National Classic Movie Day Blogathon: 5 Favorite Films of the 1950s

Thank you Classic Film & TV Cafe for hosting this Blogathon!

Though it’s tantamount to utter absurdity to try and whittle all my personal favorites of the decade down to five choices (I might cheat a little), this is part of the fun of such lists, isn’t it? Each one is highly subjective. No two are the same. They change on whims; different today, tomorrow, and the next. But I will do the best to make a go of it.

If anything this is a humble beacon — a twinkling five-sided star — meant to shine a light upon my profound affinity for classic movies on this aptly conceived National Classic Movie Day. For those in need of gateway films, these are just a few I would recommend without deep analysis, solely following my most guttural feelings. Hopefully that is recommendation enough. Let the adulation begin!

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1. Singing In The Rain (1952):

Many classic film enthusiasts weren’t always so. At least, on many occasions, there was a demarcation point where the scales tipped and they became a little more frenzied in their pursuits. For someone like me, I didn’t always watch many movies. However, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds were household names even from my earliest recollections.

Singin’ in the rain with the giddy abandon of Don and bringing down the house with gags like Cosmo were childhood aspirations. Kathy, the young hopeful, aspired for big dreams, not unlike my own. They were idols because they made life and the movies — even song and dance — so very euphoric. It took me many years to know this was a part of a musical cottage industry or who Cyd Charisse was (because we’d always fast-forward through that risque interlude). Regardless of anything else, the film effects me in the most revelatory way. You can barely put words to it. You need simply to experience it firsthand.

After seeing it so many times it becomes comforting to return again and again. What’s even better is how the magic never dies. We lost Stanley Donen this year but this extraordinary piece of entertainment will live on for generations to come.

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2. Roman Holiday (1953)

I distinctly remember the first time I ever saw Roman Holiday. It was on an international flight to England. I was young and ignorant with not the slightest idea who Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck were. You can determine whether or not I was living under a rock or not. However, what did happen is a young kid was decisively swept off his feet by a film. Those were before the days I gave even a moderate consideration of directors like William Wyler, much less debated or bandied about terms like auteur.

What does become so evident is the chemistry between our stars, hardly manufactured, even as the setting, placed in living, breathing Rome, imbues a certain authentic vitality of its own. Vespa rides are exhilarating. The sites are still ones I want to see and haven’t. And of course, I’ve only grown in my esteem of both Audrey and Mr. Peck as I’ve gotten older.

It’s crazy to imagine my only point of reference for such a picture was Eddie Albert (having been bred on more than a few episodes of Green Acres). Any way you slice it, this is, in my book, the quintessential romantic comedy because it is part fairy tale and it comes with all the necessary trimmings, while still planting itself in the real world. I always exit the halls of the palace feeling rejuvenated. Each time it’s like experiencing wonderful memories anew.

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3. Rear Window (1954)

It’s a weighty task to even begin considering your favorite film but to make it easier on myself whenever the inevitable question is dropped in my lap, I’m quick to reply: Rear Window. The answer is actually quite an easy one. Alfred Hitchcock is as good a reason as any. Add James Stewart and Grace Kelly and you’ve entered the gold standard of movie talent. They don’t come more iconic.

The Master of Suspense’s chilling thriller was another fairly early viewing experience with me and it immediately left an impression. Again, it’s another example of how appreciation can mature over time. Thelma Ritter is always a favorite. The use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound throughout the picture accentuates this artificial but nevertheless meticulous sense of authenticity.

How Hitchcock utilizes the fragments of music and the supporting characters in the courtyard to comment on these secondary themes of romantic love playing against the central mystery is superb. It’s a perfect coalescing of so much quality in one compelling cinematic endeavor. Even down to how the opening and final scenes are cut perfectly, introducing the story and encapsulating the progression of character from beginning to end. It is pure visual cinema.

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4. 12 Angry Men (1957)

I care deeply about interpersonal relationships and as movies have become more a part of my life it has become increasingly more important for them to hold a microscope to how we interact with one another in the world at hand. For me, there are very few films that channel real human relationships in a meaningful way as effectively as Sidney Lumet’s debut 12 Angry Men. Like Rear Window, it is developed in limiting environs and yet rather than such constraints leading to the stagnation of a story, it only serves to ratchet the tension.

