Tagged: Film Noir

Fallen Angel (US 1945)

Guillermo del Toro picked out Fallen Angel as one of the films that he and his partner Kim Gordon studied while they were working on the script for his new film Nightmare Alley. He suggested that at least one scene in his new film used a similar set to one used in Fallen Angel. Critics now consider consider Fallen Angel to be a film noir but it has generally been regarded as somehow inferior to director Otto Preminger’s earlier Laura (1944), also featuring Dana Andrews in a lead role. Fallen Angel does seem to me to be a more interesting film than Laura for a couple of reasons. As del Toro suggests, it’s grittier – and about ‘ordinary people’. It is also definitely noirish in tone, considering the use of sets and locations and Joseph LaShelle’s cinematography. But perhaps the central noir element is the pairing of Dana Andrews and Linda Darnell and the discourses created by the script.

First, however, we have to consider the casting of Alice Faye. Ms Faye became a major star in the 1930s after chorus girl work as a teenager. She developed a singing career winning starring roles in musicals at 20th Century Fox. But after her second pregnancy kept her away from the studio for longer than expected she decided to reduce the number of films she made (Fox had exploited her immense popularity by placing her in films that made money simply from her presence). In 1945 therefore, still only 30, she accepted a dramatic role in Fallen Angel, hoping to steer her career in a different direction. She didn’t get on well with studio head Darryl F. Zanuck and she was angry when Zanuck cut some of her scenes and switched the emphasis in the narrative to Linda Darnell. I didn’t recognise Alice Faye at first and it wasn’t until the second half that I realised she was the lead. I was indeed more interested in Linda Darnell. This probably doesn’t mean much now, but in 1945-6 audiences would have been surprised and probably disappointed that Alice Faye is not more prominent in the film.

Stanton outside Pop’s Bar with Stella and ‘Pop’ (Percy Kilbride) inside. This still is used as the cover image of ‘The Movie Book of Film Noir’ (1992)

The film depends a great deal on the performance by Dana Andrews and on the presentation of June Mills (Alice Faye) as a woman who is sexually repressed and dominated by her older sister Clara (Anne Revere). The film opens with a drifter, Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews) arriving in a small coastal town after being thrown off the San Francisco bus when his ticket expired. Stanton has little more than his small suitcase, a suit and hat and his ready wit. In Pop’s Bar he comes across Stella (Linda Darnell) behind the counter and ‘retired’ police officer Mark Judd (Charles Bickford) propping up the bar. We gradually realise that Stanton is a con-artist and he quickly discovers that a medium (played by John Carradine) is due to visit the town and relay messages from the dead. Stanton is soon inviting himself to drum up the crowds for a commission fee. In doing so he comes across the Mills sisters as Clara is actively trying to stop the medium’s performance from taking place. It soon becomes apparent that Stanton wants Stella because she is a beautiful woman and desperate to leave the small town. Marrying a smart guy is her preferred ticket out. But Stanton, though interested, discovers that June could also be persuaded to ‘live a little’ and that she has money. Could he find a way to get June’s money and then leave town with Stella?

Stanton and Stella . . .

Dana Andrews is an interesting star performer whose deep, low voice and manner tend to suggest someone trustworthy and this film appeared between his two celebrated performances in Laura and the phenomenally successful The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) from William Wyler. Audiences are invited to determine whether Stanton is a charming con-man or a dangerous killer and there are scenes which support either view. There are also moments when I found myself almost convinced by his stories. I note that he appeared in five films for Preminger, but my introduction to his work was the two films he made for Fritz Lang, While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (both in 1956). Del Toro says that what fascinates him about Andrews is the way the actor seems to present himself as bottled up with emotion. What we think about Stanton here depends mainly on how he behaves with Stella and June. Linda Darnell is one of far too many attractive young women (and she was very young, only 15, when she signed a contract at 20th Century Fox in 1939) who struggled to get established in Hollywood. Any acting talent was often ignored by producers focusing on her beauty. Until recently the only role of hers that had stayed in my mind was as Chihuahua in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), but recently I watched her excellent performance in Joe Mankiewicz’s No Way Out (1950). In Fallen Angel the question might be whether she is the angel or whether Stanton is a Satanic figure – the title is later referenced in a line of (possibly fictitious) poetry. Stella, despite the allusions in her name, seems not to be seeking stardom but rather the conventional dream of marriage and comforts at home with city life as a diversion.

