The utterly bizarre China Gate

China Gate, 1957, 97 mins, Digital

Well we’re back to Samuel Fuller with another one of his pictures from during his run at 20th Century Fox (see also House of Bamboo and Pickup on South Street) but unfortunately I have to report that China Gate is a terrible mess of a film; sad to say its likely the worst I’ve yet seen from Fuller. China Gate is as mad as it is bad, a boys-own war adventure about a bunch of mercs with a common hate for commies delving deep behind enemy lines to blow up an ammo cash of Ruskie shells and bombs. Its the kind of gung-ho macho nonsense that rings particularly hollow after having seen films like The Ascent and Come and See, for one thing. Its low budget, too, doesn’t help, with an unconvincing studio set doubling for the Jungle and some poor matte paintings failing to ‘open up’ the film or offer any real sense of place and scale.

Maybe it could have gotten away by being a simple b-movie action romp typical of its time, but Fuller muddies proceedings by offering some ill-thought out (albeit no doubt well-intentioned) drama about racial prejudice, portraying the nominal ‘hero’ of the film, Sgt Brock (Gene Barry) as a bigot – I’m not certain why Fuller did this, as I spent the film hoping someone would shoot Brock and end my misery watching him (Brock is our heroine’s ex-husband who abandoned her five years before when he saw that their new-born child looked Chinese!).

chinagate3Meanwhile, watching a young, dark-haired Angie Dickinson portraying a mixed-race Eurasian beauty and a young Lee Van Cleef playing Asian foe Major Cham, is so bizarre it seems like an ill-conceived comedy sketch, as does one long lingering death scene of one of the mercenary band with a broken back: its all very silly. Did I mention one of the merry band is played by crooner Nat King Cole, no less, who proceeds to sing the film’s theme song onscreen not once but twice? Its one of those films where the casting choices and most of the fervent politics leave one with a “pinch me, this can’t be real” feeling as events unfold and racial stereotypes confound. Was Fuller serious, I wondered? Of course he was, in spades. I’ll say one thing for Fuller; he was always all-in, his energy and enthusiasm had won me over in some of his other pictures but alas, not here. China Gate is so daft it might have benefited from a senses of humour, but Fuller is, as ever, absolutely earnest. I suppose that’s why some fans admire him and his films so much, but this film left me pretty cold.

“I’m tired. I’m through… It’ll happen to you too, someday.”

pickup1Pickup on South Street, 1953, 80 mins, Blu-ray

Another Sam Fuller picture, this time a dark crime-noir from 1953 during his spell at Fox, and two years prior to House of Bamboo which I saw back in November. Pickup on South Street his an excellent thriller, in which career-criminal Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) pick-pockets the purse of Candy (Jean Peters) and inadvertently stumbles into an espionage crisis involving Communist agents and a lot of unwelcome heat from the Feds and cops. To some extent this is a typical cold-war thriller reflecting the West vs East tensions of the time, as as such would ordinarily feel dated and an exercise in propaganda as several noir espionage thrillers of its era that I have seen are.

But of course I’m watching this when world tensions are at a fever-pitch as Russia has invaded Ukraine, and the news is endlessly discussing the collapse of relations between the West and Russia and the return of old Cold-War sensibilities. So there’s an added discomfort in this film’s depicted tensions, and what is old is new again.

Richard Widmark is very good in this, he’d memorably featured as psychopathic killer Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death several years before, and while there’s a similar energised tone to his performance here its thankfully more restrained and grounded; Skip is much less manic than Tommy Udo but none the less convincing. I was particularly taken by the performance of Jean Peters as Candy, reluctant courier for the communists and eventual love-interest for Skip (this romance an inevitable development but one that oddly convinces). Peters is very good and lifts what could have been a one-dimensional part into something much more interesting.  I wasn’t familiar with the actress and looking her up on IMDB, its little wonder-  she only made 23 features, working under contract to Fox between 1947 and 1955 before then pretty much retiring from the screen to be the wife of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. There’s worse career choices I guess.

pickup2Possibly stealing the show though is character actress Thelma Ritter, who plays streetwise police informer Moe Williams. I get the feeling that she’s the character that Sam Fuller was most interested in, what could have been a minor role elevated instead to possibly the most critical part in the film. I’m rather seeing that this is a  common aspect of Fuller’s writing and directing, drawn to characters who would ordinarily be in the background or of lesser importance to the usual larger-than-life heroes and villains. I’ve read that Ritter’s performance saw her nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar that year and I’m not at all surprised. Her final scene is outstanding, a sad and broken old lady weary of the world facing her final moments with resigned grace.

