Monday, November 21, 2011

The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Samuel Fuller never met an idea he wasn't willing to explore on film.

That he rarely did so in a focused or coherent way hasn't stopped him from winning legions of fans. In fact, it might be one of his selling points.

Fuller's films exist in their own bizarre world. It's a pulpy, slangy, slapdash place where plot threads are picked up and abandoned willy-nilly, where stuntmen's faces are clearly visible during fight scenes, and where emotion trumps reason.

The Crimson Kimono was the first movie Fuller made after signing a four-film deal with Columbia Pictures. It wasn't exactly a box office smash — after its first three bookings, it ended up playing on the bottom half of a double bill with Battle of the Coral Sea (1959).

On the other hand, it wasn't enough of a failure to stop Columbia from giving Fuller bigger stars to work with in his next film, Underworld U.S.A. (1961), which, incidentally, starred Cliff Robertson, the star of Battle of the Coral Sea.

The poster for The Crimson Kimono trades heavily on its interracial romance angle, with titillating lines like
"YES, this is a beautiful American girl in the arms of a Japanese boy!" and "What was his strange appeal for American girls?"

That the poster does not accurately reflect the film's subject matter should come as no surprise, but we'll get to that in a bit.

The opening credits of The Crimson Kimono unfold over a static shot of a painting. Through a series of dissolves, the painting is fleshed out, becoming a woman in a kimono, holding a fan. As soon as we've learned that this film was written, produced, and directed by Samuel Fuller, the camera zooms in on the lower right-hand corner of the canvas, and a paintbrush signs it with the name "Chris."

Then we're hit with a blast of raunchy jazz music and an aerial shot of Los Angeles at night. An enormous image of a blond stripper rises up like a skyscraper over the marquee of a burlesque show that features "Sugar Torch and Nudie Dolls."

Sugar Torch is played by Gloria Pall, who previously played strippers in uncredited roles in The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Jailhouse Rock (1957).

Fuller arrests the audience's attention early with the never-fail combo of sex and death. Pall's burlesque performance is almost unbearably sexy, but it's over quickly, and before long, Sugar Torch is fleeing barefoot down Main Street from an unseen assailant wielding a revolver.

She doesn't make it far.

Enter Detective Sgt. Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) and his partner, Detective Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta). Bancroft and Kojaku are more than just partners. Bancroft was Kojaku's commanding officer in the Korean War, and the two men are best friends who live together in a swanky bachelor pad.

Sugar Torch's sleazy manager, Casale (Paul Dubov), describes an act she was working on with some mystery men involving a samurai lover, a brick-crushing karate master, and — of course — Sugar in a crimson kimono.

When the detectives throw a hard line of questioning Casale's way, he responds "Who said I had anything against her? She was shifty as smoke, but I liked her!" Kojaku and Bancroft track down Sugar's mystery men — the karate master she wanted to involve in her burlesque act, Willy Hidaka (George Yoshinaga), a hulking Korean named Shuto (played by the Japanese-American wrestler and stuntman Fuji), and a creepy dark-haired man known only as "Hansel" (Neyle Morrow).

With the help of an alcoholic, fun-loving, middle-aged painter named Mac (Anna Lee), Bancroft also identifies the artist who painted Sugar in her kimono. Much to Bancroft's surprise, "Chris" turns out to be a beautiful young woman named Christine Downs (Victoria Shaw).

Up until this point, Bancroft has had little interest in the case. "Nobody cares who killed that tramp" he tells Kojaku, and claims Kojaku is only taking the case seriously because he's bucking for promotion to sergeant. But Chris piques Bancroft's interest when she speaks fondly of Sugar. "You liked her?" he says, sounding incredulous.

It's not long before Bancroft is head over heels in love with Chris without realizing that she doesn't quite share his feelings, and is herself falling in love with his best friend, Kojaku.

For a long stretch of the film, the affaires du coeur dominate the proceedings, and the mystery is all but forgotten.

Fuller had a unique way of being heavy-handed without having a coherent message. It didn't always work in his favor, but it does in The Crimson Kimono. If the message of the film had been something simple like "racism is bad," then the Japanese-American Kojaku resisting Chris's advances by saying "Chris, let's not trigger off a bomb!" wouldn't sound nearly as weird and ironic as it does.

The Crimson Kimono is a classic example of Fuller's restless artistry. Unlike his previous foray into Japanese culture, House of Bamboo (1955), which was a colorful, beautifully lensed heist picture that was entirely filmed in Japan, The Crimson Kimono is a black and white picture shot on the cheap in Los Angeles. But while House of Bamboo was ultimately somewhat lifeless, The Crimson Kimono is bursting with half-finished ideas and stylistic flourishes. For instance, the scene in which a shadowy assailant prepares to shoot Chris in her sorority house features a creepy phone call and P.O.V. shots from the shooter's point of view that would be at home in a horror movie. Fuller's storytelling isn't always coherent, but his willingness to throw things at the audience until something sticks is a lot of fun to watch.

Another example of this is the homage Fuller pays to the 442nd Regiment Combat Team, the highly decorated World War II military unit that consisted entirely of American soldiers of Japanese descent. He shows the plaques in their cemetery, but he doesn't spend much time explaining who the Nisei troops were or what they did.

He also has a lot of fun playing with images of duality in the film. Bancroft and Kojaku, despite being from different racial backgrounds, dress alike, talk alike, live together, and have the same kind of laid-back cool.

Neither Corbett nor Shigeta had ever appeared in a film before, but they both turn in excellent performances in The Crimson Kimono. Viewers today might not realize how revolutionary Shigeta's romantic scenes with Shaw were. There had been plenty of films about interracial romances before, but I can't recall seeing a film before this one that featured an Asian-American man and a white American woman together. Interestingly, Fuller paints a picture of Los Angeles in which Asian-Americans and white Americans freely intermingle, and the biggest stumbling block to Kojaku's relationship with Chris is Kojaku's loyalty to his friend and his own feelings of persecution.

I wouldn't call The Crimson Kimono a great film, but it's rarely boring. A lot of it comes off as half-baked, and the pieces of the puzzle don't always form a coherent whole, but that's pretty standard for a Samuel Fuller movie.

Written by Adam Lounsbery


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