House of Bamboo (1955)
2.35:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 4.0, Monaural
20th Century Fox, $14.98

Moments after the CinemaScope Fox Fanfare logo fades to the bucolic, snowy valley of Japan’s Mount Fuji, a tabloid-style voiceover barks that it is 1954 and tells us that the train pulling into frame is filled with military supplies guarded by both Japanese and American troops. Then thieves descend upon the scene, and the lone scream of a Japanese peasant woman, who witnesses the attack, heralds the title sequence to House of Bamboo. One of director Samuel Fuller’s most unusual outings, the picture recently made its DVD debut as part of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment’s excellent Film Noir series.

A deftly disguised reworking of 1948’s The Street With No Name (also available in Fox’s Film Noir line), House of Bamboo offers a glimpse of the sinister American crime rings operating in Japan after World War II. On the trail of a deceased contact, American ex-con and thug Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack) arrives in Tokyo and sniffs around to find a way into a crew headed by Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan). While worming his way into Dawson’s fold, Spanier also hits on Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi), the grieving widow of his late contact. Once Dawson takes more than a casual liking to Spanier, the brash American becomes the favored member of the crew, and he eventually reveals to Mariko that he is an American agent whose mission is to destroy Dawson and bring down his organization.

House of Bamboo is well known for being one of the first films shot in Japan after World War II. To bring this exotic crime drama to life, Fuller studied the work of key Japanese filmmakers, particularly Kenji Mizoguchi, and enlisted veteran cinematographer Joe MacDonald, ASC (Young Lions, How to Marry a Millionaire) as one of his key collaborators. MacDonald had worked with Fuller on Pickup on South Street and had also shot The Street With No Name, and he worked meticulously to give House of Bamboo a style in the vein of the classical Japanese directors. Instead of clichéd camera setups with heavy shadow and diffusion, House of Bamboo’s cinematography mainly comprises long takes, a moving camera and a lush, color canvas. The carefully composed, tableau-style framing and bright, often high-key lighting in actual locations give the picture an untraditional visual quality that makes it a unique entry in the genre.

Fox Home Entertainment has produced a solid DVD with a crisp, clean picture transfer that picks up small details while accurately reproducing the film’s many colorful set pieces. The source material appears to be in excellent condition, and the 16x9 transfer nicely captures the CinemaScope framing; there’s a vivid color palette on display in contrast to the solid blacks and grays. The audio tracks, one monaural and the other a lively 4.0 surround mix, are both clear of distortion and seem well preserved.

The audio commentary is a dense supplement that features film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini, who provide interesting historical and anecdotal information regarding the production and Fuller’s place in the film-noir canon. Both men make generally insightful comments about several aspects of the project and many of Fuller’s collaborators.

The supplements also include silent, raw footage shot for Fox Movietone News that shows the actors and crew arriving in Japan, as well as fun glimpses of the shoot. Rounding out the supplements are the original, screeching theatrical trailer for House of Bamboo, a trailer made for Spanish-speaking countries, and a handful of trailers for other DVDs in the Fox Film Noir line.

From the pastoral beauty of Tokyo’s outer regions to the garish, carnival-ride finale high atop a building, House of Bamboo has its own distinct tone. Although many hardcore noir fans prefer more traditional entries in the genre, House of Bamboo is vivid pulp, despite its lush color palette and graceful camera moves. The actors’ no-nonsense characterizations and the film’s often-gratuitous violence are not only pure noir, they’re pure Fuller.

— Kenneth Sweeney

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© 2005 American Cinematographer.