. . . and Stanton with June

For me the the plausibility of the narrative depends on Faye’s performance as June. Can she convince us that she is a talented woman (Stanton’s first real contact with her is when he finds her playing the organ in a church) who could fall for a man like Stanton so suddenly and in the face of her sister’s doubts? Or perhaps her sister’s dominant behaviour pushes June towards a form of rebellion? Here it is worth noting that the novel which Preminger and screenwriter Harry Kleiner adapted as Fallen Angel was written by ‘Marty Holland’. This name turns out to have been a pseudonym for a young woman working as a typist at Paramount. Her script was bought by Fox for $40,000. She had just one more credit, for The File on Thelma Jordon (1949) starring Barbara Stanwyck. Fallen Angel doesn’t feel like a script adapted from the ‘hard-boiled’ writers who were the source for several well-known films noirs and I’m imagining that the female audience in 1945 might well have found June a believable character. It’s worth noting here that the film’s time setting doesn’t indicate the end of the war and it could be more like a 1930s narrative.

Stanton and June with Judd and Clara

I’ve not outlined the key events of the second half of the story. All I’ll say is that there is violence, but most of it off-screen. Overall the narrative worked for me but I can see why some audiences might be disappointed. I’m not sure the ending lives up to the noirish tone of some of the earlier scenes. I think I enjoyed the performances most of all. The music is by David Raskin and it features a song, ‘Slowly’ played several times in Pop’s bar by Stella. Ironically, Alice Faye recorded the song and it was to be used in the film but Zanuck decided to use the Dick Haymes version in the final cut. No wonder Faye left Fox in high dudgeon! The film is widely available on streamers but try not to miss the opening titles which are presented in typical Preminger style as illuminated road signs seen through the windscreen of the bus carrying Stanton. I’m glad I watched this film and I think I’ll watch some more of del Toro’s selection of noirs and ‘near noirs‘ before seeing Nightmare Alley.

Here’s a clip from Fallen Angel featuring Stella and Stanton:

The Brasher Doubloon (US 1947)

This film offers a second adaptation by 20th Century Fox of Raymond Chandler’s third novel, The High Window (which was also the title for the film’s UK release). The first use of Chandler’s story was as the basis for a B Movie series film featuring Lloyd Nolan as ‘Michael Shayne’ and titled Time to Kill (US 1942). It was the second time that a Chandler novel was adapted for a film featuring a different character than Philip Marlowe. Farewell My Lovely was used for The Falcon Takes Over (US 1942) at RKO. Even though Fox saw only B movie material in Chandler at this point they reputedly paid him $3,500 for the rights. But this meant that they could re-use the material four years later in a more faithful adaptation at a time when direct adaptations of Farewell My Lovely (as Murder My Sweet, 1944) and The Big Sleep (Warner Bros, 1946) had been A movie successes for RKO and Warner Bros.

