Noir City Report: 2 by Sam Fuller

I spent last night at the Castro, where I saw two crime thrillers by the great Samuel Fuller: House of Bamboo and Underworld USA–all part of the Noir City festival running through Sunday.

The evening got off to a late start. Due to an error, the starting time was advertised as 7:00 in some publications and 7:30 in others. Rather than have people arrive a half hour into the movie, the festival organizers started the show at the later time. 7:30 is not a good time to start a double bill on a weeknight, and I didn’t get to bed until after midnight.

Festival organizer Eddie Muller took the stage at 7:30 and talked a bit about Fuller, then invited former Chronicle columnist and Creature Features host John Stanley to join him. The two talked about Fuller and newspaper work (Fuller started out as a reporter, and–not surprisingly–covered the crime beat). They talked about Fuller’s colorful vocabulary (he would describe a producer he didn’t like as a "banana head") and Muller described Fuller as the ideal American male.

The talk was entertaining and interesting, but in light of the late start, I wish they had skipped it or shortened it significantly. It was getting close to 8:00 before the movies started.

House of Bamboo (1955)
Despite the criminal-laced story, House of Bamboo didn’t feel like noir to me. It’s hard to be dark at an exotic location (Japan), and in Technicolor and Cinemascope. Besides, the story treated evil as an aberration that’s inevitably wiped out, rather than as the natural state of humanity. Robert Stack stars as an American who comes to Japan with possibly illegal motives, and gets involved with a bunch of well-dressed Yankee crooks led by Robert Ryan (who steals the picture). It’s an entertaining story, with great location footage that captures a Japan that’s both exotic and grimy.

Underworld USA (1961)
Now this is noir! And prime Sam Fuller! Cliff Robertson plays a safe cracker on a 20-year quest to avenge his father’s death. Not that his father was such a great man; a criminal himself, he had started his son on a career path that would inevitably lead to time in prison. Three of the father’s killers end up as top crime bosses, so our thuggish antihero joins up with the syndicate, makes himself liked, and starts working to destroy it from within. Told in that sleek and unforgiving Fuller style, Underworld USA presents a world where crime can become respectable, but where a thug is always a thug, especially if he was destined for that role after birth.

I didn’t get enough sleep last night, but it was worth it.

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