House of Bamboo (1955)

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Leave it to Sam Fuller to make a film such as this — the first Hollywood film to be shot fully on location in Japan. His admiration for Japanese culture is not unheralded, specifically making something of a point to portray Japanese-Americans in pictures such as The Steel Helmet (1951) and The Crimson Kimono (1959).

And yet his style and sense of gritty bravado do at times feel out of place here as do the Hakujin military men milling about on Japanese soil. But even if his cultural awareness is not impeccable, I can’t help but feel that out of anyone who might have directed this movie, I’m somehow glad it was Fuller.  It is far more than its title might suggest.

Shot in CinemaScope with DeLuxe Color, its sumptuous widescreen photography is put on display even in the opening shot as we are given a gloriously panoramic exterior of Mt. Fuji with a train loaded with military arms. It’s subsequently hijacked by marauders who escape unimpeded. With typical Fuller ferocity, we have our inroad to the film’s main conflict with a couple of men murdered. Soon after, a dying soldier implicated in the raid on his deathbed worries for his Japanese wife.

The dialogue is a bit terse and stodgy with the typical melodramatic setups which nevertheless condense action and exposition into bite-sized chunks as the police begin a joint investigation conducted by Inspector Kitz (Sessue Hayakawa) and Captain Hanson (Brad Dexter).

Weeks later the dead man’s old war chum, Eddie Kenner (Robert Stack) comes to Japan on the proposition of some employment. With his friend dead he starts throwing his weight around to get answers. Kenner goes to a rooftop interrupting a traditional performance, having an exchange that’s the epitome of ignorant American pig-headedness.

There’s no attempt whatsoever to learn the Japanese language or culture. He expects them to rise to his terms and play by his rules because he lives life thinking that “America is A Number 1.” He blunders around stubbornly repeating “Mariko Nagoya” and then goes into subsequent establishes looking for the boss of each joint to rough them up. Of course, he’s more nuanced than he lets on but in these scenes, it’s as if Fuller has developed an amalgam of the stereotypical lug-head G.I.

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All such roads lead to a big man named Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan) who uses a pachinko racket to front much more lucrative and clandestine activities that soon prove of some interest to Eddie. With his buddy gone this is his chance at something good and he’s a perfect candidate with a military record spattered with various misdemeanors.

The picture feels like much less of a police procedural and more of Kenner’s story as his relationship with Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi) evolves and he must navigate the cutthroat tension that runs through such a high stakes operation like Dawson’s. Of course, it’s nerve-wracking for Kenner for another reason as well.

Our finale finds us at a rooftop kiddie amusement park that has Fuller’s usual flare for taking the utterly pedestrian and imbuing it with certain peril as Ryan frantically fights for survival on a revolving carnival ride. I’d expect nothing less from the writer-director.

A brightly textured post-war Japan is captured in full here. Though no overt commentary is made, it’s right there in front of us to draw our own conclusions. At times, the frames are vibrant with a world that looks to be thriving thanks to Yankee know-how and western influence. Truthfully, Fuller’s picture doesn’t show much of what the war’s aftermath may have done. We must infer that for ourselves. Because House of Bamboo is where the lush DeLuxe tones and the specters of film noir must meet.

As I gather, there is a certain mentality, a term that can be used that explains why this depiction is not so much a lie or a double standard but a definite reflection of the Japanese people.”Shō ga nai” (しょうがない) roughly means that something cannot be helped or whatever will be will be as the French would say. And so far from holding grudges, they were a people who looked at the war years under extenuating circumstances. Thus, afterward, though some might have harbored ill-feelings, there’s this sense that the U.S. could quickly become allies with Japan. That’s partially how it happened.

So when we see The Tokyo Police Department and The U.S. Military police working in perfect tandem and even the fact that this film production pays its respects to the local powers that be, it speaks to this same mutual symbiosis.

However, that certain amount of camaraderie doesn’t mean that there aren’t still major incongruities and differences. The choice to not use subtitles on the interludes spoken in Japanese is refreshing. Because like Crimson Kimono (1959) a few years later, it’s easy to presume that the picture might be promoting stereotypes and a certain point of view.

