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House of Bamboo

House of Bamboo(1955)

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teaser House of Bamboo (1955)

Sam Fuller's movies look like no other...they don't even look like each other. The career of the flinty, cigar-chomping independent spanned forty years, from 1949 until 1990, from the end of the Second World War (in which he served with honor) to the dawn of the New Millennium. In that time, Fuller tried his hand at both "A" features backed by the major studios and independently financed "B" films; he is known for movies that are lush and even opulent as well as for ones that look cheap, perfunctory, a notch above stag reels. A consistent visual style was never Sam Fuller's prime directive. While an auteur argument could be made on the evidence of his preference for extended takes, his disdain for unnecessary cutaways and for a general in-your-face aesthetic (which got him accused of "tabloid filmmaking" by critics who turned his background as a crime reporter against him), a random selection of his features might appear to casual viewers to be the work of as many different directors. Fuller's unadorned and intuitive manner of shooting won him the adulation of the French novella vague (who admired his resourcefulness with low budgets) while Andrew Sarris praised him as "an authentic American primitive." Sarris meant well but it would be a mistake to assume that Fuller shot from the hip. His camera placement was surgical, his mise en scene precise. If his films seemed at times to be missing pieces, it's because Fuller threw out whatever he considered beside the point.

House of Bamboo (1955) found Fuller sitting pretty, from a financing and distribution standpoint. For 20th Century Fox, he had already made the atomic era noir Pickup on South Street (1953) and the submarine drama Hell and High Water (1954), the latter his first experiment with Technicolor and Cinemascope. Offers were on the table, and they were good ones. Fuller being Fuller, he turned down the opportunity to work with Clark Gable on Soldier of Fortune and with Humphrey Bogart on The Left Hand of God (both 1955, both handed over to Edward Dmytryk). He quit preproduction scouting in Europe for The Story of Esther Costello (1957) when Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck suggested he helm the first Hollywood movie to be shot in Japan. The studio had dusted off an existing property, Harry Kleiner's screenplay for the inside man thriller The Street with No Name (1948), and asked Fuller to make it work for American-occupied Japan. This gave Fuller the opportunity to dust off an old story idea about American servicemen staging a daring bank heist overseas. Despite being pegged for Technicolor and Cinemascope, the project had the relatively low budget of $1.38 million. Fuller planned to get the most bang for his buck by shooting without permits, using hidden cameras to capture the flavor of urban life in Japan during the postwar reconstruction.

Robert Ryan signed on for the pivotal role of villainous racketeer Sandy Dawson after having heard only a pencil sketch of the plot over the telephone. To play the hero, Fuller considered Gary Cooper but decided ultimately that Coop's was too familiar a face to pass unnoticed on the streets of Tokyo. Director Budd Boetticher suggested Robert Stack, whom he had directed in Bullfighter and the Lady (1951). This was before Stack's rechristening as the star of The Untouchables series, making him all but unknown outside of Hollywood. Fuller screened Japanese films to find his leading lady and picked Shirley Yamaguchi, not knowing that she had relocated to America and was living as a socialite in New York with her Japanese-American husband, the sculptor and architect Isamu Noguchi. Fuller rounded out his criminal gang with busy character players Cameron Mitchell and Biff Elliot (I, the Jury, 1953), as well as two actors who would attain a level of cult fame in later life: Robert Quarry (Count Yorga, Vampire, 1970) and a pre-Star Trek DeForest Kelley. While Fuller and his crew were sensitive to anti-American sentiments during shooting, the production encountered no serious setbacks (apart from the chilly winter climate) and even charmed a free location out of the department store magnate who owned Nikkatsu Studios for House of Bamboo's climactic shootout. Almost unnoticeable in a supporting role as a Tokyo detective is Sessue Hayakawa, who would go on to international acclaim in David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

House of Bamboo did well in its opening weeks but faltered through the remainder of its theatrical run. Although it returned a slight profit on Fox's investment, it was considered a disappointment when weighed against expectations. Though the executives at Fox gave the green light for Fuller's Tigrero, a "pisscutter of a movie" about a big game hunter to star John Wayne, Ava Gardner and Tyrone Power, the plug was pulled while he was scouting locations. While the official reason was the difficulty in securing an insurance bond for shooting in the jungle, Fuller was canny enough to be able to read the writing on the wall. Requiring nothing so much as a free hand to tell his stories his own way, Fuller wrote and directed his next picture, Run of the Arrow (1957) for RKO. Fox handled the distribution of China Gate (1957) and Forty Guns (1957), the first two films from Fuller's Globe Enterprises, but his tenure as a big studio director was over. He was entering his rogue years, productive of his most controversial films - Verboten! (1959), Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964) the ones that vulcanized his reputation as an auteur with the French and stamped him at home as a cult director, a true American independent flying at once under Hollywood's radar and well over its head.

Producer: Buddy Adler
Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Harry Kleiner; Samuel Fuller (additional dialogue)
Cinematography: Joe MacDonald
Art Direction: Addison Hehr, Lyle R. Wheeler
Music: Leigh Harline
Film Editing: James B. Clark
Cast: Robert Ryan (Sandy Dawson), Robert Stack (Eddie Kenner), Shirley Yamaguchi (Mariko), Cameron Mitchell (Griff), Brad Dexter (Capt. Hanson), Sessue Hayakawa (Inspector Kito), Biff Elliot (Webber), Sandro Giglio (Ceram), Elko Hanabusa (Japanese Screaming Woman).
C-102m. Letterboxed.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking by Samuel Fuller
If You Die, I'll Kill You! The Films of Sam Fuller by Lisa Dombrowski
Straight Shooting by Robert Stack with Mark Evans
"Film noir and Samuel Fuller's Tabloid Cinema: Red (Action), White (Exposition) and Blue (Romance)," by Grant Tracey, Film Noir Reader 2, edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini
The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968 by Andrew Sarris

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