The film is also blessed by some wonderfully moody, waterfront locations that brought to mind early-sixties Spider-Man strips drawn by Steve Ditko, the eight-year old kid in me getting ridiculously excited seeing those scenes and remembering the web-slingers encounters with the mob in Ditko’s finely-drawn panels of criminal-infested waterfronts. The film is, typically of Fuller, very gritty and convincing, and indeed some of the action is quite shocking, particularly scenes of Candy getting beaten and the offscreen denouement of Moe is very effective. You can certainly tell its a Sam Fuller picture. As I have noted, in other hands a film such as this could have been just a typical anti-Commie propaganda piece of its time but Fuller lifts it into something much more. Its a very effective thriller with a great cast and screenplay, an excellent noir.

Brainquake by Samuel Fuller

brainquakeSamuel Fuller was of course a writer before he became a director, writing books and screenplays following an early career as a New York crime reporter, and I’ve found his deliriously pulp novel Brainquake a fascinating insight into his films- while at the same time, having seen a few of his films now (both written and also those directed) those films also provide an insight into this book. Certainly, there’s elements of Underworld U.S.A. clearly on display here in how it describes the machinations of the criminal underworld which the novel’s chief protagonist, Paul Page works for as a bagman. The woman that Paul betrays his criminal overlords for, Michelle, has clear precedents in some of the strong but desperate women that are seen in the films.

Brainquake was written when his Hollywood career was over, and published (in English, at least), posthumously. My ‘education’ regards Fuller’s filmography  is obviously incomplete but I can easily see how this book could be seen as a ‘Greatest Hits’ for Fuller, and parts of this book’s charm is imagining it as one of those brash, larger-than-life black & white noir adventures that I have been watching on Blu-ray of late. That being said, its also clear that while its got many Fuller tropes (for want of a better word) its also a cheeky self-indulgence, Fuller writing things he knew he could never get away with in a film. Even Tarantino would struggle to get away with some of this, but it would be marvellous, now that I consider it, to see him try. Mostly this regards Father Flanagan, a hit man for the Mob who is always dressed as a Catholic priest who nails his victims to walls in the manner of crucifixion, and who mentally pictures all the women he meets as naked. Imagining his scenes in a film with all the actresses alternatively dressed and undressed depending upon us ‘seeing’ the scenes through Flanagan’s eyes, was a major part of the fun of the book.

Its wild, its crazy, its quite intoxicating; but its absolutely a rollercoaster ride and quite a page-turner. Its definitely a Samuel Fuller book- nobody else could have written it.

Shockproof

Shockproof, 1949, 80 mins, Blu-ray

sam7The clue is in the credits: Written by…. with Helen Deutsch’s name above that of Samuel Fuller. Which I didn’t really question when first watching the film, but in retrospect, considering how greatly the film is derailed by its lousy ending (which I mentioned in an earlier post) I should have smelled a rat. Turns out the script was entirely written by Samuel Fuller but the studio got nervous about its original conclusion so hired Helen Deutsch to give them a happy ending, which spoils the film terribly, and then to add further ignominy to it all, credited Deutsch above Fuller (ensured by Deutsch nabbing a co-producer credit too, further reward for arguably ruining the picture – that’s Hollywood folks).