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It’s true that Shirley Yamaguchi takes on a fairly stereotypical and unquestionably subservient role. Girls are flippantly referred to as commodities; the synecdoche of choice is “Kimonos.” I cannot deny that. And men such as Sandy and Eddie think they can stiff arm their way around the culture, straightening rough edges by handing out cigars as recompense. This doesn’t belay the fact that they are still fish-out-of-water. Not everything can immediately be made American nor should it.

Certainly it’s an imperfect picture and problematic for potentially perpetuating some common representations. However, whether or not he meant to, I think Fuller has provided us with a valuable portrait. It’s far from being as progressive as The Crimson Kimono but scouring it you see the inherent flaws with America trying to have their hands in rehabilitating Japan. At its core is something honorable but that doesn’t mean it comes off perfectly.

Sure, Japan has had its share of homegrown crime and problems born from within. But if you look at this picture everyone who is corrupt is a foreigner. It’s a dirty strain of capitalism where Sandy and his boys have muscled their way in, to the detriment of many of the Japanese.

Formally a casualty of pan and scan television techniques, this is no longer the case with House of Bamboo which has been restored to its full glory thank goodness. You can now catch Deforest Kelley for a few moments and relish a hard-nosed performance from Robert Stack opposite an unprecedented charismatic showcase for Robert Ryan.

If anything, as Eddie begins to genuinely fall for Mariko, there are affectionate touches that show that whether or not his initial behavior was a put on, he’s gradually revealing another side of himself. It means showing an interest in someone else’s culture. Doing the small things like using chopsticks to eat your meal or asking your girl how to say “Good night” in Japanese. For the record, it’s Oyasumi nasai (おやすみなさい).

More than anything else’s it’s a reminder that ignorance and entitlement can be rewritten and reformed when we genuinely care about other people. It stretches across cultural boundaries that we might come to understand others more personally. We need that kind of mutual understanding now more than ever.

4/5 Stars

Park Row (1952)

Park_Row_FilmPoster.jpegIt’s no secret that Sam Fuller cut his teeth in the journalism trade at the ripe young age of 18 (give or take a year) and so Park Row is not just another delicious B picture from one of the best, it’s a passion project memorializing the trade that he revered so dearly.

It’s also his typical style of economical filmmaking, shot in only two weeks and clocking in at just over 80 minutes and also funded on his own dime. To show just how much this movie meant to him he wrote, directed, and produced it. It was, of course, a monumental flop at the box office (despite an opening at Grauman’s Chinese). Still, that type of result could never quell a maverick like Fuller always prone to be a bit of a loose cannon who nevertheless perennially released a string of enduringly interesting projects. Consider a lineup of pictures including Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets, Park Row, and Pickup on South Street from 1951 to 1953 and you get the idea.

In some ways, Park Row seems like an invariably different film than its compatriots, very unlike Fuller, and yet it still gives off glimpses of Fuller’s style and sentiments.

The year is 1886. An industry has been developed and honed out of the invention and tradition of the likes of Johannes Gutenberg and Ben Franklin. The names of Horace Greeley and Joseph Pulitzer are as good as gold and the hub of that honorable profession, known to the masses as journalism, is based in Park Row.

Phineas Mitchell portrayed by Gene Evans–Fuller’s favorite brawny everyman–is a reporter at The Star, the publication that has a bit of a monopoly run by the icy empress Charity Hackett (Mary Welch). As he badmouths the very same newspaper at the local watering hole, he subsequently finds himself relieved of his position along with a couple of his colleagues.

But together, with the help of an eager benefactor they set out to craft their own newspaper. As envisioned by Mitchell, The Globe will be a paper for the people, devoted to honest to goodness journalism beholden to the facts. And in the subsequent days they take an abandoned office space, build a ragtag team, fix up a printing press, and scrounge around for any type of paper they can get their hands on. What they lack in resources they make up for with grit and determination. Because they have something Charity never had–verve and ingenuity. It sets their little paper apart and the public takes note.