A studio publicity shot of Mrs Murdock (Florence Bates), Marlowe (George Montgomery) and Merle (Nancy Guild)

The High Window is probably less well-known than the first two famous novels listed above and it isn’t by any means the best Chandler adaptation, but it is entertaining and it does have some interesting features. Fox took a purely commercial decision to re-use the story material, but still in something of a B movie operation, to produce a 72 minute film. I’m not sure that it could be labelled a B simply because of its length but George Montgomery, who was a Fox B leading man, was the youngest and arguably lowest-ranked actor to play Philip Marlowe in the film adaptations. Montgomery was still only 31 when he played Marlowe. He’d been a boxing champion, stunt man and then a minor supporting player in films of the late 1930s. He’d grown up on a ranch in Montana and was seen as a good fit for B Westerns at Republic before signing a contract at Fox where for a time he continued in B Westerns. He did have several good selling points for the studio, including his stature as a 6′ 3″ athletic figure who also happened to be very good-looking. Fox did cast him in lead roles in A features with Maureen O’Hara, Ginger Rogers, Gene Tierney and Betty Grable during 1942-3 but then war service intervened and on his return he found himself back in the Bs.

Nancy Guild, Fox ingenue?

Montgomery was an athletic Marlowe leaping over fences and cutting a dash in fights with hoodlums. At this time he sported a pencil moustache, giving him a connection to earlier male stars such as Clark Gable. In The Brasher Doubloon his Marlowe is summoned to a large house in Pasadena where he first meets a young woman working as a secretary for the wealthy widow Mrs Murdock. The young woman is Merle Davis played by Fox’s new starlet Nancy Guild (which studio publicists claimed ryhmed with ‘Wild’). Guild had signed a 7 year contract at Fox in 1946 aged just 21 but in this film (and seemingly in others) she first appears as a nervous young woman who nevertheless attracts Marlowe (remember that Montgomery is playing a younger Marlowe). The suggestion is that she is somewhat under the control of Mrs Murdock but she will assert herself later in the narrative. Marlowe discovers that his task is to find a rare coin, the doubloon of the title, which has been stolen from a locked safe in the house. The only obvious suspects are Merle and the widow’s son Leslie (Conrad Janis). Marlowe’s investigation will involve various shady characters played by Fox’s supporting players (several interesting character actors) and he will have time to pursue his attempts to seduce Merle before a final showdown with a twist that will reveal the secret back story.

Marlowe discovers plenty of corpses . . .

. . . and as usual antagonises the police

Overall, if I’d been offered this as a B picture in a 1947 double bill I think I would have enjoyed it and found it entertaining. It’s only because I’m looking back as part of research into Raymond Chandler in Hollywood that I’m disappointed in the adaptation. I don’t have criticism of Montgomery as Marlowe or of Guild as Merle. I find them both attractive characters and she reminds me of a less cynical and deadly version of Cathy, the Jane Greer femme fatale character in Out of the Past (also 1947). As directed by John Brahm, The Brasher Doubloon isn’t particularly ‘noirish‘. Brahm was another German emigré and he had already had some success with The Lodger (1944), Hangover Square (1945) and The Locket (1946) and his work on The Brasher Doubloon is fine with some interesting angles as the stills here suggest, but nothing too ‘disturbing’ in the way of other noirs of the period. The DoP was Lloyd Ahern, who was credited on his first film in that role after more than 20 years as a camera assistant. One of the problems might be that Chandler’s novel was adapted by Dorothy Bennett, a studio writer who was paid over $1,000 a week for the work. She cut out some major characters for the novel, making for a less complex plot. Perhaps this could have been a good thing? She cut out Mrs Murdock’s daughter-in-law and it strikes me that  if the novel had been adapted ‘faithfully’ we would have had Marlowe investigating a case in which, as in The Big Sleep, he visits a wealthy household with two young women, one of whom is a potential flirt and one who he finds attractive. The scene in which Marlowe first meets Mrs Murdock is very similar to the scene in The Big Sleep in which he first meets General Sternwood. Chandler is, after all, a writer more interested in characters and descriptions than in plotting. He repeats himself and is often not too worried about the coherence of his narratives. The Brasher Doubloon seems almost as interested in the romance as it is about the disappearance of the titular coin.

Is Merle a femme fatale? Here she attempts to make Marlowe strip to see if he has the doubloon.

