HOUSE OF BAMBOO, another of director Samuel Fuller’s escapades in compelling nonsense, this 1955 crime saga makes the grade by virtue of striking Cinemascope location shooting in Japan, the first major US-made picture filmed entirely there following the war. Fuller’s characteristic directorial flourishes make the action scenes memorable, and his rewriting a screenplay first done by Harry Kleiner (for Street With No Name), changed the setting and added interracial romance and and some thinly veiled homosexual sexual subtext to a flashy if absurd heist plot. *
Posing as ‘Eddie Spanier’, a hood, U.S. Army Sgt. ‘Edward Kenner’ (Robert Stack) infiltrates a gang of American ex-servicemen turned thieves/killers commiting bold robberies in Japan. They’re led by cool customer ‘Sandy Dawson’ (Robert Ryan) and his close-for-comfort favorite ‘Griff’ (Cameron Mitchell). While learning the ropes in his undercover sting, Eddie/Edward develops a relationship with ‘Mariko’ (Shirley Yamaguchi), a “kimono-girl”, once secretly wed to a non-offed gang member.
Ryan’s tailor-made for his part, but Stack is one-note throughout, either stone-faced or snarling, and the character is too “ugly American” to summon any sympathy as hidden hero, let alone mate bait for the much more interesting Mariko/Yamaguchi (whose real-life journey is quite fascinating enough for its own movie). The basic premise, that American hoods could run a military-style crime outfit in a country filled with legions of lethal Yakuza is patently ludicrous—the uprisen sons of the Sun would dice them into western-fried squid rolls before you could say “This is no drill!”
Memorable set-pieces: the opening train robbery framed against wintry Mt. Fuji; a stunning rooftop tracking shot following extravagantly costumed kabuki dancers through their routine; Ryan’s bathtub dispatch of his ‘friend’, complete with kinky post-riddling caress; the sensational gunfight finale atop a daringly-situated tilted carousel 20 stories high. Stack recalled the unease he and Ryan felt during the last, as the gizmo was rusty and was further unbalanced by the weight of the huge CinemaScope camera.
Scored by the unsung Leigh Harline, photographed by Joseph MacDonald. With Brad Dexter, Sessue Hayakawa (dubbed by Richard Loo), DeForest Kelley, Biff Elliot, Harry Carey Jr., Barry Coe, John Doucette, Reiko Sato and Teru Shimada. Made for a thrifty $1,380,000, landing 69th in ’55 with a gross of $4,900,000. 102 minutes.
* At the time, just a half handful of western-made movies had shot in postwar Japan: exteriors for Bogart’s 1949’s Tokyo Joe; the 1951 Commie-bash programmer Tokyo File 212 (okayed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur). In 1955, taking advantage of CinemaScope, 20th Century Fox sent crews to Hong Kong for Soldier of Fortune, Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing and The Left Hand Of God, but they were 2nd-unit personnel getting background footage to match the stars work on sets back in the States. Fuller, however, put his actors on scene in Tokyo, Yokohama and the Japanese countryside, capturing not just the scenery but the crowds they interacted with—and sometimes evaded, tension still in the air. Besides earning critical admiration in the brash director’s colorful oeuvre, House Of Bamboo serves not just as a convincing immersion into place but as a time-capsule document of a changing culture.