Because the ensemble is an impeccable range of stars spearheaded by Henry Fonda and balanced out by a wide array of talent including a pair of friends from my classic sitcom days John Fiedler (The Bob Newhart Show) and Jack Klugman (The Odd Couple). However, all of this is only important because the story has actual consequence. Here we have 12 men battling over the verdict on a young man’s life.

But as any conflict has the habit of doing, it brings out all the prejudices, inconsistencies, and blind spots uncovered and aggravated when people from varying points of views are thrust in a room together. it’s an enlightening and ultimately humbling experience for me every time because it challenges me to actively listen to where others are coming from and empathize with their point of view so we can dialogue on a sincere level. It’s also simultaneously a sobering analysis of the gravity of the American justice system.

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5. Some Like it Hot (1959)

I most recently saw Some Like it Hot as part of a retrospective across the globe from where I usually call home. But what a wonderful viewing experience it was. Again, it’s akin to getting back together with old friends. I personally love Jack Lemmon to death and paired with Tony Curtis and the incomparable Marilyn Monroe, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more hair-brained, raucous comedy coming out of Hollywood.

Billy Wilder is certainly one reason for this and I’ve always come to admire his ability for screwball and often mordant wit. There is arguably no higher watermark than Some Like it Hot and the script is wall-to-wall with hilarious gags and scenarios. Like all the great ones, you wait for a favorite line with expectancy only to be ambushed by another zinger you never found time to catch before.

But there is also a personal element to the picture. Many might know the Hotel Del Coronado in sunny San Diego filled in for the Florida coast and having spent many a lovely day on those very shores, I cannot help but get nostalgic. Not only was this film indicative of a different time — the jazz age by way of the 1950s — it also suggests a very different juncture in my own life. While I cannot have the time back I can look on those memories fondly just as I do with this film…

So there you have it. I gave it my best shot pulling from personal preference and the idealistic leanings of my heart of hearts. I hope you enjoyed my Top 5 from The ’50s!

But wait…


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Honorary Inclusion: The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Full disclosure. I know this is cheating but I take any occasion I possibly can to promote Sam Fuller‘s gritty Little Tokyo police procedural. For me, it deserves a special acknowledgment. As a Japanese-American and coming from a multicultural background myself, it was a groundbreaking discovery and an unassuming film with a richness proving very resonant over the recent years. It blends elements so very near and dear to me. Namely, film noir and my own heritage — all wrapped up into one wonderful B-film package. Please give it a watch!

THE END

Bridge to the Sun: An Analysis of a Cross-Cultural Romance (2015)

bridgetothe7Bridge to the Sun is one of those films that was ahead of its time. Its main actors are hardly remembered by modern audiences. The top-billed leading lady, Carroll Baker, was probably more notorious for her controversial persona in films like Tennessee’s Williams’ Baby Doll than she was famous. James Shigeta was a pioneering Japanese-American actor, who was once told, “If you were white, you’d be a hell of a big star” (The Slanted Screen). He aged gracefully but was slowly relegated from leading roles to bit parts. Belgium director Etienne Perier was only a slight blip on the Hollywood radar. When it came out in 1961, its narrative based on the memoir of Gwen Terasaki ended up being an abysmal flop. Honestly, it’s not all that surprising, because the public was not ready for such a film, and its candid depiction of interracial marriage. Now, with a fresh pair of eyes in the 21st century, Bridge to the Sun looks quite extraordinary. Certainly, this is a love story, but under very different circumstances, in a very different world. Although it was made in the classical Hollywood mode, it still manages to groundbreaking, not necessarily due to its form, but thanks to its content. Because Bridge to the Sun places an Asian man and a Caucasian woman together, as they navigate two starkly different cultures both tottering on the brink of war.

bridgetothe6In truth, this film does not shy away from showing their affection, even though it undoubtedly made some viewers squeamish at the time. More than once Gwen and Terry embrace in intimate moments that signify the deep-rooted love that holds them together. Sometimes it’s far from easy. For instance, when they first travel to Japan, Gwen finds it difficult living in a culture where women are meant to be wholly subservient to their husbands. She’s fine with the bowing and the taking off of shoes even, but not being allowed to speak her mind is about the limit.

