Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Crimson Kimono

Sam Fuller's The Crimson Kimono (1959) starts with a conventional premise:  it's a buddy picture in which a Nisei (Japanese-American) detective and his handsome White sidekick work together to solve a murder mystery.  As is characteristic of the genre, the odd couple cops encounter lots of colorful eccentric and low-life characters, get into some rough-and-tumble scrapes, and speak in a picturesque hard-boiled lingo.  But about halfway through the picture, the movie detours into weird territory, swerving from a standard police procedural into a psycho-drama involving the two detectives' competition for a beautiful sorority girl involved in the mystery.  The sorority girl, who looks hardened and about 35, seems an ideal romantic partner for the ridiculously handsome and chiseled Caucasian cop, Charlie Bancroft.  (Bancroft is a walking/talking parody of a Hollywood hunk --he is played by Glen Corbett, an actor who looks exactly like the cleft chin cartoon protagonist of Adult Swim animated show, Archer).  At first, the sorority girl seems to fall for Charlie, but, then, demonstrates that she is really in love with the Japanese-American cop, Joe Kojaku.  But Joe Kojaku feels that he is racially disqualified from this romance and suffers qualms about betraying his partner -- this all comes to head, when the jealous Charlie beats Joe to a pulp in a Kendo exhibition during an ethnic festival in Little Tokyo.  This swerve in the film's plot line is so pronounced that the movie loses sight of its rather perfunctory mystery -- the solution to the mystery is not particularly engaging or persuasive and Fuller clearly doesn't care about that aspect of the film at all.  His interest lies entirely in plumbing Joe's self-loathing and Charlie's hysterical and violent jealousy -- indeed, the resolution of the mystery plot is meaningful only in that casts a lurid and perverse light on the relationship between the main characters involved in the love story.  Fuller sets up the mystery to mirror the romantic triangle between his principals.

I said that The Crimson Kimono's premise is conventional.  But from a visual and technical perspective, there is nothing conventional about the film at all.  The movie starts with a blonde stripper gyrating in a darkened burlesque hall -- her name is Sugar Torch and Fuller films her like Eisenstein staging a revolt on a Czarist battleship.  There are discordant close-ups, jump cuts, repeated shots of the same action from different angles -- a kind of jazzed-up Soviet-style montage.  Ultimately, the woman flees a gunman and runs barefoot and half-naked down LA's sordid Main Street until she is shot down right between coming and going lanes of downtown traffic.  The film's mise-en-scene is borderline hysterical -- huge hyper-expressive close-ups, peoples' foreheads beaded with sweat, intercut with documentary style street shots, images of LA's slums that look like outtakes from The Exiles.  Everything is shot in glaring, super-contrast black and white.  The film has a clear visual structure -- the assassination of the stripper in the first scene is book-ended by another woman gunned down in the streets of Little Tokyo during a parade at the film's end.  As the woman lies dying on the pavement, impassive crowds of Japanese people glare down at her -- it is the stereotypical vision of the inscrutable Orient:  What are these people thinking?  Their faces are a riddle and, indeed, one group of onlookers are wearing grotesque masks.  In almost every exterior, Fuller insists on the proximity of Little Tokyo to City Hall -- we see the Los Angeles County Courthouse looming over many of the shots.  Fuller makes the most of his exotic location:  there are karate masters chopping through bricks, women parading in kimonos and masks, a tour of some sweat shops, and a visit to both a Buddhist temple and a graveyard where Nisei soldiers who died in the War are buried.  Despite the touristic approach to Little Tokyo, Fuller is sympathetic to the Japanese-American characters and, mostly, presents them without caricature -- this is a million miles away from Mickey Rooney's horrifying and racist performance in Breakfast at Tiffany's.  Fuller's ripe demotic is so densely poetic that it's almost indecipherable at times.  After the Japanese-American guy wins the girl, the disappointed hero turns to a middle-aged heavily alcoholic female artist, a remarkable character called Mac -- she's like one Howard Hawks' tough-talking dames from the thirties ripened into a bitter lady-alcoholic.  When Mac says that she'll drink with Charlie, presumably to help him get over his romantic disappointment, Charlie responds:  "You're a pearl, Mac."  Mac, then, responds:  "A pearl?  I prefer something made by man to an oyster."  I have no idea what this is supposed to mean.  But this bizarre phrase concludes the movie. 

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