Thus, the film’s entire narrative captures the ensuing journalistic feud between the established paper The Star and their rising rival The Globe. The main conflict coming from the very fact that their business models and mission statements are diametrically opposed.

Led by Mitchell, The Globe finds compelling cover stories to reel in the public. First, it’s a rallying cry for a man sent to prison for illegally jumping 120 stories off the Brooklyn Bridge and living to tell about it. They become his voice, interceding on his behalf and people listen. Next, it’s a public fund to help pay for the base of The Statue of Liberty–that symbol of goodwill, friendship, and ultimately, American liberty and idealism. Every member of the community, no matter the contribution, gets their name printed in the paper out of gratitude.

Still, Ms. Hackett is not about to be outplayed and while she admires her competitor’s tenacity, she is ready to resort to any means necessary to sink them for good. She tries all number of tactics, some more destructive than she ever anticipated. And while she might not be the most virtuous individual she’s hardly a killer. Mitchell hates her guts, rightfully so but that’s not how she wants to be known. There’s some nuance in their relationship, in fact, there’s a great deal of appeal to many of these relationships because they’re brimming with life.

Some noticeable hallmarks of Park Row include Sam Fuller’s typically dynamic camera that moves rapidly into close-ups and tracking shots gliding down the long avenues of Park Row with its horse-drawn carriages, train tracks, and the general hubbub of humanity. There are the accustomary fistfights and explosions, but the film stands out among Fuller’s other narratives for its championing of virtue, honor, and integrity especially in relation to a profession like journalism. It would have been so easy for this to be another expose of lurid sleaze and corruption and yet it’s surprisingly laudatory to the very end.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Pickpocket (1959)

pickpocket-1Pickpocket is an intricately staged, truly intimate character study from the inimitable Robert Bresson solidifying itself as one of his greatest works. As was his practice, Bresson took Martin LaSalle, a non-actor to be his leading protagonist.

The Uruguayan-French actor sports gaunt, rather severe features, thick eyebrows, a sauntering gait and a slumped posture. However, there’s also some facial similarity to Henry Fonda there, except LaSalle is even more “normal” if you want to go that far. He seems altogether unextraordinary and still Bresson manages to tell an engaging story with such an unassuming star–not through emotions but the inverse–a complete lack of emotions replaced instead by actions.

Aside from being a vagrant who lives in a dilapidated flat, Michel is a cynic who holds a bit of a superman complex. In fact, he’s not far off from Raskolnikov in Crime & Punishment. The difference being his crimes are more mundane. The outcome is less pronounced. But he too achieves a kind of redemption.

With such a life as he leads, not working, with hardly any friends, or anything to do aside from betting on the horses, Michel fills his idle hours learning what it is to be a pickpocket. It becomes his livelihood as he joins forces with some accomplices, honing his trade, and gleaning inspiration from the life of pickpocket socialite extraordinaire George Barrington. Except Michel seems nothing like this man. He’s no adventurer or colorful personality. He watches the world with passionless eyes, lacking purpose, and hardly talking to anyone. When he does, it’s generally brusque. He’s not looking to make friends–aside from his “buddy” Jacques. He hardly even visits his sickly mother even when she’s lying on her deathbed.

But that’s what makes his nearby neighbor Jeanne (Marika Green) all the more fascinating because she brings something out of him. It just takes him a long time to realize it. I cannot get it out of my head that Marika Green shares some striking resemblance to Natalie Portman. This notion shot into my head the first time I ever viewed Pickpocket. It serves no real obvious purpose but to suggest her stunning beauty and maybe even that there’s a modernness to her or better yet a timelessness behind her eyes that’s full of some sort of inexplicable power. Maybe Natalie Portman has that same quality as well. It’s difficult to say.

It’s striking that many of the scenes in Pickpocket are almost silent, lacking scoring and often even dialogue, and yet they’re choreographed like the most elaborate dance. Instead of feet, though, hands are involved. The dexterous hands and limber fingers of pickpockets.  And his eyes rove as much as his prying fingers.

