House of Bamboo

The surface-level narrative of Sam Fuller's House of Bamboo isn't particularly interesting – it's a busy, overstuffed gangster drama centered around a dull main character and frequently interrupted by a blandly-written romance. However, as a piece of old-school filmmaking, the movie is sensational – a gorgeous Cinemascope marvel which fuses Fuller's knack for grimy B-movie pulp with ravishing prestige picture beauty. This is a curious movie; a standard-issue crime drama dressed up as an exotic masterpiece. I liked it, mostly.

The story begins on a sensational note, as a Tokyo-bound military train containing both Japanese police and American soldiers is raided by well-trained thieves. The train's cargo (mostly guns and ammo) is stolen, and an American sergeant is killed in the midst of all the mayhem. The Americans and the Japanese agree to investigate the case together, with Captain Hanson (Brad Dexter, The Magnificent Seven) and Inspector Kito (Sessue Hayakawa, The Bridge on the River Kwai) taking the lead on each side. They begin by interrogating Webber (Biff Elliot, I, the Jury), a thief who was wounded and left behind. Webber is dying, but refuses to reveal the names of his collaborators. The only things the investigators are able to learn is that Webber is secretly married to a Japanese woman named Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi, Eternity), and that a friend of Webber's named Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack, Written on the Wind) is supposed to show up and join the gang in a few weeks.

Sure enough, Eddie turns up right on time. He tracks down Mariko, and cautions her to keep her relationship with Webber a secret. Later, he tracks down Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan, The Set-Up), the American gangster who organized the train heist. Webber was the only person who could have vouched for Eddie, but Sandy finds this gruff, blue-eyed newcomer intriguing. Sandy's gang is comprised entirely of ex-GIs who were dishonorably discharged, and Eddie certainly has the necessary qualifications: he did prison time for assaulting an officer, and was accused (but not convicted) of murder. Sandy invites Eddie to join the gang, and eventually invites him to serve as the gang's second-in-command – a move that makes Sandy's longtime associate Griff (Cameron Mitchell, How to Marry a Millionaire) more than a little jealous.

Though the film places a great deal of emphasis on the budding romance between Eddie and Mariko, the most interesting relationship is the subdued love triangle of sorts between Eddie, Sandy and Griff. Sandy is a closeted gay man, and it quickly becomes clear that his inexplicable fondness for Eddie is rooted in something deeper than mere admiration of Eddie's sordid history. Sandy loves Eddie, Griff loves Sandy and Eddie loves Mariko – a situation that is bound to leave a whole lot of people awfully unhappy. Naturally, the film (which was released in 1955) can't be too explicit about the abundance of same-sex attraction on display, but Fuller makes things as explicit as possible without actually spelling it out for the viewer.

Fuller is clearly head-over-heels in love with Japan, and House of Bamboo often feels like a love letter to the country's lush beauty. It's a distinctly American perspective: while Japanese filmmakers of the time often presented a country struggling to rebuild in the wake of war, Fuller sees a rich, vibrant culture that is still thriving in spite of everything. He makes tremendous use of the Cinemascope format, with one scene after another that feels like the visual equivalent of a contented sigh.

That fondness for the country isn't quite shared by the film's main character. As Julie Kirgo notes in her fine essay on the film, Eddie is more or less a standard-issue “ugly American,” a disheveled mess who stomps around demanding to know if anyone speaks English and who initially seems to embody an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise elegant canvas. Fuller seems to feel a much stronger kinship to Ryan's Sandy, a cultured villain with a deep appreciation for the aesthetic and rituals of the world he lives in. He knows that to thrive in Japan, you must become part of Japan – otherwise you're just drawing attention to yourself.

Time and time again, I'm struck by what a fine actor Ryan was. He's capable of playing (and usually underplaying) every emotion, and here essays one of his calmest and most collected characters. Sandy has a relaxed confidence that effectively offsets his troubling sadism – Sandy won't hesitate to kill his men if they become an inconvenience, but he tells them so in a manner that almost seems reassuring. You can't trust Sandy, but you can trust him to live by the code he has set for himself. Flashes of intense emotion only appear when he's grappling with his feelings for Eddie, most memorably in a scene which sees him warning Mariko not to treat Eddie poorly. It's a terrific performance.

Things are much duller when we switch back to the Eddie/Mariko scenes, which earn points for depicting an interracial romance in the 1950s and lose them for depicting Mariko as a subservient stereotype. More importantly, the scenes are consistently boring, with an overtly sentimental tone that tends to undercut the film's moody gangster-noir vibe. Still, Yamaguchi deserves credit for playing the role with more nuance than exists on the page (most of the characters refer to her as a “kimono”), and the scenes receive a bit of a boost from Leigh Harline's undeniably beautiful love theme.

House of Bamboo isn't a great film, but it's often a great piece of filmmaking – often enough to reward the time you invest in it, anyway. If you can forgive the run-of-the-mill crime plot (which includes an oh-so-predictable mid-film twist) and the generic romance, you'll be treated to a visually sumptuous work enhanced by a terrific Robert Ryan performance, a fine score, some strong setpieces (particularly that magnificent opening) and a complex, nuanced portrait of male repression. Considering the film's status as an expensive studio blockbuster, it manages to retain an impressive amount of Fuller's unmistakably vivid voice.

House of Bamboo

Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Year: 1955