Monday, May 25, 2020
Noir Watch: The Crimson Kimono (1959)
Format: Noir Alley on TCM on DVR
Director: Samuel Fuller
One of the deep dives I'm likely to do in the next couple of years is dive into the filmography of director Samuel Fuller. I've never seen a Fuller film I didn't like *a lot*. Pickup on South Street, Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss... all solid films. A while back The Crimson Kimono (1959) played the Austin Noir City film festival, but I wasn't able to stay for the movie, and now I'm very mad at myself for not sticking around for the movie (I think Paul saw it).
Fuller's direction and stories always seem to shake off some of the veneer of movie making and get a bit closer to a sense of the real world - just angles you wouldn't normally see. Which makes sense you consider Fuller started off as a journalist and was running part of a paper by age 17.
The Crimson Kimono is a police procedural and may be ground zero for the "buddy cop" picture, especially the "one guy is from the majority culture, the other guy is from a culture we find exotic" movie. A stripper is shot down in the middle of the street and the two cops assigned to the case are an Anglo, Bancroft, and his partner, Japanese-American Joe Kojaku. They're old Korean war buddies who entered the force and even share an apartment.
In the course of the investigation Bancroft interviews an artist who can identify a suspect, Christine "Chris" Downs. She makes a sketch of the suspect, which airs on television and is soon targeted by the killer, so the cops take her in to their apartment (in part because the building is where a lot of cops live). Initially Bancroft and Chris seem to be hitting it off, but left with Joe - Chris and Joe fall head over heels - an act that seems positively revolutionary in a 1959 movie where the Hayes code was deeply not okay showing on-screen interracial romance.
The investigation itself introduces ideas that are now everyday concepts in the US, like "karate" and "samurai" as the cops look into the murder. Apparently the burlesque queen (an anglo) was planning a routine where she was a geisha and had two suitors who would brawl over her, and in doing her homework she'd met an archivist she consulted who is the prime suspect in the murder. The investigation takes place in LA's Little Tokyo, and casts Asians and Asian-Americans rather than the usual casting of an Anglo and using make-up.
I'll have to assume this film was hard fought for behind the scenes. Going to bat against the Breen Office was always a tough one, but somehow this movie made it into existence despite the usual racial hysteria. Wikipedia cites a review that seems to think the focus of the movie is the investigation rather than the investigation being an excuse for the racial conflict, which, frankly, seems to a terrible reading of the film.
Viewers will be surprised/ delighted to realize Joe is James Shigeta, who was in Die Hard as Mr. Takagi. Co-star Glenn Corbett went on to Route 66, and the object of their affection is played by Australian Victoria Shaw (doing a solid mid-Atlantic), and who didn't get enough work, in my book, after this movie. Rounding things out, Anna Lee plays Corbett and Joe's pal, a middle-aged artist/ bourbon enthusiast (Fuller knew how to create appealing characters).
Arguably, the movie is melodrama, but it's tackling a perennial question as romance and cultures run head-long into one another. I may not fully agree with the suggestion the movie makes that the *only* problem hovering over the romance is actually Joe's hang-ups. Even a progressive 1959 LA was going to give Joe and Chris some tough obstacles, of which she seems blissfully unaware. But the build from Joe and Chris's realization of their possibly impossible romance to Joe's loyalties to the self-induced misery of the whole thing boiling over in a kendo match* gone wrong is a hell of an arc.
Add in some interesting DP work and what would have been novel sights and sounds of Japanese and Japanese-American life in LA, and it's a great, layered film. And, you, too, will be left wondering how Shaw and Shigeta didn't emerge with more work from this movie.
Hell, I'd have 100% watched a series of cop movies based on Bancroft and Joe.
As an aside - did just watch Ryan Murphy's "what if?" fantasy TV series on Netflix, Hollywood, about - a studio making a movie starring a female black lead in 1947, exploring the artificiality of the blockers and potential impact of doing something so early. (It's also pretty R-Rated, so your mileage may vary). There's plenty of other themes, but it did dovetail curiously with Crimson Kimono, acknowledging the challenge to Asian actors and what all minorities faced (and, of course, utterly disregarding Latinos, because Hollywood is still Hollywood).
*I took 3 or 4 kendo lessons with my brother in 1998. I was terrible at kendo, but I still have my kendo sword in my closet.