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Race & Hollywood: Asian Images in Film (Tuesdays & Thursdays in June)
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The Crimson Kimono

The Crimson Kimono

Sam Fuller loved to stir things up. He made many a low-budget movie that tackled tough, controversial subjects, and he wrote, produced and directed them with a combination of raw intensity and intelligence that has seldom been matched by other filmmakers. The Crimson Kimono (1959) is one such gem, an urban cop yarn that's really about "reverse" racism (if there is such a thing).

Two LAPD cops, Charlie (Glenn Corbett) and Joe (James Shigeta), are assigned to investigate the murder of a stripper. They're old war buddies, but in the course of their detective work they fall for the same woman, Christine (Victoria Shaw). When Christine responds more to Joe's gentleness than to Charlie's macho personality, Charlie becomes angry and jealous. Joe, a Japanese-American (or Nisei), takes his friend's jealousy to be racism, sorely testing their relationship.

In his posthumously published memoir A Third Face, Fuller recounted how Columbia Pictures chief Sam Briskin was concerned by the racial aspects of the story. Briskin wanted the Charlie character to be more of a "sonofabitch." Fuller resisted: "The girl chooses the Japanese guy because he's the man for her, not because the white guy's a sonofabitch. The whole idea of my 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."

"That's gonna be hard for average American audiences to swallow, Sam. Can't you make the white guy a little bit of a sonofabitch?"

In the end, Fuller got his way. As he wrote in the memoir, "I was trying to make an unconventionally triangular love story, laced with reverse racism, a kind of narrow-mindedness that's just as deplorable as outright bigotry. I wanted to show that whites aren't the only ones susceptible to racist thoughts."

There are two particularly striking scenes in The Crimson Kimono. The first is the opening, in which the stripper runs half-naked out into the street and is shot dead. Fuller filmed it on an actual downtown L.A. location with real passers-by and cars all around, and later called it "the most difficult and dangerous scene I've ever shot." In an interview with author Lee Server, he recounted the drama of making this sequence:

"I had the cameras hidden [in a truck, a car and on a rooftop] so I could get the real reaction of people seeing an almost naked girl running down Sixth and Main Street. And most of the people she passed didn't even turn around. I wanted her to fall...right in the middle of all the traffic passing. This was real traffic, except that I had father and daughter stunt drivers who would know this naked girl would run in front and be shot. It's real traffic, but it's timed, they're in the lead. So we did it, hidden cameras, and I shot my gun into the sky and she falls. And as soon as we got it we bundled her into the car and took off. And then the s--- hit the fan. A lot of people heard the shot, saw the girl fall, and they called the cops. And the cops came and they're looking for the body of this big stripper. I still had to get a close shot and we couldn't go back there for hours, until the cops cleared off. "

The other memorable sequence is the riveting kendo match between the two cops in which they allow their emotions to dominate. Joe basically goes too far and attacks Charlie mercilessly. Fuller considered this scene one of the most important in the picture, recalling, "I wanted to get the kendo scene right because that sword fight sends an emotional message about Joe that's essential to my yarn. When Joe blows his stack and tries to beat up Charlie during the exhibition, he transgresses the protocol of a discipline whose basic rules have been developed over the last two thousand years of Japanese culture. He strikes out at his best friend and at the basic mores of his people. A person that far overboard is in terrible pain. Joe goes off the deep end and may never regain his balance. I wanted to show that the violence was directed as much at himself as at his buddy."

In an interview with Eric Sherman, Fuller also discussed how he established contrast through music during the story's climactic chase through Little Tokyo. "Several bands are in the celebration at the end," Fuller said. "One plays classical music, one plays Japanese music, one plays hot music, and so on. Whenever I cut from the killer to the pursuer, the music changed. That gave me the discordant and chaotic note I wanted."

Inevitably, the studio did not "get" what Fuller was trying to do or say with the movie, and The Crimson Kimono was, as Fuller put it, "released as just another Hollywood 'B' exploitation picture," with lurid poster taglines like "WHY DOES SHE CHOOSE A JAPANESE LOVER?"

While Fuller very much liked The Crimson Kimono, he took a nuanced view: "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."

A final note: Only Sam Fuller could have convinced lovely Anna Lee (one of the few "names" in the cast) "to conceal her beauty and femininity" by playing a character named Mac, a "cigar-chomping female muralist on Skid Row" who says memorably, "Love is like a battlefield. Somebody has to get a bloody nose."

by Jeremy Arnold

Sources:

Samuel Fuller, A Third Face

Eric Sherman and Martin Rubin, The Director's Event

Lee Server, Sam Fuller: Film Is a Battleground

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