House of Bamboo

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House of Bamboo
Robert Ryan, center, and Robert Stack, right, in House of Bamboo

There are, amazingly, still film fanatics who'd dismiss Sam Fuller as the cinematic equivalent of a Cro-Mag, a storyteller perpetually stuck in an in-your-face mode. Early-adopter Andrew Sarris's praise of the director as "an authentic American primitive" may have done more harm than good; that last word gets emphasized above all else. Yes, we like Fuller's movies for a certain over-the-top B-movie rush, but those who say he's a brute with an occasionally poetic touch have it backward. And there's no better proof of that than his 1955 cross-cultural crime thriller, a masterpiece that pinpoints the sublime in Fuller's sensationalism and earns every inch of its widescreen real estate.

Turning the on-location Tokyo streets into the perfect backdrop for a cartoonishly colorful version of hardboiled drama---call it Pulp Art---House of Bamboo keeps its story line about an undercover Army cop (Stack) battling a gangster (Ryan) on the lean and mean side. But the impeccable compositions Fuller uses to detail the lyrical (Stack's pillow-talk conversations with Yamaguchi) and the lurid (a shooting involving a barrel-bath, a climax that takes place aboard a rotating outdoor observatory) give even the most lowbrow elements a high-art feel; it's like a bridge from the gutter to the museum. An authentic American primitive probably wouldn't have embedded a pointed critique of the curdled Western culture coursing through Japan's bloodstream a decade after WWII ended, either. If those things don't win you over, just listen to the way Ryan calls head thug Cameron Mitchell "my ich-i-BAN." There's a whole other film in that line alone. Like Fuller, the movie keeps up a crass front and contains multitudes.

Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear

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