A thriller that, for all the elements typical to its creator, presents really a variation of Samuel Fuller, a variation somewhat familiar from certain glimpses in certain moments of his other films; House of Bamboo shows Sam Fuller, gifted a large budget and a chance to shoot in Tokyo, as an observer rather than the one swinging the cine-fist, as a journalist standing back to soak in the story with the knowledge he’s got to learn something, rather than show us something, here. Sure there are great Fullerian explosive moments (Robert Stack’s undercover cop being suddenly punched through a partition and falling directly into the lap of the gang he’s been seeking, Robert Ryan as the villain turning up to shoot, without a word, one of his double-crossing men while he’s in the bathtub, before almost caressing his body while offering his apologies), but for the most part it almost feels as if House of Bamboo could have been made by a young Chris Marker (the young Chris Marker of Letter from Siberia and Sunday in Peking, films coincidentally, or not so coincidentally, made almost contemporaneously with Fuller’s) who decided, mid-shooting, to turn from his literate travelogue on the clash of tradition and modernity (most apparent in the traditional ceremony which turns into a raucous jazz dance) in post-war Tokyo towards the pleasures and pains of Hollywood narrative film-making.
This approach makes for less of a wild and viscerally exciting film and viewing experience than, say, Forty Guns or Underworld USA, but there’s a lot to be said for it even if House of Bamboo is second-shelf Fuller. There’s a tremendous colouring added to the rather rote story (taken from the earlier, USA-set noir The Street with No Name), not least in the homoerotic sparks provided by (the brilliant, as usual) Robert Ryan’s Sandy’s relationships with his underlings, show best in his almost-jealous reproaching of Susan Yamaguchi’s (sensitive and endearing) Mariko for her supposed infidelity to our hero. And the colour scheme itself is fantastic; make no mistake, this is one of Fuller’s best-looking films. The cinemascope format means that Fuller crafts wider, more expansive and detailed compositions rather than relying on his characteristic short-sharp-shock-close-ups, but these compositions are often striking and beautiful, based on flat colours knocked for six by intrusions of over-lapping and powerful bursts of blue and red, the former colour taking control in the nocturnal sequences that are among the film’s finest. The semi-love-scenes between Yamaguchi and Stack are some of the most tender in all of Fuller’s cinema, not least in the amusing and touching culture-shock breakfast interactions, but most particularly in those moments where Yamaguchi softly lets down the curtain between their mattresses and seems to separate the two lovers, bathed in navy hues, with the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, rather than a sheet of the flimsiest and thinnest material.