Another great Samuel Fuller film on Blu-ray — this one is a crime tale set in downtown Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, that forms an interracial romantic triangle. It’s risky for its year because of the sexual dynamics — a Japanese-American man falls in love with a Caucasian woman. Fuller’s approach is years ahead of its time, even if Columbia’s sales job was a little weird.
The Crimson Kimono
1959 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 81 min. / Street Date July 18, 2017 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store 29.95
Starring: Victoria Shaw, Glenn Corbett, James Shigeta, Anna Lee, Paul Dubov, Jaclynne Greene, Neyle Morrow, Gloria Pall, , Barbara Hayden, George Yoshinaga.
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Film Editor: Jerome Thoms
Original Music: Harry Sukman
Written, Produced and Directed by Samuel Fuller
“What was his strange appeal for American girls?”
Believe it or not, there was once a time when Samuel Fuller was a fringe figure, sort of a ghost legend. Only the die-hard UCLA students were big on his pictures in the early ’70s, even though The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor, scarcely ten years old, were already being played in repertory theaters and regarded as classics. When the UCLA Archive screened incredibly good-looking prints of Pickup on South Street and Fixed Bayonets to show, I knew I’d found a special director outside the industry mainstream. But most of us had to wait for DVD to arrive to see a decent copy of the minimalist epic I Shot Jesse James. It was also difficult to catch up with Fuller’s Park Row, which should be regarded as a masterpiece of patriotic filmmaking: instead of waving a flag, the film extols the greatness of endangered American journalism.
Sam Fuller’s solid relationship with Darryl Zanuck gave him a few years in the mainstream, before a return to his feisty personal brand of filmmaking. Even on the commercial downgrade, the pictures are consistently ‘Fuller’ through and through. He places his political and social themes right up front, relying on audacious titles and shock story hooks to distinguish his work from ordinary double-bill fare. After an ill-timed attempt to do something extraordinary for Darryl Zanuck, he spent several nervous seasons releasing his Globe productions through Fox and Columbia, and through RKO just as that studio was closing its doors. Yet Fuller scored with westerns (Run of the Arrow), and crime pix, and would soon enjoy one last big-studio hurrah with a great war picture, Merrill’s Marauders.
For Columbia Fuller did a pair of offbeat crime pictures. His Underworld U.S.A. takes a mob revenge tale to paranoid extremes. But Fuller’s lower-key The Crimson Kimono tempers his cine-fist dynamics to make a strong statement about interracial issues.
The Crimson Kimono’s murder mystery is secondary to its love triangle. Detective partners and close buddies Charlie Bancroft and Joe Kojaku (Glenn Corbett and James Shigeta) fought together in Korea and share an apartment. When a stripper named Sugar Torch (Gloria ‘Voluptua’ Pall) is murdered they end up providing protection for artist Chris Downs (top-billed Victoria Shaw). Both men soon fall in love with her. Victoria Shaw had made an auspicious splash in Columbia’s The Eddy Duchin Story, but the studio offered her few follow-up opportunities. She’s also good in Don Siegel’s Edge of Eternity, from the same year.
Fuller had the precedent of the Marlon Brando monstrosity Sayonara to convince Columbia that the interracial theme could fly at the box office, but Fuller’s Asian-Anglo romance reversed the sexes. The movies routinely showed American men fraternizing with Asian and Polynesian women, but with the double-standard of the time, racists couldn’t handle the notion of an Asian man coupling with a white woman. The Crimson Kimono ignores the racist status quo. Movie newcomer James Shigeta is billed as a star. In the big smooch depicted on the poster, Shigeta is the one kissing co-star Victoria Shaw, not Glenn Corbett.
As a third-generation American, Shigeta had to learn Japanese when his career fanned out into singing engagements overseas. One of the most visible Japanese-American actors ever, he’s probably best known for Die Hard but sang in the musicals Flower Drum Song and Lost Horizon.
Columbia’s advertising all but negates Fuller’s progressive stance with a retrograde tagline. “What was his strange appeal for American girls?” implies that Joe Kokaju is not a real American, but some kind of ‘other.’ Did The Crimson Kimono have booking troubles anywhere? In 1959 the notion of miscegenation was still a raw subject, illegal in some states.
