Two of Samuel Fuller's best are screening tonight (Wednesday) on a double-bill at the Castro as part of Noir City X, the 10th annual San Francisco film noir festival. This is a rare chance to see two of Fuller's more ambitious and vibrant films on the big screen.
Set in post-war Japan, House of Bamboo (1955) doesn't look like a noir picture, even though its character and story elements fit that descriptor. That's because, shot in Technicolor and Cinemascope by Joseph MacDonald, it's one of the most beautifully photographed films we've seen. Japan was rebuilding its cities and national identity in the post-war years, and Fuller made excellent use of Bamboo's locations during that fascinating transitional moment.
Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack), an American in Tokyo, is investigating the death of a former military colleague after an army train is robbed of guns and ammunition. He winds up infiltrating a criminal gang led by Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan) that consists of former GIs who have been dismissed from duty.
House of Bamboo is loaded with arresting Fuller strangeness: the visual beauty of the country contrasted with the physical damage still visible in the cities; the sleaze of the main characters surrounding Spanier's cloaked honor; a story that embraces post-war politics, problems of cultural communication, and tricky games of loyalty.
Underworld U.S.A. has a somewhat more conventional story, even if Fuller invests it with characteristic themes and visual technique. Cliff Robertson is surprisingly convincing as Tolly Devlin, an amoral young man who spends 20 years of his life seeking vengeance for the beating death of his father, who died at the hands of four racketeers. Oddly, we know little about the father, and we never see him on screen. When he's referred to by other characters, he's spoken of in disparaging terms. Nevertheless, Tolly is single-minded as he plots his revenge. He cozies up to the gang who killed his father, and he takes down each of the four in turn. In so doing, he comes close to rejecting the woman who acts as his surrogate mother, as well as the woman who loves him (Cuddles, played Dolores Dorn).
Underworld U.S.A. has a hard existential edge and a journalistic curiosity about criminal gangs. The movie was made at a time during which the average American citizen knew little about organized crime -- to the public, it mostly existed in movies and in government hysteria.
Fuller's low budget on this one is elevated by his brisk visual style and short, expressive camera movements. As Tolly's moll, Dolores Dorn nearly steals the show with a performance that balances brassy and vulnerable elements, particularly in a scene where she directly (and drunkenly) addresses the camera (which takes Tolly's point of view). It's a wonder Dorn never received more attention. In Underworld U.S.A., she's as sexy as a woman can be on film.