or worse.
Which brings me to one of the more arresting and fascinating aspects of Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo, a thriller set and filmed in post-war Japan. Its clear that Fuller seized the unusual opportunity with relish, because the location filming is quite extensive, offering a sense of time and place that is quite tangible. I would imagine that someone living in Tokyo today would find this film almost a revelation. Indeed a ‘locations then and now’ featurette, albeit prohibitively expensive would have been so fascinating (those types of featurettes are something I always gravitate to first if they are on a disc). I’m not sure how staged the locations were, but they certainly feel authentic, adding a docudrama feel to the film: there’s a sense of reality to it.
Which is perhaps just as well, because the film is quite bizarre otherwise, featuring an American gang of ex-servicemen who seemingly speak no Japanese, in charge of the Tokyo underworld, and the powerless Japanese authorities needing the help of American military police to root them out. Based upon an earlier Fox film, The Street With No Name, its a mob scenario like so many gangster noir films but transposed to the Orient – vividly filmed in glorious CinemaScope colour, its like no noir I’ve yet seen, and magnificently photographed.
The ‘hero’ of the film is Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack) who arrives in Tokyo stirring up trouble until he is brought to the attention of Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan) who’s the mastermind of the American gang. Stack is a blank, really pretty woeful with a one-note performance which must be what he approximates as a ‘Tough Guy’ but never really convinces. Did Stack always just get by with poor performances like this? Or is it possible its a deliberate commentary on the stereotypical rugged American hero stuck in a milieu where he doesn’t belong (shades of Michael Douglas in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain decades later), finding him wanting?
The film is thankfully saved by Ryan’s cool and collected criminal czar: I’ve seen Ryan in several films of late and he continues to impress- he’s not, as one might expect, chewing up the scenery here but is instead calmly threatening, and there’s a weird homoerotic undercurrent that I’ve noticed before in other noir. Its subtle enough that viewers won’t necessarily notice it, but its evidently deliberate as Fuller remarks about it in the booklet that accompanies this Masters of Cinema Blu-ray release. Sandy takes a sudden liking to Eddie, who’s quite oblivious, but it becomes clear to us something is going on- Sandy’s rule that any injured gang member must be shot dead to avoid giving anything away to the authorities, is shown in action, but when Eddie is injured Sandy orders him carried to safety. Eddies standing in the gang rises, and he becomes Sandy’s righthand man, usurping the increasingly irritated Griff (Cameron Mitchell). Sandy’s attraction to Eddie blinds him to the fact that Eddie isn’t who he seems- he’s actually Eddie Kenner, a military policeman posing as Spanier, a criminal who is still serving time back in the States. Kenner seeks to destroy the gang from within, but doesn’t himself realise that a mole in the Japanese police will leak to Sandy there is a mole in his operation, setting up a tense last heist…
Along the way there are some remarkable moments, like when Sandy, realising he has been betrayed, dispatches Griff in error- shooting him dead while he’s in a wooden bathtub that, riddled with bullets, starts leaking bath water while Sandy walks over and cradles his victims head, explaining why he just killed him (explaining himself to his past lover/confidant?). Or seeing original 1960s Star Trek‘s DeForrest Kelley playing one of Sandy’s henchmen; it just feels so incongruous seeing Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy as a bad guy .Or indeed any scene featuring the rather forced and unlikely romance between Eddie and Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi) the Japanese widow of one of Sandy’s deceased gang members.
But despite the inherent silliness of much of the plot and the hackneyed performance of tough-guy Stack, the film works, and much of this is thanks to the sheer fascination/eye-candy of the locations. The action finale in an amusement/theme park on the roof of a Tokyo tower block, children and parents rushing everywhere while bullets are flying and the city of Tokyo sits oblivious below, is as strange and visually arresting as it should sound (what Scott could have made of it in his Black Rain one can only imagine). I thought the setting for that last gunfight was quite extraordinary and a major achievement. House of Bamboo is a thoroughly odd film but one that just constantly rewards, I really enjoyed it and look forward to listening to its two commentary tracks (viva physical media!).