But it is a terrible shame, because Shockproof is a great dramatic noir and has such a lot going for it, not least of which is Patricia Knight, whose performance here is particularly nuanced and arresting, and actually astonishing when one realises she had no formal acting training, according to what I’ve read about her since. She plays ex-con Jenny Marsh, whose parole officer Griff Marat (Cornel Wilde (Leave Her to Heaven)) is instantly attracted to her and whose attempts to ensure she goes straight may not be entirely professional or decent. Jenny served five years for murdering a man while defending her shady gambler lover, Harry Wesson (John Baragrey) and remains romantically involved with Harry, who stayed in contact with her during her incarceration. Griff threatens Jenny that she’ll break her parole if she continues seeing Harry, but while that seems reasonable, it also fits in with his own attraction to her and his attempt to be with her himself- to the extent of finding her a job within his own home, something against regulations. Griff further compromises himself by intending to secretly marry her, again against regulations, which is something which Harry and his criminal associates see as a way of ruining Griff’s prospects for political office, from where he could be trouble for them.

The brilliance of Shockproof, and of Knights’ performance, is that there is subterfuge and lies from the start. It is no mistake that prior to her first parole meeting with Griff, the brunette Jenny is seen shopping on Hollywood Boulevard for new clothes and visits a salon to have her hair dyed platinum blonde. She’s obviously using her sex and beauty as a possible distraction against Griff, assuming a role of wounded beauty, manipulating him to give her special treatment. This is tested immediately, as soon after her first meeting with Griff she is arrested with Harry in a police raid on a bookie joint, contrary to Griff’s instructions to stay away from her old lover and the criminal fraternity. Returned to Griff’s office and a likely immediate return to prison, Griff instead sends her to a doctor on the pretence of checking out her twisted ankle. Rather than just the physical examination it pretends to be, this is actually a psychological test of Jenny’s character which she passes, saying all the right things to the doctor, but unknown to Griff, Jenny has sussed it was a test and her responses are all an act to ensure he gives her another chance. She has no intention of breaking up with Harry and knows Griff’s fascination/attraction to her leaves him open to manipulation.

So far, so very noir and typical femme fatale. But there’s all sorts of things going on here. Griff’s attraction towards Jenny increasingly forces him to break the rules, and when she can’t get a job because of her criminal record, he gives her a job at his house which enables him to keep her close and romance her, which makes one wonder who is manipulating who? His controlling influence of who she can see, where she can go, becomes something possibly dark and questionable. Dependant on him for a job and a roof over her head, and living with his family, it could be argued that Griff’s seduction finally works when Jenny starts to have feelings for him too.

sam8Or does she? Because she’s also still in contact with Harry, who knows that Griff is breaking all the rules of his profession and therefore encourages Jenny to go along with it and lead Griff to ruin.

Shockproof is a brilliant tale of subversion and possible perversion. What makes it all work is Knight’s excellent performance- very often the viewer just can’t be sure if what she’s doing and saying is real or just part of an act. Are her growing feelings for Griff real? Just when you think her loyalties lie with Harry, who is clearly no good for her and likely manipulating her himself, one starts to wonder if her loyalties are really with Griff and her love for him genuine. And of course in the background one has to wonder if Griff’s feelings for her are natural or from some dark obsession of his own, manipulating a woman he knows is dependant upon him keeping her out of prison?

The chemistry between Wilde and Knight is inevitably genuine because they were actually a married couple when the film was made. There is an added tension to it which may stem from the fact that Knight later claimed that Wilde was a controlling and dominating figure in their marriage, and increasingly jealous- they were divorced soon after, in 1951. So does this inform the elements of Shockproof that suggest Griff’s controlling attentions towards Jenny and how he uses his professional authority over her are unhealthy and obsessive? It certainly seems to suggest an added darkness to it all.

sam9Incredibly, Knight only appeared in five films and one television episode, her acting career curtailed upon divorcing Wilde, which to me seems such a loss, because I really think she’s terrific in Shockproof. I can understand the impact she made upon Griff because she made such an impact upon me too. She’s beautiful and dangerous but there’s a fragility there. Possibly her limitations as a non-trained actress would have been found out in other roles, maybe its just that this one particularly suited her, but I think she was really impressive here, a femme fatale with some depth.

