Samuel Fuller was no stranger to film noir when he made House Of Bamboo, having already directed Park Row and the masterpiece that is Pickup On South Street. A remake of William Keighley‘s gritty noir, The Street With No Name, Fuller took the bare bones of this story and transposed it to post-war Japan, and the result is a much more vital film, with greater depth to the characters, beautiful scene composition and a truly breathtaking finale.
When a US Military train is robbed in Japan, the authorities identify the perpetrators as a mysterious gang of Americans operating from Tokyo. Newly arrived ex-convict Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack) quickly gets recruited by the gang’s leader, Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan) who runs his outfit with military discipline. However there’s more to Eddie than meets the eye, and he soon falls under the suspicious gaze of Griff (Cameron Mitchell) Sandy’s jealous Ichiban (number one).
Aside from maybe Leave Her To Heaven, this can legitimately make the claim to be the only colour film noir of the classic era, and in Cinemascope no less! This extreme widescreen is the perfect fit for Fuller, who always had a great eye for mise-en-scene and clearly enjoyed shooting the Tokyo locations. This transfer from Eureka really emphasises Fuller’s striking use of sweeping camera movement and his impressive depth of field, resulting in a noir that looks unlike any other.
It also helps that Robert Ryan plays the hell out of the villain. An actor equally comfortable playing detestable characters (Bad Day At Black Rock) sympathetic heroes (The Set-Up) or a conflicted mixture of both (Odds Against Tomorrow), House Of Bamboo features his most charming character, who essentially seduces the hero into joining him. If any actor embodied noir, it’s Ryan, and his introduction here is effortlessly cool, as Eddie is punched through a wall, only to reveal Sandy and his gang casually sitting behind it.
Ryan’s portrayal differs dramatically from Richard Widmark’s cold, ruthless character in The Street With No Name. Sandy is less clinical but more unnerving. He’s a charming, smooth-talking villain, whose arrogance leads to his downfall. Ryan makes his character nuanced and menacing – the scene where he berates his men while clutching a snooker ball is brimming with tension, and the climactic chase scene, as the net tightens around him, is both gripping and revealing. Without his smooth façade Sandy is more like a cornered animal than a criminal mastermind, and you can feel the desperation oozing out of him.
There is an overt homo-erotic subtext that runs through the film, especially in the relationship between Sandy and Griff – who often more resembles a spurned lover than a right-hand man. The scene where Sandy gently cradles his dying henchman’s head, while Griff is slumped in a bath, is incredibly tender and more than a little suggestive, while the recurring use of the word Ichiban takes on a deeper significance, used to refer to Griff and Eddie, but also Eddie’s ostensible love interest (Shirley Yamaguchi).
As with most classic noirs, the baddie is a lot more charismatic than the straitlaced hero. Robert Stack does well but it’s a thankless role and pretty boring. It’s painfully obvious that Fuller is far more invested in Stack’s relationship with Ryan than with Yamaguchi. They might be an afterthought, but Yamaguchi is at least given some agency of her own, and a little depth. While this isn’t much, it does show Hollywood slowly moving in the right direction!
House Of Bamboo is a solid story elevated by Fuller’s idiosyncratic direction and the vivid characterisation. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but the stunning cinematography and Ryan’s excellent, multi-layered performance makes this stand out as a unique film noir, and one of Fuller’s best films.
Eureka’s Masters Of Cinema series never fails to disappoint, and this release is no exception. The extras include commentaries from historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, Alain Silver and James Ursini, a video essay by David Cairns, and a collectors booklet.