Saturday, June 04, 2005

The Street With No Name & House of Bamboo

Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was rather obsessed with propaganda, and he felt that Hollywood was a great place to extoll the virtues of the FBI to the American people, as a way of entrenching himself into the Washington establishment ever further and keeping his name in public eye. So in 1948, he allowed director William Keighley unfettered access to the FBI case files and gave him the agency's full cooperation for the production that followed, the 1948 procedural The Street With No Name.

It tells a highly fictionalized account of a real FBI case. A string of violent robberies leads police to a crime gang led by a ruthless underworld figure with an odd recruitment strategy. He finds men who might fit the profile for one of his henchmen, then he has them arrested, and then he uses his crooked cop friend to access their criminal record, to determine their level of experience and commitment.

The FBI sent in an undercover agent, complete with a fake arrest record, to infiltrate the gang and reveal their identities and upcoming plans. The Street With No Name retells this story in as straight-forward a manner as possible, with minimal flair but with solid lead performances from Mark Stevens as the undercover agent and Richard Widmark as the gang leader.

Widmark's the real standout here. Fresh off his chilling debut performance in Kiss of Death, he plays another real creep in this movie. His Alec Stiles is a violent, wife-beating lout concerned only with money and his reputation in the underworld. And yet, Widmark refuses to play Stiles as a kill-crazy lunatic, giving him a human side that warms to his recruits over time. There's likewise a sequence in which he plays piano for the boys, hugs his wife and generally seems to be an okay guy, inserted in the film for no other reason, really, than to give the antagonist a touch of personality.

The black and white cinematography is nice and crisp, and I particularly enjoyed the seedy decor of Skid Row. Stevens checks into a flophouse to establish his new identity to the neighborhood, and the mise-en-scene in the sequence really sells the moment - there's a cracked mirror, chipped and crumbling walls, and a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Nice touch.

The only other truly memorable element to Street With No Name is the embarrassing fashion in which Hoover inserted himself into the film's action. The guy was an egomaniac, and the opening five minutes of the movie plays like an homage to his leadership and courage. We get a type-written message from Hoover, informing us that, astonishingly, three out of four Americans will be the victims of organized gangsterism! So, clearly, though he trades in it, Karl Rove did not invent the art of political fear-mongering.

We even get an entire sequence where a squad of FBI guys anxiously wait around for an urgent missive from Hoover telling them what to do next. As if all law enforcement in the country relied on J. Edgar's specific instructions before catching any bad guys. It's pretty fascinating stuff, evidence of just how powerful a figure this guy really was in 1948. How many Americans could even name the head of the FBI today? (NOTE: It's Robert Mueller, the 6th man to hold the office. He took office on September 4th, 2001...what timing).

So, anyway, considering that the original has a solid narrative and some great moments, it's only natural Sam Fuller decided to remake the thing in 1955. What's odd is that he relocated the story to Japan and called it House of Bamboo. In his version, the plot remains fairly similar for a while - an American agent (Robert Stack) goes to Japan to infiltrate the criminal gang headed up by surly American emigre Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan), which has been hijacking shipments of ammunition.

Fuller dispenses with all the patriotic nonsense of the original, but also gives the hero cop a romantic interest in Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi), the wife of a gang member recently killed by Dawson who takes up with him while he's undercover. The love story complicates the main action somewhat unneccessarily, and the whole movie kind of gets bogged down with dialogue when it should be more fast-paced and exciting.

But there's no denying Fuller's immense talent for dynamic filmmaking. House of Bamboo looks tremendous, its Cinemascope photography taking in the lived-in details of its Japanese locations. As well, the movie is filled with complex high-angle shots that enhance the air of intrigue and, quite frequently, astound with their technical virtuosity. (One shot in particular, where Fuller's camera glides over the top of a pagoda before settling astride it for a close-up of two characters in dialogue, seemed almost physically impossible on first glance).

And the finale, a massive shootout set atop a whirling Japanese fairground attraction, is the best single scene in either movie. It's intense, exciting, features some great moments with Robert Ryan, and is reminiscent of the best Hitchcock finales (Strangers on a Train, in particular). That scene is Fuller at his best.

So, out of the two versions of this story, I think the original is probably the overall better movie, and the Widmark performance is the best in either film. But the Fuller film is definitely going to have more appeal for modern audiences, and has the far more sensible conclusion. Both movies kind of require a good deal of suspension of disbelief, particularly when you consider that this was supposed to be a true story.

In Street With No Name, for example, the cops find out that one of their own is leaking information to Widmark, and yet they continue with the undercover work unabated. Don't they realize their agent's cover will be blown, and his life endangered? Don't they care?

And Robert Ryan's robbery plans leave a bit to be desired. Again and again, his crew plans insanely daring mid-day robberies, clad in full suits and hats, in crowded public venues. That's madness! Why not steal things under cover of night? And why not plan escape routes better, or better yet, organize convenient transportation. That's why, in every single caper they plan, several members of Ryan's team winds up dead. Because they're running down the street at noon in a suit carrying a suitcase full of cash and brandishing a firearm! What kind of criminal mastermind is this guy?

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