Which yes, brings us to the ridiculous ending. If you haven’t seen the film and wish to remain unspoiled, stop reading this post here and maybe come back later. In the film Jenny becomes increasingly desperate, caught between and manipulated by the two men in her life, and she eventually turns upon Harry after he threatens to ruin Griff, shooting him dead in a bizarre repeat/twist of her original crime years before. There is at least a suggestion that Jenny actually wanted to flee from both men, knowing its all destined to end badly, but instead she and Griff go on the run together. In Fuller’s original script, which was titled The Lovers, an increasingly desperate Griff and Jenny get into a shootout with cops and come to an ill end. In this reading, Griff’s love for Jenny is genuine and, as director Douglas Sirk observed, “something had changed… something had started blooming in (Griff’s) soul!”, something forbidden by his profession and society.

Instead, we get a ridiculous revelation that Harry isn’t actually dead, and he has a sudden change of heart/pang of conscience and takes the blame for the shooting himself in order to allow the lovers a wildly sudden and inappropriate happy ending: as bad a ‘love conquers all’ ending as any. Its so jarring that it is like it has suddenly become entirely another movie in its last five minutes. It doesn’t work at all, unless you subscribe to the inherent darkness of Griff’s own obsession and his own schemes winning out, which is digging out a noir ending not intended at all, but hey, that’s perhaps me just trying to save what is, other than the ending, a pretty great film.

Power of the Press

Power of the Press – 1943, 64 mins, Blu-ray

My third review of a film included within Indicator’s tremendous Fuller at Columbia boxset. This boxset is now sadly OOP, but thankfully the four individual discs are now available separately, albeit minus booklets. 

sam6With Power of the Press, I think we hear Sam Fuller’s own voice rather more clearly than the previous two films in this set (It Happened in Hollywood and Adventure in Sahara), if only because it is inevitably informed to at least some degree by Fuller’s own experiences working in journalism, first as a copyboy at the age of just twelve and later becoming a crime reporter at just seventeen- this would later resurface in a novel, The Dark Page which would itself inspire a film, Scandal Sheet, a viewing of which is what brought me here to this Indicator boxset, but more of that later.

I can fully understand Power of the Press being ridiculed because of its relentlessly patriotic preaching, as it certainly isn’t subtle and the film was evidently a ‘message’ film extolling the virtues of America entering the Second World War, but it also contains passionate arguments regards ‘the truth’, and the ability of the press to manipulate that truth or to represent falsehoods as truth for either political gain or to the  advantage unscrupulous powerbrokers. “Freedom of the press means freedom to tell the truth. It doesn’t mean freedom to twist the truth“, a character states. The film doesn’t raise the term ‘fake news’ but its surely something never far away from viewer’s minds today, and its horrifying, really, that this film’s messages are as valid and timely today as they possibly were back in 1943.

The film is set shortly after America has entered the war, when John Cleveland Carter (Minor Watson) the publisher of the isolationist New York Gazette, realises that his newspaper is betraying its readers and the American public by distorting stories in order to sell newspapers and foster a growing discourse against the war effort. When Carter is about to change the paper’s policy and support the US war effort he is murdered. In his final moments Carter makes a last will and testament to enlist an old colleague, Ulysses Bradford (Guy Kibbee) a small town patriotic editor to take charge of the Gazette. Bradford reluctantly takes on the challenge but soon realises he is outmatched by devious co-publisher Howard Rankin (Otto Kruger (711 Ocean Drive)) who is responsible for the Gazette’s editorial direction (and indeed Carter’s murder). Rankin will stop at nothing to twist the truth and further the Gazette’s isolationist, anti-war stance, including resorting to further murders using his criminal stooge Oscar Trent (Victor Jory).