There are similarities here with Sam Fuller’s Pickup on Southstreet except in this case the life of a pickpocket, this life of second class crime is the extent of his existence. There are no gangsters, plots, or big implications pointing to Cold Wars and Communists. But if they share anything it’s their equally impressive understanding of economical filmmaking with the innate ability to tell rich, impactful stories in a highly condensed amount of time.

Michel’s life is pitifully mundane in a sense and yet within that context, he’s still able to find hope and that’s the beauty of what Bresson suggests here through the simple functions of sound and image. He evokes a great deal.

It was not the final words of Pickpocket that struck me but rather the image that we are left with. There stands Michel incarcerated in prison. It seemed inevitable. Because supermen do not exist, at least not in the way that he supposed. And yet in the same breath, when he shed that philosophy he found something better.

He caresses Jeanne through the bars, kisses her face. Yes, he’s still trapped, stuck in such a horrible spot without his freedom. But the utter irony of it all in this one moment, before a very abrupt conclusion, Michel is finally free–finally saved by the graces of love and it took a prison cell to teach him as much.  His life was propelled by inaction highlighted by contained moments of theft and deception. Therefore, it’s in this final instance that Michel finally shows some amount of goodness and affection bursting forth. His life no longer seems to be defined by being a pickpocket. For once, it’s defined by something else–by someone else.

Whereas Raskolnikov realized that he needed Sonya to resurrect him much like Christ resurrected Lazarus, Michel comes to a similar conclusion here though he only believed in God for three minutes. Still, in a sense, he has been redeemed and now there’s a certain amount of hope in his life going forward. The straight and narrow is a tough road to traverse but Michel might find it yet.

“Oh, Jeanne, to reach you at last, what a path I had to take.”

4.5/5 Stars

The Naked Kiss (1964)

thenakedkiss1If you’re not at least mildly prepared for it, The Naked Kiss comes at you like a ton of bricks. A woman comes at the camera menacingly beating up a man, for a reason we don’t know. Then her hair comes flying off and there she is still swinging at him completely bald. It’s frightening, frenetic, and completely engrossing. From thence on, Sam Fuller has us in the grips of his story, even if we don’t quite know what it’s about yet. His hook has grabbed us.

It turns out the women we were so brutally introduced to is named Kelly (Constance Towers). A couple years down the road she looks strikingly different, with no sign of turmoil. Instead, she’s a sleek beauty working the streets of Grantville.

thenakedkiss2Of course, her first customer happens to be a police chief named Griff (Anthony  Eisley), who advises her to skedaddle out of town as quick as possible. He gives her the details on a cozy joint across the border known for their Bonbon girls. He thinks he’s got her pegged, but Kelly goes and does something even he wouldn’t expect.

She acquires a job at an orthopedic hospital for disabled children and quickly becomes a favorite in the ward. All the kids love her dearly, and she cares for them faithfully. But Griff still thinks she’s working an angle. His mind is closed off, looking for every opportunity to dredge up Kelly’s guilt. He wants to confirm everything he already knows about her, even if it’s not true.

Kelly’s stellar performance catches the eye of town millionaire J.L. Grant, who also happens to be a good friend of Griff’s. She and Grant hit it off on topics such as Lord Byron and Beethoven. Their time together turns into romantic dreamscapes of Venetian waterways.

At the same time, Kelly is extremely sympathetic to her fellow workers supplying money for a woman so she can keep her baby instead of getting an abortion. To naive young Buff, she warns of selling herself out and becoming a Bonbon (“You’ll be every man’s wife-in-law, and no man’s wife. Why, your world with Candy will become so warped that you’ll hate all men. And you’ll hate yourself! Because you’ll become a social problem, a medical problem, a MENTAL problem!… And a despicable failure as a woman”). It’s in these candid moments where Kelly reveals her scruples, although she’s not above vigilante justice, whether it involves her old pimp or the morally questionable proprietress Candy.

