House of Bamboo

5 out of 5 stars
Robert Ryan, center, and Robert Stack, right, in 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.

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By: David Fear


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