He Walked by Night (US 1948)

The hunted man loads his weapon in a familiar noir image

This little gem was broadcast as part of Talking Pictures TV ‘Late Night Friday’ schedule in the UK. Generally described as a ‘crime noir’, it’s perhaps better classified as an example of the semi-documentary police procedural cycle of films started by Jules Dassin’s The Naked City in 1948 and eventually becoming a staple of US TV as well as developing a UK equivalent. But He Walked by Night also has its own important features, primarily the camerawork of John Alton. Alton literally ‘wrote the book’ on noir night-time location shooting, characterised by intense shadows. Painting With Light was published in 1949.

The search begins . . .

. . . Roy Roberts as Captain Breen (left) and Scott Brady as Sergeant Brennan, leading the hunt

There are several other stories about its production that are worth mentioning. It was independently produced by Brian Foy, a veteran of studio ‘B pictures’, and distributed by Eagle-Lion, the company set up as part of J. Arthur Rank’s attempt to distribute his British films in the US (which meant Rank distributed this US indy in the UK). Foy gathered together some of the highly experienced filmmakers he knew from his studio operations including the writers John C. Higgins and Crane Wilbur and director Alfred L. Werker. However, there is a strong suggestion that at least some of the directing duties were by an uncredited Anthony Mann. Mann directed T-Men in 1947 for Brian Foy Productions with Higgins as one of the writers and John Alton behind the camera. A similar kind of film with ‘Treasury Men’ working undercover to root out fraud, T-Men is another form of ‘procedural’, also released by Eagle-Lion. Finally in terms of production stories it’s worth noting that Jack Webb, who has a small role in He Walked by Night as a backroom technician, would soon go on to produce and star in a radio series developing the police procedural idea and titled Dragnet (1949-57) and in turn this would become one of the most iconic US TV shows of the 1950s (1951-59 plus later series). There were also a couple of feature films and all this can be traced back to Webb’s experience on He Walked By Night.

Richard Basehart is the doomed criminal . . .

The police procedural idea was to take the idea for a film on a real case and to film on location in Los Angeles. Roy Martin/Morgan (Richard Basehart) is a burglar specialising in the then new electronics goods market(radios, TVs and tape recorders etc.) He has also acquired an arsenal of weapons and one night when he is disturbed by a police patrol car he ends up shooting a police officer. This sets off the procedural narrative which ends in a chase through the Los Angeles storm drain system, something used since as either an LA-set device or using sewers and underground tunnels in other locations – but this may be the first use and it benefits greatly from Alton’s camerawork. I enjoyed the film very much though I was struck by the moment when the officers in a patrol car hear over the radio that one of their colleagues has been shot. They are suddenly electrified and burst into action. I hope they would react similarly if any member of the public is shot. This shot reminds us that the film (and many similar procedurals that followed) relied on the co-operation of police forces which perhaps led to a selection of stories and an influence on how these were presented.

The end comes in the storm drain

I believe that this film is now in the public domain in the US so it is widely available online but to really appreciate its visual qualities, you should seek out the best quality print (see DVD Beaver for disc options or check the streamers). Richard Basehart is excellent as the dangerous man on the run and Scott Brady and Roy Roberts give solid performances as the the two police figures leading the hunt.

Kansas City Confidential (US 1952)

I remember reading about Phil Karlson back in the early 1970s when some of his 1950s films were re-released on 16mm and he was written about in Monthly Film Bulletin. Kansas City Confidential was one of the titles that lodged in my brain but I don’t think I saw it in the 1970s. The film was released as The Secret Four in the UK in 1953. That title does refer to the plot but makes it sound like an Enid Blyton children’s story. ‘Kansas City Confidential‘ as a title is explained in the poster above (and in the opening credit sequence) as a police story that the authorities didn’t want to be told. This is a tough crime film related to 1950s film noir. It has a deserved reputation as a film with an intriguing plot that was referenced by more than one later film and perhaps most famously by Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs (1992).

