"House of Bamboo" is a loose remake of 1948's docudrama "The Street With No Name" written by Harry Kleiner. Director Samuel Fuller rewrote the screenplay and moved the action to occupied Japan in 1954. Fuller retained a bit of the police procedural style of "The Street With No Name" but uses the story to paint an unflattering picture of the American occupation of Japan, where the original film was virtual propaganda for Hoover's FBI. "House of Bamboo" tends to emphasize theme and give characters short shrift, while "The Street With No Name" included some solid character writing and a memorable performance by Richard Widmark as gangster Alec Stiles. Robert Ryan plays the bad guy in "House of Bamboo", and he was as great a character actor as Widmark. But you wouldn't know it from this film. Ryan isn't given much to do as crime boss Sandy Dawson. Co-incidentally, cinematographer Joe MacDonald shot both of the films. He shot "The Street With No Name" in low and high key black and white. "House of Bamboo" is widescreen and in color, filmed in the anamorphic 35mm format CinemaScope. Fuller and MacDonald make excellent use of the widescreen format, and the cinematography is the film's great strength.
When a gang of hoodlums robs a supply train carrying Japanese civilians and American military supplies across the Japanese countryside, the Criminal Investigation Division of the Military Police are called upon to investigate. Sergeant Keller (Robert Stack) goes undercover, posing as Eddie Spanier, old friend of a gangster killed on the job. His first order of business is to track down the dead man's anguished wife, Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi), who knows nothing of her husband's work. Spanier's second order of business is to set himself up in the "protection" racket, where his attempts to extort money from pachinko parlors arouse the attention of the business' owner, an ex-G.I. named Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan), who uses them as a front for his more sinister business dealing in stolen munitions. Dawson offers Spanier a position in his operation, and Mariko completes his cover by posing as Spanier's mistress, or "kimono girl".
The abundance of gorgeous cinematography in "House of Bamboo" makes it look expensive, but shooting in Japan actually allowed the film to be made fairly cheaply. Fuller's staging was influenced by Japanese cinema and Kabuki theater, which helps him cope with the widescreen format. This was one of the first films made in Japan after the war, and the colorful scenes of bustling Japanese streets and everyday life must have seemed exotic and novel to American audiences. Those scenes are still captivating. This screenplay takes a dim view of American military personnel, who are portrayed as predatory and culturally insensitive at best, a massive corrupting force at worst. Samuel Fuller always did like to make strong statements. The film's sympathy is with Mariko, although her characterization is basically chauvinistic. I have to give Sam Fuller credit, though, for pulling off a film that constantly criticizes its protagonist. Eddie Spanier is an ugly American. He exploits Mariko's vulnerability and confusion to involve her in a dangerous operation that dishonors her. He's a jerk. And Robert Stack's performance turns wooden as his character becomes less obnoxious and more romantic. Yet "House of Bamboo" succeeds. It's a beautiful film, and the story is good enough to string us along, so we can enjoy the exquisite color and composition.
The DVD (Fox Home Video 2005): This appears to be a restored print. The color is generally very good. But some momentary color shifts occur at the beginning and end of some scenes, which I attribute to the transfer. There are a few short bonus features plus a nice audio commentary. "Fox Movietone News: Behind-the-Scenes Footage" (2 minutes) is silent footage of Shirley Yamaguchi signing autographs and the cast, Sam Fuller, and producer Buddy Adler receiving flowers on the set. "Landing in Japan" (1 minute) is silent footage of Fuller and cast deplaning in Japan, perhaps a Japanese newsreel. "Fox Noir" are trailers for 4 other films. There are 2 theatrical trailers for this film: an English (2 minutes) and Spanish-language version (1 minute). Film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini do an interesting non-stop audio commentary for the film. They talk a lot about Samuel Fuller and the film's style, as well as themes, shots, characters, staging, and story. Subtitles for the film are available in English and Spanish. Dubbing is available in Spanish and French.