CinemaScope was de rigueur at Fox at this moment (1955), so here is Samuel Fuller going widescreen for a bright-lit color-filled noir shot in Japan. Like Hell and High Water just before it, it feels as though Fuller is not yet happy about ‘Scope, and unless you have a giant TV it looks very tableau-heavy, with small figures moving around in large spaces.
However, Fuller does juice things up, rolling the camera through the midst of a traditional dance (a movement broken up by the blundering of the hero) and, especially, finding dynamic angles on a rooftop climax, where the final showdown plays out on a large, rickety globe that spins as it hangs out over Tokyo. Another gangster story where the boss thinks the world is his.
That story: American Robert Stack (nothing but voice and trenchcoat, already auditioning for Eliot Ness) is the blunderer, come to Japan to find a dead buddy and initiating contact with the buddy’s widow (Shirley Yamaguchi). After trying to lean on a few pachinko-parlor managers, Stack gets leaned on by the real local Ichiban, Robert Ryan, who runs protection (and the occasional bank robbery) with his loyal harem of flunkies. Ryan is introduced when Stack is sent flying through a screen wall in the back of the frame and we discover the boss perched here, amused at the crudeness of this newcomer.
It doesn’t take long for Ryan to become fond of Stack, much to the jealous frustration of Cameron Mitchell, formerly Ryan’s pet. DeForest Kelley is also in there as a henchman, and Brad Dexter and Sessue Hayakawa are initially prominent although the movie seems to forget about them, not without reason. This is Robert Ryan’s show, and it’s one of those movies where the bad guy so outweighs the ostensible protagonist that they don’t really seem to be boxing in the same fight.
Fuller is always great with violent cultural contrasts, and there are succinct examples here: a corpse seen from ground level, its feet toward us, as Mount Fujiyama domes white and eternal in the background, for instance, a swell Fuller touch. If the widescreen format takes some of the customary Fuller oomph out of the experience, it adds to the sense of House of Bamboo as exotica. The U.S. fascination with Japanese things in the 1950s and early 60s, seemingly incongruous in the years following a terrible war, is served here, as the movie presents a Lazy Susan turntable from which we can select various items: kimono styles, tatami mats, and an egg “on a shingle” eaten with chopsticks.
The film also lives in Robert Ryan’s performance, continuing his run as one of the great neurotics in an age when people thought about neurosis. He wonders aloud why he saved a wounded Stack during a robbery – despite his policy to kill anybody injured during a job – without quite coming out and saying he has some sort of attraction for his underling. You’re not supposed to do that kind of wondering out loud when you’re the boss, but he can’t quite help himself. Ryan’s anguish never fits neatly into his movies, much to their benefit.
More thoughts on Fuller: http://roberthorton.wordpress.com/2009/11/20/sams-place/