Three of the gang who are always masked and don’t know who they are working with

Karlson began as an assistant director in the early 1930s and progressed to directing in 1944, proving to be an efficient director of B films. By the early 1950s as the B units of the majors were winding down he was working for independent producers. In this instance it was Edward Small and the film was released through United Artists. Small may have been a low budget producer but this is not a B picture, running at 99 minutes and looking very good in HD on MUBI in the UK. The film has an interesting script by George Bruce and Harry Essex based on a story by Harold Greene and Rowland Browne. It has a strong cast and excellent photography by George Diskant, best known perhaps for his work at RKO, especially on Nick Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951). His work on Kansas City Confidential features close-ups of the leading characters and emphasises the tension in an unusual story.

Joe (John Payne) finds Phil (Jack Elam) at a crap shoot

There are three of cinema’s natural ‘heavies’ here, played by Jack Elam, Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef. They are recruited for an armoured car robbery by a ‘Mr Big’ who recruits them individually and forces them to wear a felt mask so that they will not know each other after the robbery. The haul is over $1 million and the three are sent to different locations to await instructions about meeting up and dividing the spoils. The planning for the robbery implicates an innocent man, ‘Joe Rolfe’ played by John Payne, the tob-billed actor in the cast. Is this deliberate or accidental? Either way he isn’t going to be happy and we know he will find a way to track down the others.

Joe is found by Boyd (Neville Brand) and Tony (Lee Van Cleef)

Joe and Helen (Coleen Gray)

Most of the narrative focuses on the aftermath of the robbery and takes place in Mexico where the four robbers and are intended to meet at a fishing resort and Mr Big will divide the spoils. A fifth character is introduced in the form of a youngish woman played by Coleen Gray who inevitably becomes interested in Joe. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative. Needless to say it all ends badly after a ‘reveal’.

Preston Foster, Helen’s father meets Tony at the resort bar. The receptionist (Dona Drake) looks on.

My initial reaction to this film was simply how good it looked. This is a film which somehow did not have its intellectual property rights renewed and fell into the Public Domain in the US, meaning that anyone could circulate poorly copied prints. This HD print is a revelation. I was reminded of a host of American crime films from the 1940s to 1960s. The Mexican setting (actually filmed in California) made me think of Out of the Past (1947) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953), both seen as films noirs. It doesn’t have the romanticism of Out of the Past but instead it has the hardness and brutality of the 1950s films like The Big Combo (1955). In fact, the brutality is picked out by several commentators. Joe in particular is subjected to several beatings and he also delivers his own. Jack Elam, in particular suffers badly. These beatings are ones in which the victims seem to recover remarkably quickly – that’s possibly a reason why, for a modern audience they seem more shocking, as if the kicks and punches are of no consequence. Joe is an interesting character, well played by the experienced Payne, who has a back-story that is hinted at but not filled in with any detail. This seems like another difference compared to the late 1940s noirs in which the war is only a few years past and there might be some kind of explanation for why some men behave as they do. I did also think about Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall (1956), a film which shares some narrative elements with Kansas City Confidential and was also overlooked at the time perhaps but has since been appreciated. Tourneur and Karlson had similar early careers  and made a broad range of films, Tourneur was given his chance by Val Lewton in the RKO B-unit and from then on got more interesting jobs (including Out of the Past) but in the 1950s found himself again being badly treated by the studios. I don’t know enough about Karlson to make a proper comparison but he seems to have remained within the world of low budget genre pictures.

Kansas City Confidential isn’t perfect. The low budget shows in places. I noticed several continuity errors that perhaps should have been re-shot – a gun is placed in a holster under a jacket on the right but in a fight is drawn from under the jacket on the left and so on. The plot is cleverly thought through but still has a few holes, I think. Nevertheless, I think this film deserves its high rating on IMDb and I’ll certainly take any other opportunities to see films by Phil Karlson.