I really did enjoy this film- with its elements of warm patriotism it has the feel almost of a Frank Capra film, but there’s a darkness underneath perhaps hidden by its overly too simplistic arguments regards fifth columnists. This was deliberately alarmist but typical at the time, something familiar to sentiments of other espionage thrillers I’ve seen that were made during the war (and the character Rankin might as well indeed be a fully paid-up member of the Nazi party). Its not subtle at all, and this really does harm the film but it remains absorbing- perhaps its just a case that the films sentiments are so admirable that its difficult to resist. Of course in todays world of social media and the blurring of truth or indeed outright lies being delivered as truth, and the various instances over the last few decades of deplorable elements of the UK press running monstrously amok resulting in all sorts of shocking scandals…

Its terrible to admit it, but the subject of this film should have been something consigned to distant history, but instead remains perhaps more timely than it ever was- its just a pity the film isn’t as sophisticated as it needs to be for it to truly work.  Its a case of a minor jingoistic film that might have been a classic under better circumstances.

That all being said, I’ve gone all through this review without mentioning Gloria Dickson who practically steals the show with powerful female protagonist Edwina Stephens – here’s the prototype for Sam Fuller’s future heroines, and perhaps the one thing that dates the film is how it somehow sidelines her in favour of the male characters, when really its her that’s instrumental in saving the day. Dickson is very good, and I’m horrified to read in that she died in a house fire two years after this film was released, at the age of just 27. Yet again reading about old films proves to be distressing and I’m left reeling from real-life being more harrowing than any noir.

Adventure in Sahara

Adventure in Sahara – 1938, 57 mins, Blu-ray

My second review of a film included within Indicator’s tremendous Fuller at Columbia boxset, which was my Christmas-present highlight. This boxset is now sadly OOP, but thankfully the four individual discs are now available separately, albeit minus booklets. 

sam4Sadly, Adventure in Sahara is one of those films where the story behind it is better than anything in the film itself. The story goes, recounted in this set’s booklet, that Sam Fuller was approached by producer Sam Briskin if he had any ideas for a film- initially caught off-guard and at a loss, Fuller assured him that he did, buying time by lighting up a cigar before finally coming up with an idea- “William Bligh meets Victor Hugo!” he announced, much to Briskin’s bemusement. William Bligh, of course, was a reference to Mutiny on the Bounty, which had been a big hit starring Charles Laughton a few years prior, and Victor Hugo a reference to the novel Ninety-Three, another story of revolt which Fuller had read. Fuller was pitching a Mutiny on the Bounty set in the French Foreign Legion, and that’s pretty much summing up Adventure in Sahara entirely. The screenplay by Maxwell Shane based upon Fuller’s story lacks many details of Fuller’s idea, notably (albeit not surprisingly) a more downbeat ending inspired by the Victor Hugo novel, in which the nominal hero of the film and leader of the mutiny is, following an awarded act of gallantry in battle, is nonetheless sentenced to execution because of his part in the mutiny. Try selling THAT to audiences back in 1938; or 2022 for that matter. The final film would end with something much more traditional and consequently far less interesting.

sam5Adventure in Sahara is a fairly limp, pedestrian adventure yarn with several troubling aspects, only one of which is its treatment of a black character (which considering current sensitivities would likely earn this film a warning prior to any network airing) and another its horribly irritating musical score which intrudes upon everything. The chief problem, with all deference towards Fuller, is its predictable and quite preposterous story, although I guess he could point an accusing finger at Shane’s screenplay. It begins with American pilot Jim Wilson (Paul Kelly) learning of his younger brother’s death in the French Foreign Legion, upon which he immediately volunteers for the service albeit on the proviso he is sent to the command of Commandant Savatt (C Henry Gordon) where his brother was based. Savatt is the William Bligh of the film, a sadistic and twisted military commander whose punishment of the men under his command is brutal and ultimately leads his desperate men to mutiny, led by Wilson who is seeking revenge for his brother’s death at Savatt’s punishment. Its almost remarkable how the films romantic interest is thrown into the film- Carla (Lorna Gray), an Amelia Earhart-like pilot who literally crashes into the desert near to the Fort where Wilson is based. It takes some nerve being as blatantly ridiculous as your film’s love-interest literally falling out of the sky mid-movie.