This sentiment is reflected perfectly in a sequence right after some guests solemnly file out of Terry and Gwen’s home after a dinner party. Gwen is dressed in traditional garb with an annoyed look plastered on her face, and her husband silently glowers behind her. Their home is quiet and still, the light all but gone from the dark interiors. Finally, she turns around and breaks the silence by voicing her annoyance.

What follows is a single medium shot that frames both our protagonists and then a classic shot-reverse shot paradigm perfectly captures the ensuing quarrel between the married couple. It’s seamless, hardly extravagant, and it allows all the focus to fall on the verbal blows being dealt during their marital tiff. There is also great irony in how Gwen is dressed in a kimono and wig, while at the same time pushing back against the cultural expectations.  The intonations of her voice are high-pitched and enraged while Terry’s retorts are low and authoritative in juxtaposition.

One of the most telling lines comes when Gwen positively erupts after Terry chides her to keep her mouth shut, “according to custom.” The major distinction is that this is his custom and not her own. A cultural gap has developed. One set of customs feels antiquated, the other modern. One set seems honorable, the other blunt. There is this obvious dissonance between them, and in many ways, these two individuals are a perfect embodiment of the chafing that is going on globally. Except the important difference is that Terasakis manage to compromise, while the world around them plunges ever deeper into conflict.

bridgetothe3Gwen and Terry cannot stay mad forever, especially with the birth of their little girl Mako. In fact, it is actually in a moment when their family is in danger of being pulled apart that Gwen shows her true resilience and loyalty as a wife. Pearl Harbor has just blown up and that means there is a freeze on all Japanese aliens. Terry is stuck at the embassy about to be deported, and an FBI agent advises Gwen that she would be much better off staying in the states. But as she converses with him you can see the determination in her eyes. She knows what it means to go to Japan. Her daughter as a child of mix race will be scorned, and Gwen herself will be looked down upon if not endangered by her status as an American citizen.

Her blubbering aunt implores her not to go, but in one of the film’s most impactful close-ups, Gwen tells Aunt Peggy off. She is not about to be split up from her husband – not after all they have gone through. It is in this other high intensity moment that we see her for who she truly is. She’s not about to be constrained by the cultural expectations placed upon her, and it goes both ways whether they are Japanese or American.

Mrs. Terasaki traverses the gauntlet of jeering crowds with all the other Japanese wives. She’s an easy target in the sea of Japanese, and the racist slurs are aimed just as scurrilously at her as anyone else, perhaps even more so. A noose hangs around the neck of a grotesque caricature of Tojo outside the fence, and still Gwen goes bravely on, covering her daughter’s ears, and comforting Mako the best she can in the hateful tumult. In this moment, we have yet another fascinating intersection of cultures. Gwen, a Caucasian woman from Tennessee is being transported along with alien immigrants back across the ocean like one of “the enemy.” She willingly gives up her status, her comfort, and even her very safety to hold her family together.

Of course, the situation in Japan is not ideal either, and the Terasaki’s have it rough. When they arrive abroad there is the same discrimination and the myriad of strange looks. Terry’s loyalty is questioned as he tries to mediate between the two warring nations. The ethnicity of his wife doesn’t help, and the fire bombs raining down from up above don’t exactly calm their nerves. But again and again, Terry and Gwen prove to be a resilient couple.

With the war in high gear, the Terasaki’s eke out an existence, while Terry does his best to avoid imprisonment from his own government. Meanwhile, the bullets and bombs continue to rain down, even in the countryside where the family now resides. On one such occasion, Mako is scampering through town with a friend and “the enemy” strikes. To his credit, Perier convincingly pieces together aerial footage with what is occurring down below. Airplane motors whirr menacingly. The Terasakis race towards town frantic to find their daughter. The planes begin their descent followed by waves of bullets as Japanese soldiers get in position to fight back. It’s utter chaos with smoke, fires, overturned vehicles, fleeing people, and finally dead bodies. The death toll includes soldiers and a little child. Mako lives, but her best friend perishes trying to salvage a doll. It’s in this climatic moment that all the Terasakis are huddled together after both parents rush to protect their girl and give aid to the dying friend. The fighting persists and both look up. First, Terry yells out something almost completely stifled by the noise, and then with Mako cradled in her arms, Gwen screams, “No More!” at the top of her lungs in exasperation.