There are strangely peaceful lulls that only make the climactic moments in the film all the more dramatic. Fuller utilizes the children’s song from the hospital wonderfully with the hollow images he juxtaposes on screen. The song reverberates several times as a haunting marker of what Kelly has seen between a little girl and her soon-to-be husband. But that’s over with now. Kelly has deeper troubles to worry about afterward.

The Naked Kiss is a pulpy delight as only Fuller can deliver with twisted natures and deep-seated brokenness. He makes glorified trash which is often times far more engaging than the most polished blockbuster Hollywood can churn out. The seedy exterior almost always gives way to great depth. Even when you step back for a moment, it becomes obvious how implausible this story is. How does Griff not know about his best friend? Yet Fuller plays the drama so well we are completely engrossed.

thenakedkiss3The social commentary is there. The characters are interesting. Meanwhile, Fuller slices and dices through taboo subjects that would have horrified censors and yet he brings them to the forefront in such a way that hardly glorifies them, but actually gets them out in the open. Every detail isn’t written out, but Fuller throws us into the narrative and allows us to track with him. He puts a little faith in his audience.

Constance Towers’ performance looms large in this film and she reminds me a great deal of Gena Rowlands. Her turn as Kelly is multifaceted and dynamic. Her look of genial charm just as easily turns into an icy gaze of contempt. Furthermore, she, much like Fuller, is willing to go to the streets and acknowledge all the dirt and grime there. She wants to clean it up, and she truly is the hooker with the heart of gold. Only such an easy categorization should not take away from Towers’ role at all. There’s more to her than a look, or a wig, or a body.  To paraphrase Grant, she’s the most interesting contradiction I’ve met in some time.

4/5 Stars

Shock Corridor (1963)

shockcorridor1“This long corridor is the magic highway to the Pulitzer Prize” – Johnny Barrett

Being a jack of all trades, producer, director, screenwriter extraordinaire Sam Fuller also had a stint as a journalist. Therein lies his obvious stake in Shock Corridor, a film that looks frightening on paper, and is even more eye-opening in execution. True, this is not an altogether realistic film, but that’s what makes it such a stirring portrayal. It dives into the darkened recesses of a sanitarium showing us things we don’t want to believe. They probably weren’t all true, but there’s still that shred of doubt. We’ve seen enough One Flew of the Cuckoo’s Nest and read enough horror stories to know better. Fuller plays off that fear which intrigues us as much as it alarms.

Investigative journalist Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) can see it now. If he infiltrates a mental institution he can dig up the truth on a murder case that occurred behind closed doors and was quickly hushed up. Such a piece of detective work could earn him the Pulitzer Prize easily, and the tantalizing prospect is too good to resist. His girlfriend played by Constance Towers pleads with him to back out, because she wants no part of the plan.

But he teams up with his editor Swannee and Psychiatrist Dr. Fong to cook up a backstory the people in charge will buy. Barrett gets coached in how to act and respond to every question. It’s a potential long shot, but just like that, they buy his sordid story of obsession with his sister thanks to a performance by Cathy. He’s in.

shockcorridor3Behind the pearly gates, there are brawls galore and noisy neighbors riddled with all sorts of neurosis, quirks, and ticks. There are the good cop and bad cop who help care for the patients and keep them at bay. Johnny even begins to have hallucinations of his girlfriend drifting through his dreams. He gets introduced to hydrotherapy, dance therapy, and even faces a traumatizing experience at the hands of women in the female ward.

All the while, he is sniffing around for any information on the man named Sloan who was killed with a knife by a man in white pants. He makes his rounds questioning three different witnesses and amid their idiosyncrasies, they give him bits and pieces of fact. However, their own mental capabilities are clouded by traumatic war experiences, racist ramblings, and fear of impending nuclear war.

shockcorridor2The boisterous, tumultuous chaos of the ward does almost become maddening, even to the viewer. Johnny has a few angry outbursts of his own as the strain of the facility gets to him more and more every day. Electric shock therapy among the other treatments leaves him mixed-up, confused, and overtly paranoid. He’s hardly the man we met in that office so many days ago and even if he got the scoop he was looking for, at what cost? Shock Corridor has a thunderously disconcerting ending worthy of a Fuller production.

