Sunday, August 21, 2011

Robert Ryan at Film Forum: House of Bamboo

Post-war Japan was a place an outfit could make good money if they were ruthless enough. A gang of dishonorably discharged Americans are such men, led by Sandy Dawson, the hardest of the hardboiled. Dawson is so tough he had to be played by rugged character actor Robert Ryan in a Sam Fuller film noir. Yet, Fuller’s House of Bamboo (trailer here) was actually shot in color CinemaScope on location in Japan. A classic gangster beat-down of considerable interest to fans of Japanese cinema as well, Bamboo kicks off a special one week-run with a new 35m CinemaScope print this Friday, as the culmination of Film Forum’s Robert Ryan retrospective.

Eddie Spanier has bad luck. He arrived in Tokyo hoping to hook up with his old war buddy’s gang. Unfortunately, his fellow Army washout was shot in a heist-gone-bad days before his ship docked. Spanier quickly learns his pal’s widow Mariko knew nothing of her secret husband’s criminal enterprises, but his own thuggish ways are enough to bring him to the attention of Dawson’s gang.

Since they happen to have an opening, Spanier soon insinuates himself into the expat gangster life. However, Spanier is not really Spanier. He is a military cop named Kenner in deep cover, a secret known only to his handler and Mariko, who agrees to help by assuming the role of his “kimono” (an obvious euphemism for a relationship 1950’s Hollywood would need a euphemism for).

Bamboo’s cast looks like a Fuller dream team of the squarest jaws Hollywood had to offer, including Ryan of course, Robert Stack as Spanier/Kenner, as well as Cameron Mitchell and DeForest “Bones” Kelley as henchmen. Really, only John Ireland seems to be missing, but he always had bad luck.

Perhaps even more notable (except during a Robert Ryan retrospective) is the achingly vulnerable performance of Shirley Yamaguchi (otherwise known as Yoshiko Ōtaka) as Mariko. With a controversial wartime career in China, credits in films by Kurosawa and Fuller, and eventual election to the upper house of Japan’s parliament, Yamaguchi’s eventful life inspired Ian Buruma’s novel The China Lover. She inspires a whole lot more in Bamboo.

Frankly, Bamboo’s plot is riddled with holes and the characters’ machismo sometimes approaches misogyny (I mentioned this was a Sam Fuller movie right?). Yet, scene after scene are individual gems noir grit. Indeed, in a literal sense, Bamboo was arguably Fuller’s biggest picture, culminating on a merry-go-round atop a high-rise department store with panoramic views of the city.

Watching two craggy hardnoses like Ryan and Stack go toe-to-toe is definitely entertaining. The added appeal of real acting from the beautiful and fascinating Yamaguchi makes Bamboo quite a package. Seeing it in Scope on the big screen will be a treat, highly recommended when Bamboo opens this Friday (8/26) in New York at Film Forum.