Miracubridgetothe4lously these individuals salvaged their marriage and preserved their family. Meanwhile, the world around them would not make the necessary concessions. It allowed cultural differences to define relationships, and ultimately increase the void between nations. The rubble of WWII was eventually cleared and new hope was built upon that foundation. In reality, the chronicles of the Terasakis was an emblem of that hope. Inherent in their story is the possibility that two people and two nations really, can be reconciled and even thrive together. Perhaps the United States was not ready for such a message to come out of Hollywood, even as late as the 1960s, but nevertheless, it seems like a message we can certainly take to heart today.

Bridge to the Sun (1961)

bridgetothe1Bridge to the Sun is one of those films that was ahead of its time. Its main players are hardly remembered by modern audiences. Belgium director Etienne Perier was only a little blip on the Hollywood radar. The leading lady Carroll Baker was probably more notorious for her controversial role in Tennessee’s William’s Baby Doll than she was famous. James Shigeta was a pioneering actor, who was famously told, “If you were white, you’d be a hell of a big star.” He aged gracefully, but was slowly relegated from leading roles to bit parts in Hawaii Five-O and Die Hard. In truth, the film, based on the memoirs of one Gwen Terasaki, does suffer from a clunky script at times, and the box office returns were not too favorable. In fact, it was an outrageous flop back in 1961.

But now, with a fresh pair of eyes from the 21st century, Bridge to the Sun looks different and dare I say, groundbreaking for its candid depiction of interracial romance. Certainly, this is the story of two people falling in love, but under very different circumstances, in a very different world circa 1935. Gwen is a talkative young woman from Johnson City, Tennessee, who is more than thrilled to venture to the Japanese embassy with her aunt. Like any ignorant American she wants to meet a real-life Japanese, altogether bewitched by their manners and culture. Chopsticks are not exactly her forte, nor sushi. And yet the moment she meets the handsome young Japanese Ambassador Hidenari “Terry” Terasaki, there is an immediate connection. Yes, their cultures are so different which they will be reminded of again and again, but most importantly they love each other passionately. So much so that they disregard relatives and even superiors when it comes to whom they will spend the rest of their lives with. Theirs’ is a true romance.

bridgetothe2In fact, this film does not shy away from showing that affection, even though it undoubtedly made some viewers squeamish at the time. More than once Gwen and Terry embrace in intimate moments that signify the deep-seated love that holds them together. Because it’s far from easy. Gwen finds it difficult living in a Japanese culture where the woman is meant to be wholly subservient to her husband. She’s fine with the bowing and the taking off of shoes even, but not being allowed to talk is about the limit. With his family, her strong, lovable husband now seems cold and distant. However, they cannot stay mad forever and soon enough their little girl Mako is born, making them a happy little family. But of course, imperial Japan and isolationist America are on the brink of conflict and Terry and his family are tottering on the brink of calamity. He’s seemingly one man trying to hold together the relations of two nations that he has such close ties to. One because of his wife, the other due to his birth. Then, on a fateful day in December 1941 Japan struck the first blow and life would never be the same. Terry is now being detained and Gwen is fearful she might be forever separated from her husband. Disregarding what everyone else says, she takes her young daughter and follows her husband once again to his homeland – knowing full well what might be in store for her and her daughter.

bridgetothe5And when they arrive abroad there is the discrimination and the myriad of strange looks. Even as she makes the long journey across the sea all the white folk scoff at her, but Gwen takes it calmly and fearlessly. Once overseas the climate has changed greatly and now Terry is being questioned for his loyalty. The ethnicity of his wife doesn’t help and the firebombs raining down from above don’t exactly calm their nerves. But again and again, Terry and Gwen prove to be a resilient couple. The anomaly that should never have happened—seemingly could never have happened, and yet they did and they remained unequivocally together.