Perhaps the films biggest asset is its brevity- at 57 minutes it doesn’t linger too long; its clearly a b-movie supporting feature and nothing more than that.  C Henry Gordon as the dastardly villain is great value, but Paul Kelly is pretty bland- and Lorna Gray even worse than that- although to be fair to them the screenplay leaves them little to work with, and the shoot was likely very quick and very cheap: there’s no aspirations for greatness here, that’s for certain. Adventure in Sahara is far inferior to the first film in this set, but thankfully things improve greatly with the next film…

It Happened in Hollywood

It Happened in Hollywood -1937, 68 mins, Blu-ray

My first review of a film included within Indicator’s tremendous Fuller at Columbia boxset, which was my Christmas-present highlight. This boxset is now sadly OOP, but thankfully the four individual discs are now available separately, albeit minus booklets. 

sam3It Happened in Hollywood is a film based upon a treatment by Sam Fuller, which Fuller claimed was his first Hollywood credit, hence its inclusion in this set even though the final film likely bore little resemblance to the Fuller original. It Happened in Hollywood is a disarmingly delightful tale of silver-screen whimsy, which I actually thoroughly enjoyed – indeed anyone who loves Frank Capra’s films will find much to enjoy here.

Immediately throwing us back to much simpler times, its 1928, and silent-Western star Tim Bart (Richard Dix) is visiting a group of his youngest fans in a home for orphaned children, screening his latest picture for them and recruiting them to his fan-club . Bart is a star with a heart and a sense of responsibility to his young audience who simply adore him and his screen adventures. There is a sense of art and reality burring with regards Bart- he walks around wearing a cowboy costume at all times, so there’s always a suggestion that its not just the children confused with what’s real and what isn’t. This sense of the persistent dream-reality of Hollywood continues through the film, culminating in a bizarre party Bart holds for one of the children in which all the guests are the real-life doubles, stand-ins and imitators of Hollywood’s biggest stars- a dining table attended by in-costume Bart, Hollywood ‘stars’ Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Harold Lloyd, Clark Gable, Mae West and Bill Crosby as well as many others. It’s oddly both magical and disturbing, an Alice in Wonderland tea-party twisted into something strangely Lynchian, somehow turning my mind to Mulholland Drive and its own examination of Hollywood fantasy. A very welcome featurette on this disc replays this section of the film with on-screen text highlighting both who the Hollywood star is being depicted (I could identify some, but others slipped me by as they have become quite obscure so many decades later) and also the double/imitator playing them, which is doubly nice if only for posterity’s sake as they are not actually credited in the film at all.

The plot of It Happened in Hollywood is pretty simple- talking pictures are suddenly the new rage of Hollywood, and all the silent movie stars of old are being screen-tested to see if they can fit in with the new world of talkies. A screentest for Tim and his regular Western co-star, Gloria Gay (Fay Way) goes well for Gloria but not for Tim, who comes across as awkward and stilted, uncomfortable with reciting dialogue. Gloria is offered a part in a Talking Picture, but Tim is let go.

Its pretty clear that Gloria is in love with Tim, and Tim in love with Gloria, but their feelings remain unspoken. Tim acts relaxed regards his career implosion and encourages Gloria to move on without him. Little seems to faze Tim- he loses the ranch he was buying and struggles to find any work at all, while his colleagues from his Westerns move on to bit-parts and working in real-world positions as chauffeurs or cooks to get by, but Tim’s calm never wavers. He’s a genuinely nice guy, his Western-persona of all-American hero not an act at all, or at least one that has so totally bled into his real-life that its one and the same (imagine what Lynch could do with that). Time passes: broke and wandering around in his cowboy outfit, Tim is convinced into playing a gangster in one of Gloria’s films, but when he balks at shooting a scene which requires him to shoot a police officer because of how that would look to his young fanbase, he walks off the shoot and his chance of rekindling his career is over.

