Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Swooning in Berkeley

In September, the PFA screened a series called Swoon: Great Leading Men in Gorgeous 35mm Prints. I was able to catch three of the nine films in the series.

Out of the Past starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas; directed by Jacques Tourneur; (1947)
House of Bamboo starring Robert Ryan and Robert Stack; with Shirley Yamaguchi and Sessue Hayakawa; directed by Sam Fuller; (1952)
Jubal starring Glenn Ford, Rod Steiger and Ernest Borgnine; with Charles Bronson and Valerie French; directed by Delmer Daves; (1956)

The film which I regret missing from the series is Picnic (1956) with William Holden Rosalind Russell and Kim Novak. Other films in the series which I've seen (several on the big screen in the past few years) include From Here to Eternity, Godard's Breathless and The Hustler.


Out of the Past is one of the quintessential examples of film noir. I had not seen the film before. It's funny how little things stick in your mind. I recall Robert Mitchum guest hosting Saturday Night Live many years ago. They had a skit which was unusual because it was film outside the studio (Studio 8H in Rockefeller Plaza). I remember in the skit that Mitchum worked at gas station and he had an assistant who was a deaf mute. As I started watching Out of the Past, I realize that Mitchum's character worked at a gas station and his assistant is a deaf mute. It seems to much to be coincident. Maybe I'm conflating memories. So I go to the internet and lo & behold, on November 14, 1987, Mitchum hosted SNL. According to the transcript, the 7th skit was "Out of Gas" and co-starred Jane Greer, Mitchum's co-star in Out of the Past. Sometimes, the mind is an amazing thing. By the way, that episode is also the one where Dana Carvey as Mountain Man tells Jon Lovitz that "I bet you have a teenie weenie peenie!" That gives the episode a little more context. I remember being in college at the time and watching that episode because afterwards, my college buddies and I used that as a catch phrase for weeks.

Out of the Past has many of the hallmarks of noir - extended flashbacks, snappy tough-guy dialog and a particularly effective femme fatale in Jane Greer. Kirk Douglas also shows up as a menacing gangster. The film is rightly placed in the pantheon of film noir so I won't waste time with plot synopsis. I was particularly impressed with Mitchum's weariness, Greer's perfidy and Douglas' smooth demeanor. Tourneur combined these performances with a convoluted plot and a lot of angst from Mitchum to achieve noir greatness.


House of Bamboo stars Robert Ryan as the bad guy. Ryan has to be one of the great villains in Hollywood history. The more soothing Ryan attempts to speak, the more threatening he comes off. My favorite Ryan performances are as the racist bank robber in Odds Against Tomorrow and the pursuing Deke Thornton in Sam Fuller's The Wild Bunch. Ryan's Sandy Dawson in House of Bamboo is a strong performance also.

The plot involves Eddie Spanier arriving in Japan from San Francisco. He's looking for his buddy Webber who sent him a letter with a business proposition. Unfortunately, the man has been shot dead. Spanier starts nosing around and discovers Webber had a secret Japanese wife (Shirley Yamaguchi). He also tries to muscle in on the protection racket at some pachinko parlors which runs him afoul of Sandy Dawson, the local ganglord. After some circling, Eddie is accepted into Dawson's gang which does a lot more than run pachinko parlors. They have stolen weapons from the US Army and are ruthless bank robbers. Even more ominous is their policy of shooting anyone in their gang who is wounded during a robbery. That way, the wounded man won't be able to talk to the authorities.

Unfortunately, Spanier is shot on his first holdup but inexplicably Dawson spares his life. That's fortunate for Spanier but unfortunate for Dawson because Eddie Spanier is really Eddie Kenner, an Army Police Investigator who has gone undercover to break up Dawson's gang. As the film progresses, Dawson takes a liking to Spanier and forms an informal mentoring relationship with him. Actually, I thought there was a bit of sexual attraction from Dawson towards Spanie but being 1952, this was hinted at in the subtlest ways. Why else did the hardened Dawson spare Spanier? This blinds Dawson when his final robbery is thwarted by pre-positioned police officers. Rather than blaming Spanier, Dawson blames another gang member who pays for it with his life. When Dawson finally realizes his mistake, it leads to an iconic shootout on rooftop playground between Spanier and Dawson.

