THE CRIMSON KIMONO, written, produced & directed by rat-a-tat provocateur Samuel Fuller in 1959, is right up his maverick alley, tackling controversial material with slapdash, in-your-face visual style and pulp punchy, melodramatic writing that bounces back & forth between cheeky and cheesy. Like the script, the acting doesn’t settle for subtle.
“Maybe there was a look on my face. A look of…hate! Normal, healthy, jealous hate!
Los Angeles. When stripper ‘Sugar Torch’ is gunned down on a busy street in “Little Tokyo”, detectives ‘Joe Kojako’ (James Shigeta) and ‘Charlie Bancroft’ (Glenn Corbett), Korean war buddies and room-mates, get the case. After art student ‘Christine Downes’ (Victoria Shaw) does a sketch of a likely suspect, both cops fall for her in turn. The easygoing Joe reveals his interest after the more insistent Charlie has commenced courting, and Christine readily reciprocates. These are all sped-up situations. Joe’s worried that Charlie will take it badly (they’re friends and all); his other concern is over the racial aspect (Joe being Japanese-American, Christine a Caucasian). His own reverse prejudices flame up. Meanwhile, there’s a killer to track.
Interesting for the period location shooting in Little Tokyo (L.A. having the largest Japanese-American population in North America), and for the twin debuts of Shigeta, 29, and Corbett, 25, the murder mystery takes a decided back seat to the relationship-ripping racial animus. In a switch, the bigotry is perceived rather than real, and it’s on the part of the guilt & identity conflicted Joe. Both actors would go on to better work. Here they’re pushed to be overly intense: strut, sweat & spar.
Over on the Dish vs. Dame front, Shaw (a former model from Australia) is attractive but placid (her career was brief), while veteran Anna Lee gets more scenery to chew, playing a cynical, hard-drinking, cigar-toking avant-garde artist who goes by ‘Mac’. Quaffing bourbon, Mac makes with morsels like “You’ll find my murals in Skid Row’s finest bars and brothels” and “Smoking a cigarette is like drinking beer out of a thimble. A man is only a man, my dear, but a good cigar is a smoke.”
Harry Sukman’s dramatic score and Sam Leavitt’s gritty camerawork are creditable (the startling opener sequence is especially good). Though the delivery is often on comic book level, the race prejudice material was notably ahead of the curve, particularly the then-novel resolution. Columbia unceremoniously dumped it onto a double bill with the WW2 trifle Battle Of The Coral Sea, not exactly the right companion piece for bridging culture gaps. *
82 minutes, with Paul Dubov, Gloria Pall (as ‘Sugar Torch’), Pat Silver, Fuji, Bob Okazaki and Walter Burke.
* Fuller, on the murder scene opener: “I had the cameras hidden so I could get the real reaction of people seeing an almost naked girl running down Sixth and Main Street. And most of the people she passed didn’t even turn around. I wanted her to fall…right in the middle of all the traffic passing. This was real traffic, except that I had father and daughter stunt drivers who would know this naked girl would run in front and be shot. It’s real traffic, but it’s timed, they’re in the lead. So we did it, hidden cameras, and I shot my gun into the sky and she falls. And as soon as we got it we bundled her into the car and took off. And then the shit hit the fan. A lot of people heard the shot, saw the girl fall, and they called the cops. And the cops came and they’re looking for the body of this big stripper. I still had to get a close shot and we couldn’t go back there for hours, until the cops cleared off. ”