Lights in the Dusk (Laitakaupungin valot, Finland-Germany-France-Italy-Sweden 2006)

Janne Hyytiäinen as Koistinen – the smoking in this film is seemingly de rigueur

This is the final film in the trilogy about ‘losers’ from Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismäki following Drifting Clouds (1996) and The Man Without a Past (2002). In some ways it might be the darkest of the three, especially if you find ‘miserable’ characters hard to follow. On the other hand, this is perhaps the ‘purest’ downbeat character you are likely to meet. Another way to think of the trilogy is as narratives successively about joblessness, homelessness and here loneliness. Seppo Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen) barely raises a smile and takes every disaster that befalls him on the chin. He doesn’t betray anyone (when perhaps, for the good of the society, he should) and he retains an iron determination to ‘make it’ eventually. Buster Keaton’s screen persona comes to mind – which isn’t so surprising in the world of Kaurismäki narratives. But in the Press Notes Kaurismäki refers to a ‘Chaplinesque’ character.

Koistinen (as most people call him, if they can remember his name at all) lives in a bare apartment close to the liminal space that is the Helsinki docklands. He works nights as a security guard for a company covering a major shopping mall. On his way home he stops at a late night food stall close to the water where he passes a few words with the woman who runs it. He has no friends and his work ‘colleagues’ ignore him. Occasionally he buys a vodka or a coffee in a bar and drinks it alone. But he has been spotted by a gangster who sends his ‘moll’ Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi) to seduce Koistinen and to use him to get the necessary information to enable a robbery. The gangster knows that it will be possible to frame Koistinen for the robbery and that he won’t tell the police about the girl and will accept his own guilt. All this comes to pass and the unrelenting awfulness is only relieved by a small attempted good deed which Koistinen carries out – and which of course backfires on him. This deed will not, however, be ignored and will save him in the end. In Kaurismäki’s films (or at least in the ones I’ve seen), there are still pockets of human feeling whatever the attempts of late capitalism to destroy them all. Kaurismäki refers to himself in this way:

Luckily for him, the film’s author has a reputation as a kindhearted old man, so hopefully a spark of hope will light up the final scene.

Koistinen with Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi), the woman who inveigles him into taking her out

Kaurismäki’s films have found audiences around the world and generated critical acclaim, not because of the events they portray or even the ideas they explore (though both are important in his other films). Instead it is the style and the overall ‘feel’ of the presentation that is important and what this conveys is a dry wit and a deep humanism. Sometimes this can evoke humour from the absurdist situations which confront the protagonist – in this trilogy the ‘loser’ character. I must confess that in this particular film I experienced fewer comic moments but I still found the narrative oddly gripping. Kaurismäki usually has a working-class male as his lead and the female characters are supporting roles, even if sometimes the drivers of the narratives. In this film there are the two women, one leading Koistinen astray, the other trying to save him.

The film is as usual quite short for a feature at 78 minutes and I wanted to know more about both women. Partly, the mystery of the women is buried in the generic elements of the narrative. This is Kaurismäki’s film noir and I kept thinking of the central character in terms of an Elisha Cook figure – the poor sap who wouldn’t make it to the end of the story. But much more likely, this is Kaurismäki in a French study, part poetic realism from the 1930s and part Jean-Pierre Melville. These references emerge much more strongly in the director’s next film Le Havre. Here Koistinen might be a role for Jean Gabin, albeit stripped of his energy. I guess that in Janne Hyytiäinen there is also something of Melville’s Alain Delon, but again stripped of vitality.