From casting Philip Ahn as a knowledgeable psychiatrist to the absurdity of an African-American obsessed with the KKK and Pro-White sentiment, Fuller once again does a lot on the racial front. He manages to represents Asians in a positive light and the character of Wilkes points to the still inherently twisted nature of southern white supremacists, even after the advent of such legislation as Brown v. Board.  Thus, once more he gives us a sensationalized story with a surprising amount of depth to it. No doubt he had a soft spot for journalism since that’s what he made his living off of at one time. But Shock Corridor implies that there is such a thing as crossing the line. It’s the utter extreme, but it’s cautionary nonetheless.

3.5/5 Stars

The Steel Helmet (1951)

steelhelmet1“What a fouled-up outfit I got myself into” – Sgt. Zack

Samuel Fuller always had an eye for the visually dynamic and a nose for controversy. His war picture The Steel Helmet was at the forefront of films about the Korean War, in fact, it was probably the first.

Despite, being shot in a few solitary days in California, he somehow managed to develop a generally atmospheric terrain overflowing with fog of war and overgrown with foliage. It’s an unsentimental, gritty, sweaty storyline. In other words, it’s very Fuller and its cynical lead is Gene Evans as the thick-headed Sergeant Zack weighed down by war-induced pessimism. He’s got a bullet hole in his helmet to prove it. He’s been good enough to last through this game of survival of the fittest thus far, and he hopes to keep it that way.

Zack picks up a peppy young South Korean, the original “Short Round,” and the sergeant reluctantly allows him to tag along as he continues his pilgrimage. Next, comes the African-American medic Corporal Thomson, who like Zack was the sole survivor of his unit. In the forest depths, they run into a band of soldiers led by the experienced Lt. Driscoll. Although Zack wants nothing to do with them, he agrees to stick around after they get pinned down by a couple snipers.

Their mission: to set up an observation post at a nearby Buddhist temple.  However, the road ahead includes booby traps and other menacing perils of war. They have one of their hated “gooks” waiting for them, and he causes some havoc before being captured. However, perhaps more insidiously he tries to undermine the men by going after Thompson and the “Buddha head” Nisei vet named Tanaka (Richard Loo). The wily enemy, in perfect English mind you, notes the hypocrisy of an American society where African-Americans can die on the battlefield, but then only get to sit on the back of a bus. He then suggests how he and Tanaka have a great  more in common, aside from their eyes, especially since the American government put Japanese-Americans in Internment camps

steelhelmet2But the old WWII vet simply acknowledges the facts and retorts with his own piece of trivia. In the all Japanese-American regiment the 442nd 3,000 Nisei “idiots” got the purple heart for bravery. All he knows is that he’s an American no matter how he’s treated. That doesn’t change. Once more Fuller delivers some of the most engaging portrayals of Asian characters ever and the discussions of race relations were way ahead of their time. Both Richard Loo and James Edwards are honorable characters who hardly fall into any common stereotype.

After staving off this psychological warfare, the band calls in an artillery barrage on some nearby snipers. But soon the enemy is swarming them and it’s a wildly thrashing, blasting battle to the death.  The fight scenes are sheer chaotic madness, but then again isn’t that what war often escalates to? It just doesn’t make sense. Billows of smoky haze engulfing the war zone. Whirrs, bangs, explosions, and every other sound imaginable except silence. That comes when the bodies are dead and strewn all over the battlefield. In truth, silver stars mean very little when you’re just trying to survive.

Fuller was prophetic by suggesting that there is no end to this story. He was right. It went on for a couple more years and ended in a cease-fire that still continues between North and South Korea to this day. He’s also one of the great economical filmmakers where less is most certainly more. What a stroke of brilliance that he could use a weeks time, the grounds of The Griffith Observatory, and a few minor actors and extras to create such a fascinating film.