The days drag on and the plight of the people is worse and worse as Gwen waits anxiously for Terry to return. Finally, he does, badly battered, but soon enough the war ends and a happier ending seems in store. Well, perhaps it’s not quite as cheerful as we should want, but the one true fact is that Bridge to the Sun remains a love story to the end and that’s something you cannot snatch away from it.

As a Japanese-American myself, this film really hits home in many ways. There’s this strange dichotomy developed between Japan and the U.S. Both had their share of prejudice, but it was not so much modern systematic racism, but ignorant bigotry. They got so caught up in their own culture and ways of doing things they were not ready to open up to others. Thus, whites were meant for whites and “Orientals” with “Orientals.” Certainly, this is a narrow-minded presupposition and this story speaks to that longstanding injustice.

Mind you, there is no maliciousness in this statement because it goes both ways. The Japanese at times undoubtedly treated Gwen perhaps far worse than the Americans treated Terry. But the point is that these two represented something special. Maybe they did not think so in the moment because they were in love. But their story is gripping simply due to the fact that it feels like the exception, just like Carroll Baker and James Shigeta playing opposite each other was the exception. That is why I’m drawn to stories like this, and not just in film, but life and history. I don’t want to know just about the status quo, I want to know about those who were willing to step out and be different. I want to know who was brave enough to step out and be a bridge to the sun, whether that may be Japan or somewhere else altogether.

3.5/5 Stars

The Crimson Kimono: An Analysis of Noir Realism and Race (2015)

crimsonk1What makes Film-Noir intriguing is not simply the crime aspect but the fact that they are films with worldviews that are often weighed down by cynicism. Film-Noir depicts the harsh realities of human nature that few other films would ever dare to acknowledge onscreen. People are broken at their core; continually led to their own devices whether it’s greed or their own personal insecurities. These films give us a fascinating microscope by which to examine all the pain and prejudices that abound within the human condition.  Samuel Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1959) shares some of these qualities, acting as a realistic procedural that employs cinematography and setting to say something about the world we live in. Furthermore, it has a remarkable stance on race relations, specifically for Japanese-Americans, that was ahead of its time and has hardly ever been matched.

Through an analysis of The Crimson Kimono it becomes obvious that it is a striking film in the noir tradition, blessed with an urban realism that brings 1950s Los Angeles to life for us. As Samuel Fuller himself points out, “The thing that is most noir about Crimson Kimono…is how [he] shot it.” He was “in Little Tokyo and lots of other actual locations downtown, with cameras hiding in trucks, shooting at night with fast film because [he] could not put out lights” and as a result, the film has “a hard, gritty realistic look” (Film Noir Reader 3). When the action heads to the streets and hooker Sugar Torch is fleeing from an unseen assailant, it definitely has the gritty, atmospheric realism that Fuller was alluding to. This is a real place where we could be. These will be the same streets that Joe and Charlie will soon be hitting on their beat. Ironically, when Fuller shot the scene live he noted that he didn’t really “get much dramatic reaction.” Despite the fact that “An almost naked, six-foot-tall blonde is running for her life down the street,” nobody seemed to care and nobody looked (Film Noir Reader 3). That is the world of Los Angeles, full of indifferent masses that could care less whether something looks real or is real. It makes no difference to them because it fails to affect their existence. It is a dismal worldview, very representative of noir, but the odd thing is that Charlie and Joe are not like this at first. They are heroic, honest individuals with the duty of weighing through this noir world as part of their vocation. Thus, they oblige out of necessity and only then does it get to them. Even so, there is an argument that it is not the world, but their personal hang-ups that tear them apart.

Their investigation leads them to “Little Tokyo,” which becomes an integral locale within the context of the film and Fuller uses it effectively. For instance, in one scene Joe walks the streets with a Mr. Yoshinaga after meeting him at a cemetery. It’s a highly mundane moment and yet Fuller still manages to make it interesting. It is also less austere than the earlier scene of Sugar’s murder since banners are flying and locals are milling about the storefronts. That’s why it becomes an interesting setting for a chase sequence, taking the everyday environment and turning it into a point of drama. It reinforces the fact that Fuller seems to be more interested in the realism of common incidences compared to high drama. It’s almost as if he’s a journalist again trying to get a juicy feature story. It’s ordinary, real and it meets people where they are at.