What set House of Bamboo apart was the complex relationship between Spanier and Dawson but the allegorical relationship between Spanier and Mariko (Yamaguchi). It turns out the Webber didn't keep his marriage to Mariko a secret because he was ashamed to be married to Japanese woman or to protect her from Dawson but because Mariko would have been ostracized for associating an gaijin or foreigner. For proof, look no further than when Mariko takes up with Spanier. The resentment she encounters is so fierce that she wants to break it off until Spanier reveals he is undercover and looking for her late husband's killer. In some sense, Mariko represent Japan and Spanier the US. Their relationship is such that Spanier is always the dominant one and Mariko the subservient one which must have rankled many Japanese in 1952. The film even portends the Caucasian male/Asian female relationship which upsets so many by its ubiquitousness today.

As Mariko, Yamaguchi delivers a strong performance. I saw Yamaguchi earlier this year in Kurosawa's Scandal with Toshirō Mifune and Takashi Shimura. Her performance in Bamboo is more noteworthy. Yamuguchi's life merits mention. Still alive at the age of 90, Yamaguchi performed under several names including Lǐ Xīanglán and Yoshiko Ōtaka. At the time House of Bamboo was made, Yamaguchi was married to noted architect Isamu Noguchi.

Having grown up in Manchuria, she made a name for herself as Lǐ Xīanglán, one of the Seven Great Singing Star of China in the 1930s. She was fortunate to speak Chinese and Japanese during a period when Japan occupied much of China. So effective was her assumed Chinese identity that after WWII, Yamaguchi was arrested by Chinese authorities for treason and collaboration with the enemy under the mistaken assumption she was a Chinese national.

After performing in Japan under yet another name, she settled on Shirley Yamaguchi after some success in Hollywood and on Broadway. Later, she served nearly 20 years in the Japanese parliament.


Jubal was a story of jealousy and felt a bit like a noir despite its Western setting. Set in Wyoming a few years after the Civil War, Glenn Ford plays Jubal, a down & out cowboy who Ernest Borgnine finds on the roads. Borgnine owns a ranch and takes Ford home to recuperate. Once back on his feet, Borgnine offer Ford a job on his ranch. This starts in powerful emotions into motion. Ford immediately gets on the wrong side of Rod Steiger, a fellow ranch hand. That doesn't seem to strange because Steiger seems to be antisocial towards everyone. More dangerous is the attraction of Borgnine's wife (Valerie French) towards Ford. It always a bad idea to have an affair with your boss' wife but in this case Borgnine has jealous streak and violent temper. Also, Steiger has already cuckolded Borgnine and he doesn't like his position being usurped by Ford.

As the film progresses, Borgnine and Ford develop a strong friendship. Ford has his own issues to deal with - a bastard child, watching his father die while trying to save him and a mother who resents him for being born and causing his father's death. Ford tries to keep his distance from French but as the PFA program notes state, she is "vampiric." She is relentless in pursuing Ford who clearly is attracted to her but is using all his self-restraint to control his passions. It doesn't help that Borgnine is such a boor and French obviously regrets their marriage.

Steiger and French make a confrontation between Borgnine and Ford inevitable despite Ford's effort to the contrary. After a shootout, Steiger leads a lynch mob after Ford. Charles Bronson appears as a cowboy given on a job on ranch who becomes Ford's best friend. It's a little odd to see Steiger as a cowboy but he performs quite well in the role.

Best line: French ask Ford, "Do you know how many proposals I had before meeting Shep (Borgnine)?" Ford responds, "Proposals for what?"

Delmer Daves and Glenn Ford combined for three terrific Westerns that I'm now aware of - Jubal, 3:10 to Yuma (1957) and my favorite, CowboyJubal (1958) with Jack Lemmon.

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