4/5 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

Pickup on South Street (1953)

bf34b-pickuponsouthstreetFrom American cult film director Samuel Fuller comes a brief, yet potent film-noir laced with communism, pickpocketing, and a lot of shady business on the streets of New York.
Grifter Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) is just recently out of the can, and he is back on the streets up to his old tricks again swiping wallets. His victim this time around is a pretty young dame named Candy (Jean Peters) who has a mission of her own to drop off a package. Neither of them knows quite what they have gotten into and to start off with, nothing happens. What exactly has Skip stumbled upon? The answer includes microfilm, spies, and the Commies. All of a sudden things are hot, as McCoy tries to cut a deal with the Reds, and Candy tries to recover the film she unknowingly lost. Candy gets caught in the middle of her boyfriend who is sided with Communists and Skip who wants to cash in on his good fortune. Between Skip and Candy begins a wild and passionate love affair that seems destined for disaster. Both have their own agendas, but it is ultimately Candy who drops hers because of her new found affection. McCoy is callous at first but he comes around, in the end, leaving this noir on a surprisingly positive note.
Thelma Ritter was usually colorful in her many screen appearances and she has another memorable turn as the wheeler-dealer Moe Williams in this film. However, Moe does not just deal ties and secrets; she is a woman with a conscience and a touch of good old-fashioned patriotism. In her own simple way, she is a hero whether people know it or not.
Widmark played a similar conman in Night and the City (1950), but this time around things worked out a little differently for his character. The pickpocket sequences were perhaps less elaborate but still similarly intricate to Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). It is possible that he got some of his inspiration from Fuller’s work here.
This is a real communist era thriller that Fuller injects with passion, grit, and some unadulterated violence. It is not a pretty film necessarily, but that is not what Fuller is going for, and he never does. Instead, as a former journalist, he reveals to his audience the nitty-gritty of South Street up close and personal. He succeeds with flying colors in delivering a first rate scoop of uncompromising pulp.
4/5 Stars

Forty Guns (1957)

6fb70-fortyguns1Samuel Fuller has got an eye for style, cinematic scope, and at times, subversive mayhem. It’s no coincidence that Forty Guns was shot in Cinemascope, and it is one of the enjoyments of watching this film, which constantly bounces back and forth between long shots and close-ups. To start things off, Barbara Stanwyck is Jessica Drummond, the “High Ridin’ Woman with a Whip,” and she is the heiress of a self-made frontier empire.

It helps to tote forty guns around with her, but she is not as unethical as she would appear at first glance. On the other side are the Bonnell brothers, former gunslinger Griff (Barry Sullivan), number two man Wes (Gene Barry) and then the baby Chico. After they arrive in town, on behalf of the Attorney General, the nearsighted sheriff (Hank Worden) is gunned down by a drunken troublemaker who just happens to be Drummond’s kid brother. Then his buddies proceed to trash the town all in the name of good fun.

Soon Griff straightens Brockie out and Jessica comes into town to retrieve him. Next, Griff comes with a warrant to Jessica’s ranch and in a memorable scene, literally made for Cinemascope, the warrant gets passed down the table. Jessica wants no trouble but soon a crooked sheriff named Logan (Dean Jagger) want to finish off Griff. It doesn’t go so well and he gets more and more jealous of Jessica’s increasing love for the oldest Bonnell brother.

Ultimately, Brockie ends up in the clink, but he uses his sister as a shield in an attempt to escape. For once Griff loses his cool and sprays him with bullets and that’s not all. For good measure, Fuller has Griff ride solemnly off in his buckboard only to have Jessica scamper after him. The power dynamic see-sawing once again.

Yet again, Fuller never seems to do anything conventionally or demure. His film has a reformed gunfighter who calls his former profession that of a freak. The leading female character dominates most everyone else and has a ballad written about her. There are tornadoes that envelop the screen. Then, only Fuller would have the audacity to kill someone during their wedding ceremony, and he does it without skipping a beat.

Among other things, it is a film about guns, brothers and sisters, and love. Griff packs a gun on him. Jessica always has guns behind her. Griff has a younger brother who has much to learn. Jessica’s brother will never learn. That being said, the inventive visuals, typical brutality, and the memorable casting of Stanwyck were all in a day’s work for Samuel Fuller.

4/5 Stars