I’m not at all familiar with Richard Dix, who worked on stage and in Hollywood from the days of silent movies through to the late ‘forties until his death at just 56 years of age in 1949, so I’m unaware if It Happened in Hollywood simply reflects his usual screen persona. If it doesn’t, then this is a remarkable performance from Dix, as his warm, affable good-guy here is wholly convincing and natural. Its a surprisingly difficult role to pull off without seeming unintentionally ridiculous or cornball, or even creepy or deranged (I mean the guy walks around in his cowboy outfit all the time, its either endearing or unnerving). Tim Bart is the kind of role that would have suited someone like Tom Hanks or Jimmy Stewart; one of the ‘good guys’ with an inherent sense of nobility, and its a testament to Dix being so good here that it certainly places him in such noble Hollywood company.

Fay Wray of course needs little introduction, the scream queen of the original (and best) King Kong from 1933. To my mind she’s probably better here than in that more famous film- notwithstanding her ability to convince when playing against a giant gorilla/stop-motion puppet, here she is able to demonstrate a quiet and natural warmth that suggests she was much better actress than I gave her credit for and likely deserved better roles than she actually got. Perhaps I shall have to make a point of looking up some more of her films in 2022.

sam2I absolutely adored It Happened in Hollywood; its a decidedly old-fashioned picture that I found truly endearing in the same way Frank Capra’s Its a Wonderful Life is. It slots so much narrative within its mere 68 mins that it never drags, proving to be something of a lesson in concise film-making, and the cast is very fine indeed- the two leads excellent. A few twists and turns stretch credibility, particularly towards the end when Tim is so desperate that he is on the brink of committing a crime, only instead finding himself foiling a bank raid which leads to his redemption and the happy ending we’re hoping for. This kind of film is more a fable than a realistic drama, in just the same way as Capra’s classic, and as that it works very well indeed.  It may lack the true mark of Samuel Fuller, but its inclusion within this boxset is very welcome as I would never have encountered it otherwise- a very pleasant surprise.

House of Bamboo (1955)

bamboo3One 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? 

bamboo2The 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.

bamboo1But 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!).

 

Scandal Sheet (1952)

ScandalshI loved this. Right from the gritty, opening location shoot outside a tenement building to its inevitable, perfect end, I just loved it. A case of watching the right film at the right time, or a film just ticking all the right boxes. The cast- Broderick Crawford (who I’d recently seen in Indicator editions of Convicted and The Mob, but was much better here), the lovely Donna Reed (whoever didn’t have a crush on her from watching It’s A Wonderful Life must be dead inside), Griff Barnett who really impressed in little more than a cameo, and some other familiar faces like John Derek and Harry Morgan – are all great, the script based on Samuel Fuller’s (supposedly semi-autobiographical) novel is full of twists and turns… Phil Karlson’s direction is exemplary… its a great film and one of those great discoveries one sometimes makes, trying a film on a whim (Amazon Prime’s algorithm brought me to it based upon me watching Crossfire a few nights before). Such discoveries tend to give me such a buzz.

Indeed, watching this on the not-so-great stream on Amazon Prime, as the film ended I looked online to see if the film was ever released on DVD or Blu-ray. You know how it is when you see a film you really, really enjoy, so often you just want to own a copy in order to re-experience it, in better quality and possibly (thanks to many DVD/Blu-rays) learn more about it from featurettes etc. Anyway, I was quite surprised to discover that Scandal Sheet had actually been included on Indicator’s Sam Fuller boxset a few years back, since OOP and now available on one of their standard releases in a double-bill with Shockproof, a film that like Scandal Sheet I had never heard of only a week ago. Well I nearly went for the standard release but I managed to find a sealed copy on eBay of the original box-set for a little less than its original retail price (some of the other listed prices were the usual eye-watering ones), and Claire suggested getting it for my Christmas present, so there you go- looks like I’ll be investigating the charms of Sam Fuller’s work in 2021, as a divergence from my noir preoccupation. 

So while I would usually press on with a review of the film here, I’ll just summarise that I really enjoyed it and that I intend to write a proper post about it when I get to re-watch in decent quality on Indicator’s Blu-ray, presumably early next year (where did 2021 go?). Consider this post a teaser for a forthcoming attraction, be still your beating hearts, eh?