One of the most significant moments occurs later on during the kendo match where Joe and Charlie are supposed to face off as part of the Nisei Week Festival. It’s a big deal and flyers are plastered all over the town so people will turn out for the event. Within the context of the film, it matters on several levels. The fact that Charlie is Joe’s equal suggests that martial arts are not just stereotypically Asian, but they can be universal. Perhaps most importantly their bout reveals the descent of Joe into utter resentment because he disregards all the traditions of Kendo and begins to go after his friend with a vengeance. It’s the turning point that Charlie cannot forgive Joe for and for good reason. The sequence plays out as quick cuts between masked faces, swords, dancing feet, and exuberant onlookers. Practically before we know what has happened Joe begins beating Charlie over the head and lays him out. It is such a rapid about-face that is underlined by Joe’s own insecurities, which we will get to delve into later.

The culmination of the film occurs during the festivities, with music, dancing, banners, lanterns, and girls in kimonos. It seems fitting that Fuller’s entire story leads us to this point at such a public place full of your usual bystanders. It’s theatrical while still maintaining a sense of the real world. Here again, we have a third chase scene except this time Fuller does something especially interesting with the music. During the pursuit there is a symphony of conflicting tunes going on between the bands: “One plays classic music, one plays Japanese music, one plays hot music, and so on. Whenever [Fuller] cut from the killer to the pursuer, the music changed. That gave [him] the discordant and chaotic note” that was desired (The Director’s Event). It seems like such a simple detail and yet it truly is clever in conception, because it adds another layer of realism to the scene while simultaneously utilizing diegetic sound for dramatic effect. It could be implied that the music also reflects Joe and Charlie’s own feelings of confusion and friction, which injured their friendship and Charlie’s ego. It’s ultimately Joe who has to parse through all the noise and commotion ultimately finding the truth. It’s no small coincidence that once again we find ourselves on the urban streets at night just like when Sugar Torch was gunned down. Fuller parallels that earlier scene and yet so much has changed. This time around there is a hint of hope, but a sour taste is still left in the mouth. It suggests that you cannot fully escape the darkness and anxieties that seem to engulf us because this world can never truly have a perfect ending.

Fuller’s film crimsonk2has murder attempts, gunshots, fist fights, etc. However, he knows how to simplify scenes getting only the necessary elements out of them. When Sugar Torch crumples to the ground we hear the shot and that’s all we need. When an attempt is taken on Chris’s life we see the gun pointed ominously and again we hear the shot but that’s all. There’s a cut to a new scene and Fuller gives us all the details we need to know.  In a sense, it’s about an economy of images that allow this film to be short, at only 78 minutes, and still, pack a punch. It definitely was out of necessity that Fuller did many of these things which would have saved time and money, but it also undoubtedly caused him to come up with creative solutions. The Crimson Kimono like many of Fuller’s films is hardly sleek or polished and that is part of the allure. It is the opposite of typical Hollywood and it fits film-noir so beautifully. It has the same harshness as one of Fuller’s other works Pickup on South Street (1953). What it lacks in a femme fatale or Cold War sentiment, The Crimson Kimono makes up for in how it tackles romance and the job of a policeman with a subtle touch. For this reason, it may be less of a film-noir than Pickup and perhaps a lesser film, but there is still power in its story and the racial lines that it willfully challenged. It also seems necessary to acknowledge a bit of Samuel Fuller’s background, because it further influenced his filmmaking. He came from a Jewish family in New York and dropped out of school to write for a newspaper along with penning pulp fiction novels. He served during WWII and when he came back he began a storied career as a writer and director of frequently subversive “B pictures.” His versatility is especially remarkable, cycling through all types of films from westerns, to crime films to war dramas, elevating them above “B” quality. Part of the reason is that he never gave into conventions and his genuine depictions of race in films like The Steel Helmet (1951), Run the Arrow (1957) and The Crimson Kimono were ahead of their time.

