The limits of the lengths to which dazzling camerawork and curled-lip noir bluster can make up for thoroughly ham-fisted dialogue are tested in Sam Fuller's 1955 gangster picture, House of Bamboo. It's the familiar tradeoff with Fuller's scripts (though here he was working off one mostly written by Harry Kleiner): They're hard-boiled as all hell, but given just the slightest mistake in mood or pacing, the whole can seem so ridiculous as to be laughable. This film never quite gets to the laughable point, but by the end it's not far off.
As the first American feature to be shot in Japan after WWII (its home-grown film industry had been trucking right along since not long after the peace treaty was signed), House of Bamboo makes the most out of its setting, and its spell-binding Cinemascope compositions make up most of the reasons to see it. The film opens on a supply train puffing across a snowy landscape that's hijacked by a gang of thieves who are more than happy to garrote the Japanese and U.S. guards on board before making off with the loot, .50-caliber machine guns. It's a sharply executed piece of work and ends with a hammer blow: achingly beautiful Mount Fuji, as shot between the boots of a dead soldier.
Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack) shows up in Tokyo not long after the credits finish, as one of the murdered G.I.s was a buddy of his and he's looking for revenge. It doesn't take much for Spanier to infiltrate the gang itself, apparently because they're all as stiff-spined and sharp-tongued as he is, and it isn't long afterward that he's pulling off jobs. The gang itself is a tough bunch of hoods whose code is such that if one of them is ever wounded during a job, they'll kill the guy and leave him behind to tell no tales. They're led by ex-G.I. Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan), who runs a chain of pachinko parlors in Tokyo and emotes about as much as a brick wall. Spanier's arrival sets off some jealous rumblings in the gang, as Dawson takes a shine to his similarly stoic new soldier, all of it a not-so-hidden homoerotic bonding that gives a welcome kick to some of the more generic goings-on - especially the desultory affair that Spanier carries on with Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi), the Japanese widow of one of the dead gangsters. Meanwhile, the law is closing in; look for Sessue Hayakawa, a onetime heartthrob from Hollywood's silent era who would play Colonel Saito in Bridge on the River Kwai two years after House of Bamboo, as one of the Japanese inspectors.
The tale of conflicted loyalties - Spanier soon shows that he has more up his sleeve than simple revenge - is sketched in rather skimpily, and a bulk of the film moves at a depressingly plodding pace. Added to this, the general stiffness of the performances only serves to elongate the inaction between blowups, typically Fuller-esque in their mix of overheated emotions and laconic bravado ("I'll say one thing - he sure knew how to die."). But save the film's awe-inspiring look, perfectly capturing the grimy vibrancy of postwar Japan, and a knockout confrontation on an amusement park ride high above Tokyo, this is an interesting film at best, never quite as gripping or shocking as it quite obviously intends to be.
The 20th Century Fox DVD - part of its impressive Fox Film Noir series - is a good package, with commentary by film historians, a trailer, and a couple of Movietone News shorts. The widescreen presentation of the film itself is beyond compare, an absolutely sparkling picture.
Bamboo... and love!