Music is always essential in Kaurismäki’s films and this film has a particularly strong soundtrack including two songs by Carlos Gardel. Born in France but taken to Argentina as an infant he was one of the most important ‘tango singers’ whose career had a tragic and almost rock ‘n roll ending when he was killed in a plane crash at the height of his powers in 1935. Kaurismäki is obviously taken by tango and I’ve realised that it fits his frequent dockside location being developed in the dockside bars of Argentina and Uruguay. There are also three songs by the Swedish tenor Jussi Björling (1911-1960), all from Puccini’s operas. One is from The Girl of the Golden West and the others from Tosca and Manon Lescaut. The French singer Fred Gouin contributes a 1928 song ‘Les temps des cerises’, possibly also a Japanese reference to ‘cherry blossom time’? (Kaurismäki has a real passion for Japanese culture.) The remainder of the soundtrack offers a selection of later Finnish recordings. I wish I knew more about music – surely someone has studied Kaurismäki’s choices? He includes elements of Finnish culture in his films but often in quite subtle ways. In this film we get to see a prison and I’m always struck by how much more civilised (and effective) prisons seem to be in Nordic countries compared to the US, UK or France.

Koistinen with the Black boy and the dog

Out of the four most recent Kaurismäki films this is perhaps  the most ‘contained’ story. It does fit into a development of an overall narrative, however. Janne Hyytiäinen appeared at the end of The Man Without a Past and the young Black boy who appears in this film (with the dog – there is a dog in all four recent films) points towards what will happen in Le Havre. I think I’m ready now to work back through some of Kaurismäki’s films in the 1990s.

House of Bamboo (US 1955)

House of Bamboo is remarkable only in its settings . . .

. . . It takes more than an original setting, though, to refurbish a formula production.

These are the first and last lines of the Monthly Film Bulletin review by ‘P.H.’ of this film. The MFB was the British Film Institute’s ‘journal of record’ which attempted to review films released in the UK. It was ‘absorbed’ by Sight & Sound in 1991. In 1955, reviewers weren’t named but I’m guessing this might have been Philip Hope-Wallace. The attitude towards many Hollywood films is neatly summarised by that reference to ‘formula’ and in the body of the shortish review the conventional elements of the film, including the playing which is “moderate”, are recognised as being used to present a “gratuitous emphasis on physical violence”. The only praise is for the cinematography of Joe MacDonald whose work is described as “handsome”.

Joe MacDonald’s ‘Scope framing

I’m not sure what I expected  and I would have to agree that this is a conventional ‘gangster melodrama’ – the term used in the review. However, I think the presentation is stunning and the performances are generally very good. The narrative has real intelligence in the way it explores a specific time and place and it has something to say about American culture as expressed in an unusual setting.

Robert Ryan as ‘Sandy’

House of Bamboo is a contemporary crime story filmed on location in Tokyo and Yokohama. In 1954 the Allied (i.e. mainly American) Occupation of Japan had ended some two years earlier and sovereignty was restored to a Japanese administration but there were still many thousands of US military personnel based in Japan. The film’s story deals with a criminal gang comprising ex-GIs which is carrying out a series of major robberies, each conducted like a military operation. The Tokyo police have joined forces with the American military police and organised an infiltration of the criminal gang by an undercover military policeman posing as another ‘dishonourably discharged’ GI.

Robert Stack as the morose and surly ‘Eddie’

The film’s script is actually a re-write of an earlier crime film, The Street With No Name (1948) directed by William Keighley and set in Los Angeles. That film was itself seen as a sequel to or ‘spin-off’ from The House on 92nd Street, Henry Hathaway’s 1945 film about an FBI undercover operation aiming to break up a Nazi spy ring. So, in this regard, the MFB review is on the right track. But House of Bamboo is very different to the two earlier films for two reasons. First it is a CinemaScope and DeLuxe Color production from 20th Century Fox, using the original 2.55:1 ‘Scope aspect ratio and 4-track stereo sound. Visually and aurally this is a significantly different proposition to those earlier films. Second this is a Sam Fuller movie. The mere mention of Fuller’s name may have had a negative effect on British critics in the 1950s. Fuller had two driving forces which informed all his films. These were his two main ‘life experiences’ – his early career as a journalist and his wartime experience. In between he wrote pulp fiction. Sam Fuller didn’t make staid, run-of-the-mill movies. As Phil Hardy puts it in his Studio Vista Movie Paperback (1970) on the director, Fuller was a writer, but not an intellectual. He presented stories like a tabloid sub-editor, punching out scenes and communicating quickly and directly with his audience. Fuller also had strong opinions and he believed his films should have a direct message. He had a strong belief in the potential of American ideologies to liberate people and he therefore supported American imperialism when it meant going to war to fight Communists. This led some critics to describe the director as a ‘fascist’, but that didn’t really make sense. Fuller was in some ways Utopian in his belief in multi-racial societies. He was also critical of how American policies were put into practice and he chose to explore them at moments of crisis and both inside the US and overseas.