crimsonk3The Crimson Kimono is an extraordinary film historically because it depicts something that we very rarely see, especially for 1959. The late, great actor James Shigeta portrayed the straight-laced policeman and former Korean War hero named Joe Kojaku. He’s a sympathetic figure and hardly a caricature. His best friend is the Caucasian Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett), who is on the LAPD with Joe and a war buddy. They are inseparable and they share a flat. Above all, the most amazing thing is that Joe gets the girl over his friend! That might be a small victory, but I have seen a lot of films to know that the Asian guy never gets the girl, especially if she is Caucasian. Sam Fuller subverts the norm and it is a major statement on interracial romance in an age when many would have scoffed at it. However, Fuller also takes immense care to look at both sides of the equation, and he allows both men the benefit of the doubt. Joe must figure out his own identity even acknowledging, “I was born here. I’m American but what am I? Japanese, Japanese American, Nisei? What label do I live under?” The question is not an easy one and it is one that he struggles with over the course of the entire film, navigating his feelings towards Charlie and then the beautiful artist Chris (Victoria Shaw).

The-crimson-kimono-1959_posterRegrettably, posters for this film were highly shallow and sensational reflecting the age with taglines like “Yes, this is a beautiful American girl in the arms of a Japanese boy!” or “What was his strange appeal for American girls?” It places this character in the typical category of an exotic lover. He’s not a real man, only an enticing mysterious foreigner with strange appeal. Likewise, the title Crimson Kimono itself brings to mind oriental exoticism involving strange dress and foreign culture. This could have just as easily been a dated film of yellowface and Asian stereotypes, but it’s superfluous to judge this film by its posters and title alone. When you actually watch Fuller’s work these are not the focal points at all. As Fuller later said himself, “The whole idea of [his] picture is that both men are good cops and good citizens. The girl just happens to fall in love with the Nisei. They’ve got chemistry” (A Third Face). Chris likes Joe because he is a genuine hero, not because the other man is not. Joe is sweet and shares a love of art (piano and painting) like her. She could care less that he’s Asian just like Charlie could care less. Those are the kind of people they are.

Fuller’s depiction goes both ways, however, because while he never sells Kojaku short, he also suggests that Joe might be part of the problem. Fuller notes that he “was trying to make an unconventional triangular love story, laced with reverse racism, a kind of narrow-mindedness that is just as deplorable as outright bigotry. [He] wanted to show that whites aren’t the only ones susceptible to racist thoughts” (A Third Face). This ends up happening with Joe since he gets so caught up in prejudice, his own prejudice, that it wrecks his relationships with his friend. Charlie is not angry because Joe, an Asian, stole his girl. Charlie is understandably irritated because his best friend took the girl who he really liked without telling Charlie his true feelings. Joe makes the mistake of attributing this to a question of race, but Charlie, like Fuller, is not that shallow. His reaction is purely a human reaction that develops in any romance when two men who are equals go after one girl and only one can come out on top. It hurts no matter what race, color or creed they are. That’s just the reality and that’s the lesson that Joe does not understand at first. He seems to care too much about the race question and potentially even his identity. It ultimately damages his relationship with Charlie and we cannot know for sure if it will ever be repaired, even if we would like them to patch things up. Thus, Fuller combats racism from both angles, including minorities who might take on the role of a victim too quickly. Because the reality is, issues of race almost always get blown way out of proportion with both sides being hypersensitive. Fuller seems to have the right handle on the situation, not stooping to unwarranted stereotypes and not heaping all the blame on the majority. Sometimes everybody is at fault at least a little bit. That’s simply how life is and that’s how it gets depicted in The Crimson Kimono, with a sensitive, albeit, realistic touch. Furthermore, one could argue that it is a typical noir ending because although Joe still gets the girl it came at a steep cost.

