House of Bamboo (1955) is a technicolor, wide-screen noir gangster film set and filmed on location in Tokyo. Robert Stack plays a tough-guy Army inspector going undercover with some very slick and vicious gangsters who pull big heists in the city. The main attractions of the film are the locations, the sociopath character Sandy, played by Ryan, and some very cool Sam Fuller touches.
Baths are a very important part of Japanese culture, and they figure prominently in this movie: First, as Shirley Yamaguchi, an actress with quite a tangled past, leaves the communal bath in a hurry to escape Spanier, Robert Stack, whom she thinks is a gangster out to kill her, just as he killed her husband. The entire sequence is a wonder of suspenseful choreography and erotic teasing and she rushes to get dressed and make her getaway. You can watch the sequence in this rather strange Youtube clip from the film that has Yamaguchi on the soundtrack – not from the movie! – doing one of her pop hits. I think there are few frames snipped out when Yamaguchi steps out of the tub – her work with the towel is awfully fast! This film probably had enough issues with the censors without having to deal with excess cross-racial sexual titillation.
[Note: I spoke to several Chinese friends about Yamaguchi, and they all know of her by her Chinese name. Her songs are still popular. The song on the Youtube clip is "When Will You Come Back?" which does, in a way, relate to the action from the film.]
…Also, an Ugly American can get cute as he is introduced to Japanese bathing customs while eating his bacon and eggs;
Baths make for a good mise en scène in this shockingly violent rub-out .
The thugs carry on their work in Japan with seeming impunity – they don’t even bother to learn a word of Japanese. Their hangout is a former baronial residence in aristocratic Japanese style, and they are always dressed for success. After Sandy takes a fancy to Spanier – top image – he invites him to join the gang, and hands him a wad of bills: “Get yourself a nice suit. Make yourself presentable!”
The culture-clash aspects of the plot are played up by Fuller – Here Spanier, who only speaks in English to the Japanese, tries to question some performers who tell him, “Sayonara means goodbye.“
The sexual energy between Yamaguchi and Stack is hardly more than chaste: their most passionate moment comes at the beginning when he assaults and wrestles her to the ground. She thinks he’s going to rape or kill her, but he’s only trying to help. (It’s at the end of the video clip linked above.) On the other hand, the energy between Sandy and some of his underlings seems charged with homoerotic tension. It’s very evident in this scene where Sandy chats with his dead former right-hand man whom he killed thinking he had turned informer. “Riff, you aren’t responsible for what you do. You’re too explosive. I was right, as always.” He seems to be addressing a former lover. Which was more taboo then? Man on man sex or interracial sex?
I was taken by the staging of the first big heist, especially this scene of the gang racing down an industrial alley with the loot. Call me crazy, but it brought to mind another image from 1955, New York, New York, by Norman Parkinson. Oh, what a blast it is to be alive! But the thugs have a code to which they adhere ruthlessly – anyone who is hit in the action is finished off by the gang so he can’t be taken alive and forced to talk.
Well, love conquers all, and despite the rule on leaving no wounded behind, Sandy spares Spanier only to realize later that he’s a spy. He tries to frame him so he’ll be killed by the Tokyo police. (That’s Star Trek’s Bones holding the gun there). It’s a bit inept, but then as Spanier tells him, “A straightjacket will fit you just right.” Yes, Sandy is a bit of a delusional megalomaniac, or maybe he’s just rattled by the betrayal handed him by his new love object.
The entire adventure is resolved nicely in a shootout in an amusement park on the top of a high-rise featuring a giant rotating globe.
The whole business got started when the thugs robbed an army supply train and an American soldier was killed. That got the U.S. Army investigators involved. Fuller gives us a depressing shot of the dead guard that he no-doubt witnessed many times serving in the Big Red One.