Release Date(s)1955 (August 11, 2015)
Studio(s)20th Century Fox (Twilight Time)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: A+
Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955) has it all: it’s a highly personal statement from an auteur director that’s also a delightful escapist action film; a poignant, fatalistic tragedy filled with humor and flamboyance; and a mainstream studio picture with a visual style no less individualistic and original than what one would find in the work of Jean-Luc Godard (a proud admirer of Fuller). Film historian Julie Kirgo asserts that it represents the greatest use of the Cinemascope format in history, and it’s hard to argue with her – Fuller packs every frame with lush detail and stages his actors in compositions that simply and elegantly convey their psychological states and metaphorical relationships. It helps that he has a setting – post-WWII Japan just a few years after the American occupation – that had never been seen on American screens before, and which at the time was home to the greatest filmmakers in the world (Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi). Fuller admired and studied all of these filmmakers, and then took what he learned and put his own unique tabloid spin on their style.
House of Bamboo is a loose remake of an earlier Fox noir, The Street With No Name (1948), though Fuller transforms the material so completely that only the most basic plot elements remain. The movie came about when Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck asked Fuller if he wanted to make a movie in Japan; Fuller saw a way to merge Street’s story of an undercover agent with an idea of his own about war veterans pulling off heists, and away he went. In his reinvention, Robert Stack is the undercover man and Robert Ryan is the head of a ruthlessly efficient criminal gang that he runs like a military operation; Stack infiltrates Ryan’s operation in Tokyo, leading to a series of action sequences fraught with emotion as loyalties shift and betrayal abounds. The story is one that wouldn’t be out of place in any number of crime films of the era, but Fuller, a former journalist, loads it up with so much specificity that it becomes a one-of-a-kind masterpiece: it’s an anthropological study of post-war Tokyo that’s filled with veracity. That veracity extends from the background action to the foreground – Fuller wanted so much realism that he even told the locals that Robert Stack was a real thief so that they’d chase him through the streets. The terror on Stack’s face was real, and Fuller caught it all on camera.
Fuller’s description of how he transformed Street With No Name offers an amusing glimpse at his tabloid sensibility: “I moved the entire shebang to Tokyo, added stuff about Japanese contemporary life, threw in some sexual exploitation and interracial romance, and then, for some unexpected pizzazz, wrote a violent love scene between two hardened criminals.” This is indeed all there, but so are some surprising subtleties, particularly when it comes to Ryan’s characterization. He plays his character with a slight gay subtext (that veers into text when he cradles a former associate he has just killed in his arms), and Fuller treats this subject matter with a delicacy that would have seemed revolutionary twenty or even thirty years later. For all of Fuller’s machismo and bombast, he was always a man with a deep understand of and respect for the underdog; his films are tributes to the oppressed, whether that oppression comes in the form of racism, sexism, or homophobia – and his most powerful statements are the ones like House of Bamboo where the oppression comes from within. Ryan is so confused by his own sexual feelings that when he breaks one of his own rules and saves Stack’s life, he stands around bewildered, asking, “Why?”
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray edition of the film boasts a new transfer taken from a 4K restoration, and it’s the best I’ve ever seen the movie look – the vivid palette explodes off the screen in keeping with Fuller’s dynamic style, and the wide tonal range in terms of color as well as light and shadow is impeccably preserved in all its detail. The 5.1 surround mix is equally strong, with clarity and power – it really captures Fuller’s surprisingly subtle and sophisticated sound design in all its complexity. If the transfer is beyond criticism, the extra features are what make this edition of House of Bamboo a must-own: the disc contains two positively superb critical/historical commentary tracks. The first, by film noir scholars Alain Silver and James Orsini, was carried over from an earlier Fox DVD; the second, by Twilight Time curators Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, is brand new. Both are jammed to the hilt with fascinating production history, background information on the cast and crew, and astute visual analysis of Fuller’s style. They’re indispensable listening for Fuller enthusiasts and film students – you can learn how to direct movies from listening to these two tracks. A pair of brief Fox newsreels and an original theatrical trailer round out another spectacular release from Twilight Time.
- Jim Hemphill