crimsonk4The Crimson Kimono is riveting from the beginning because it is such a groundbreaking and rare piece of film history. It presented on film something that we never see or very rarely see: a relationship between an Asian man and Caucasian woman. In the hands of Samuel Fuller, this unique but still mundane tale is kept thoroughly engaging. He infused his screenplay with visuals of Los Angeles and realism that makes his characters all the more believable. His camera is able to take the everyday and make it dramatic while we continue to invest in these people. It seems fitting to end the discussion with a quote from the man himself. He affirmed that “One film never really gives me complete satisfaction. Nor should it. All creative people must learn how to deal with the imperfect and the incomplete. There is no end in art. Every accomplishment is the dawn of the next challenge.” That’s what makes the films of Samuel Fuller meaningful. No one film can ever have everything. The Crimson Kimono does not have every answer on race and it certainly does not have every convention of film-noir. It’s imperfect, but it is a jumping off point for future endeavors and dialogue.

The Crimson Kimono (1959)

crimsonk1From director Samuel Fuller comes another welcomed addition to his canon. It features the same type of seedy urban landscapes and back alleys of Pick up on South Street (1953) and there are some equally interesting characters like Mac (Anna Lee). It all is underlined by some sleazy jazz music in the vein of Sweet Smell of Success except this one is set in L.A.

The plot line is basic enough following two policemen as they investigate the homicide of a local stripper with a heart of gold and wasted plans for a new show involving kimonos and karate. Their only real lead is a painting and the name that goes with it. That’s where the more interesting part of the story begins.

I failed to mention that one of the cops is Caucasian. His name is Detective Sergeant Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett). His partner is Japanese-American or “Nisei,” meaning the second generation. Detective Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta) is his name. The beauty of their relationship, which is one of Fuller’s focuses, is that they are equals who are inseparable ever since landing in a fox hole together in Korea.  Charlie was saved by a pint of Joe’s blood, Charlie practices kendo with Joe in their off hours, and they live together on the side. You cannot get much closer than that.

The movement of the plot leads them to Ms. Chris Downes (Victoria Shaw), a pretty young painter who is the only witness who potentially saw the man who shot Sugar Torch. In between looking at journals full of mug shots, she gets to know both Charlie and Joe. Charlie sees himself falling in love with her and like anyone he tells his best friend. Joe is happy for him until the fateful moment when he is alone with Chris. She makes her affection for him quite plain because he’s a pretty great guy, but as a good friend, he doesn’t do anything. It tears him apart and it only hurts them as they plod on with the homicide.

What follows is a painful love triangle embroiled with issues of race, friendship, and misguided notions. It’s jarring because these three are all likable and you want only the best for them, but it cannot be remedied like the murder which ultimately gets wrapped up neatly.

crimsonk4Samuel Fuller always tackles issues of race head on like no other. In fact, he was ahead of his time when no one else would show such relationships, romantic or otherwise, on the silver screen. Beyond whether or not an Asian man and a Caucasian woman romantically involved was accepted back in the 1950s or not, it probably was not what audience cared to see at the movies. To me, now, it’s really interesting, especially to see such non-stereotypical roles all across the board. It’s a breath of fresh air from the Charlie Chans and Mr. Motos.

On another level, Fuller’s camera makes solitary L.A. street corners and the bustling Nisei festival amazingly dynamic. It brings Little Tokyo alive, filling it with genuine people, sights, and sounds. Thank you, Sam Fuller.

It’s like mixing two dabs of paint together. You could never separate them.” ~ Mac on Charlie and Joe

It’s what you think is behind every word and every look.” ~ Chris Downes

4/5 Stars

Die Hard (1988)

4062f-die_hardStarring a cast including Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, the film opens during the Christmas season with cop John McClaine arriving in L.A. to be with his estranged wife and kids. He goes to an office party to meet his wife and that is when terrorists strike. John gets away unnoticed and he must wage a one man war against the criminal mastermind Hans Gruber, and his henchmen. First the police, then the FBI get involved but they can do little to remedy the situation from the outside. It comes down to the grit and determination of McClaine to take on his adversary all throughout the skyscraper. Fittingly, it all culminates with a showdown with the man behind it all. This film is definitely full of action and excitement. Several of the characters are enjoyable to watch and a handful are quite irritating.

4.5/5 Stars