Shirley Yamaguchi demonstrating the art of eating fried eggs with chopsticks

I first saw House of Bamboo many years ago on TV when it would have been ‘panned and scanned’ for a 4:3 presentation and when the colour was faded. Watching it now in HD with the colours restored and the original ‘Scope image, I found it a stunning spectacle. It should be remembered that Japan in the mid-fifties was still in the early stage of its economic miracle and Japanese cinema had not yet embraced widescreen technologies or colour (which would appear in the next few years). House of Bamboo looks fabulous, whether it is location shooting, much of it in long shot, or what I assume to be Japanese studio footage with some terrific sets.

Eddie (in the raincoat) crosses a city street . . .

. . . is taken to Sandy’s house in another long shot composition

The three principals are played by Robert Ryan as the gang-leader Sandy Dawson, Robert Stack as the infiltrator Eddie and Shirley Yamaguchi as Mariko, the widow who acts as Eddie’s ‘kimono’, the gang’s sexist slang for the women who live with them. Robert Ryan is, of course, terrific as always. Here he is both calculating and vicious but with an underling elegance that might derive from is repressed homoerotic attraction to Eddie. Robert Stack has a kind of double role to play. He has to show his more human side to Mariko when she decides to support his undercover work but he also has to appear mean and surly as a gang member. I’m not sure he quite pulls this off. I note one ‘user’ comment which complains that he talks to everyone as if he was playing Elliot Ness in The Untouchables (he starred in 119 episodes of the TV series between 1959 and 1963). There is some truth in this. I had forgotten that ‘Shirley Yamaguchi’ was actually Yamaguchi Yoshiko and that she appeared with Mifune Toshiro in Kurosawa’s Scandal (Japan 1947). Like Mifune she was born in Manchuria to Japanese parents in 1920 but then appeared in propaganda films made in Manchuko as a Chinese actor. Later she would make a career briefly in the US and then in Hong Kong. She was also a successful singer whose performances were used recently in both Crazy Rich Asians (US 2018) and Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (HK-China 2013) under her Chinese pseudonym Li Xianglan.

Like many of Fuller’s films in this period, House of Bamboo begins with a journalistic commentary as voiceover, effectively setting the scene for us. I would argue that the ‘formula’ is exploited by Fuller such that he can explore his usual concerns. The mixed race relationship, Robert Ryan’s control over crime activities all planned as military operations and throughout the sense that America’s presence in Japan is both necessary but also prone to the corruption of idealism and the loss of control. As Phil Hardy notes, Eddie’s role as the American breaking up the American gang is an ironic reference to the American-Japanese treaty and the role of the US in Japan’s recovery. Japan is presented with sociological and cultural detail in place. Fuller’s art director also contributes towards this by providing a ‘bamboo curtain’, a transparent barrier which descends between Eddie and Mariko at night. It’s still early in terms of CinemaScope and most shots are relatively static with movement in an across the frame offered by the extreme width of the image and the long shot framings. It would take Fuller a little longer to re-discover the punchy style of his pre-CinemaScope work and it was that style that so impressed later directors such as Jean-Luc Godard.

I’m looking forward now to watching some more Fuller ‘Scope films from the 1950s.