This romance plays out not in some backward corner of the South, but in a big metropolis. Fuller dares to give the issue real teeth: his Japanese-American man and Caucasian woman are consenting adults sensitive to the feelings of those around them. Perhaps the biggest affront to conservative sensibilities is the fact that the white girl rejects her first beau, a conventional handsome white hero, for the more sensitive Asian man.
Fuller also works the Japanese-American experience into the fabric of his story. He embraces cultural detail in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district: a Buddhist prayer ceremony, a Kendo fighting competition. Art figures into the story on two fronts. Chris has painted a portrait of the stripper Sugar Torch wearing a fancy Japanese kimono. When Joe is intrigued by Chris’s artwork and she responds to his musical talent, the artist and detective recognize one another as soul mates.
Fuller further probes the race issue by making Joe the one who reads prejudice into the love triangle, and jealousy breaks up the Joe-Charlie partnership. Some post- ’70s critics make a big deal about some kind of homoerotic tension at work, arguments I’ve always thought a bit tiresome. Curiously, the murder they are solving is eventually revealed to be another case of romantic jealousy. Sam Fuller’s dramas may be unsubtle but they usually have some connection to valid human psychology. The Crimson Kimono feels dated only when redundant speeches take over; the actors’ expressive faces tell the story on their own.
Anna Lee’s drunken muralist is a fairly unconvincing character intended to add color to the proceedings. Several capable Japanese-American players carry good parts, while Fuller veterans Paul Dubov and Neyle Morrow appear as a burlesque lowlife and an oddball librarian. Blonde Gloria Pall got her ‘Voluptua’ nickname from an early TV show. She played memorable strippers in Night of the Hunter and Jailhouse Rock.
The rushed production shows in some of cameraman Sam Leavitt’s undistinguished night exteriors; his unadorned lighting of key scenes does the attractive leads no favors. The on-location shoot is a big asset as well. Great stills show director Fuller in charge of his film crew right on the little diagonal street in Little Tokyo, the one that points straight Northwest at City Hall. The building looms in the background of key shots including the finale. In one street scene, the director-former infantryman can’t resist including a recruiting poster for his Army Alma Mater, the Big Red One.
Fuller plays several scenes in satisfying unbroken takes. We’re told that he had a habit of printing take one and moving on, without any kind of coverage, not even to allow him to adjust things in editorial. This frequently led to trouble in the editing room, when he invariably needed to shorten his one-angle, one-take scenes. When they ended up needing cuts anyway, he’d simply take out a dialogue liner or two by cutting to an optical blow-up of the exact same shot. Average viewers may not have noticed in the 1950s but the drop in image quality is readily apparent now. Fuller pulls this unattractive ‘directing by optical printer’ trick far too often.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Crimson Kimono presents Sam Fuller’s modest crime story at its best. The B&W cinematography always looks good in exteriors, and the less exciting interior lighting is made attractive as well. This was clearly a budget shoot made at breakneck speed.
Two featurettes from older Sony DVDs were apparently taped in HD, and play very well. They remind us of what an amazing mentor Fuller was — his advice aided a generation of younger directors. Fuller had the reputation of being an amazing film doctor, finding story solutions for the most daunting production limitations. Michael Schlesinger tells great stories just about being around the man when promoting White Dog, a really uncompromised late-career Fuller show centered on a hot-button social issue.
Sam Fuller Storyteller gathers a number of speakers, including collaborator Curtis Hanson, star Tim Robbins and family members including Christa Lang Fuller, Sam’s widow, to cover Sam’s life in a little under 30 minutes. Director Hanson returns for The Culture of The Crimson Kimono, a closer analysis of the picture on view. Harry Sukman’s music score is given an Isolated Music Track. Julie Kirgo weighs in on the picture’s most attractive aspects, with a nod to the significant cult for director Fuller. I was on a set with him once, when he played a tough cigar-chomping general for Steven Spielberg.
Two trailers and a ’16mm trailer’ are misleadingly labeled. The one said to be in 16mm is trailer-like cut, but the silent pauses at the end of the first two 35mm trailers would indicate that they are for TV use: the endings are silent so that local TV announcers could say where the movie was playing.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Crimson Kimono
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Isolated Music Track featurettes Sam Fuller Storyteller and The Culture of The Crimson Kimono, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: August 10, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson