“Love is like a battlefield. Somebody has to get a bloody nose.”
Sam Fuller was never one to mess around. If he had something to say or something to show, he rarely held back. It might be rough and raw, confrontational and even unsettling, but it could just as often be stylized and maybe a little sentimental. His 1959 crime film/ethnic study, The Crimson Kimono, is a model case in point. It’s a dynamic conflation of images and ideas, and its opening is a doozy. Like the jaw-dropping start to his 1964 manic-melodrama The Naked Kiss, the commencement of The Crimson Kimono satisfies (figuratively, of course) Fuller’s primer guideline: “If a story doesn’t give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamned garbage.” Fuller, who wrote, produced, and directed The Crimson Kimono (he often served such triple duty), sets the scene with helicopter footage over Los Angeles. Cut to, as titles state, Main Street, 8 p.m. Then to a nightclub where Sugar Torch, a bawdy, gaudy stripper, is wrapping up her unwrapping routine. She heads to her dressing room where bullets await. Shots ring out and she’s on the run, galloping down a busy street, still in her burlesque outfit. There are more shots. She drops.
It’s a wild way to begin a film, and if it has an authentic sense of candid craziness, that’s because Fuller shot the sequence on actual streets, with real civilian bystanders and real passing cars. Cameras were hidden in vehicles and on rooftops to get spontaneous reactions as the nearly naked girl barrels through the crowd. “And most of the people she passed didn’t even turn around,” recalled Fuller. “I wanted her to fall … right in the middle of all the traffic passing.” (He did at least employ a stunt driver to get the timing correct, and to ensure safety). “So we did it … I shot my gun into the sky and she falls. And as soon as we got it we bundled her into the car and took off. And then the shit hit the fan. A lot of people heard the shot, saw the girl fall, and they called the cops. And the cops came and they’re looking for the body of this big stripper. I still had to get a close shot and we couldn’t go back there for hours, until the cops cleared off.” Yes, this is quintessential Sam Fuller filmmaking.
According to her sleazy manager, Sugar Torch (Gloria Pall) was as “shifty as smoke,” but why would someone want her killed? On the case is the square-jawed square Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett, in his screen debut) and his more empathic partner, the Japanese-American Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta, also his debut). “Nobody cares who killed that tramp,” says the manager. But these two do—that’s their job. Just as Fuller’s movie soldiers were skilled and committed (and these two are, in fact, Army buddies), the detectives are pillars of professional efficiency. They know just who to question and just where to go. Before long, the investigation takes them to artist and sorority sister Christine “Chris” Downes, sweetly played by Victoria Shaw in just her third screen appearance. One of Chris’ Japanese-themed paintings was found in Sugar Torch’s dressing room (the dancer was planning a number set in a geisha house), and her connection to the murder, however innocent, puts her in jeopardy. She subsequently comes under the watchful wing of Charlie and Joe. The former, rather predictably, sets his flirty sights on the young woman, but theirs is a bland, wholly respectable, and generally one-sided courtship (Fuller was never much for starry-eyed subtlety). Then Joe, in a comparably less hackneyed fashion, also falls for the girl, and his affections are reciprocated. This proves a surprising amorous twist in a film that appeared to be following a familiar criminal course. But why is it so surprising? Would it have been so surprising if Joe were another Caucasian? It’s a point worth considering and it’s exactly the point Fuller wanted to make.
Challenging the characters and the audience, the question at the heart of The Crimson Kimono soon centers on what prejudiced, preconceived notions exist in the world, even amongst non-racists, and how do these feelings temper one’s response to otherwise commonplace scenarios? When Joe, Charlie, and Chris have their resulting disputes, most of which are irrelevant to the still-fresh homicide, they repeatedly presume race lies behind the conflict. Joe confesses his feelings for Chris, and his kindly confidant, an elderly Asian man, instinctively asks what her Japanese name is. Likewise, when Charlie expresses his shock at Chris’ alternative fondness, Joe immediately believes his partner’s disgust is based on their racial differences. Biased assumptions come from all sides, and the romantic dilemma produces persistent race-tinged guilt and animosity. These cultural elements certainly didn’t sit easy with everyone. Sam Briskin, then head of Columbia Pictures, insisted Charlie had to be a “sonofabitch” in order to explain why Chris would choose Joe over someone of her own race. Fuller held fast and got his way. “I was trying to make an unconventionally triangular love story,” stated Fuller, “laced with reverse racism, a kind of narrow-mindedness that’s just as deplorable as outright bigotry. I wanted to show that whites aren’t the only ones susceptible to racist thoughts.”
The fact that the Asian Joe is given such a banal, typically American name is likely Fuller’s way of stressing his firm entrenchment in American society, seizing expectations as if to say, “Hey, he’s American. Why shouldn’t his name be Joe?” At the same time, Charlie’s relationship with Joe (who curiously carries apples in his pocket) is similarly based on his own cross-cultural integration. The two are roommates, which initially keeps work the subject of conversation 24/7, and it intensifies the jealous ire when that arises, but they are also jointly involved in extracurricular activities, like martial arts; during an early fight, they each karate chop a bullish brute and, as their friendship sours, Joe disgracefully lashes out at Charlie during a kendo match. Stemming from the love triangle tension and this sudden emphasis on ethnicity, Joe suffers a severe identity crisis, questioning his racial and social designation. Unfortunately, Shigeta plays the hangdog introspection a little too mopey, so the gravity of his impasse is somewhat lessened.
On the heels or two exceptional Westerns—Run of the Arrow and Forty Guns (both 1957)—The Crimson Kimono was Fuller’s second film released in 1959, along with the provocative Verboten! Setting the picture in and around Little Tokyo, just a few days before a local festival, Fuller pays genuine deference to Japanese culture, from a gravesite honoring fallen Japanese soldiers to a focus on the traditions, rituals, habits, and hobbies of the immigrants. In the meantime, though, between the cultural recognition, the racial intrigue, and the romantic entanglements, there is still the murder investigation. It’s relatively clear where Fuller’s interests are, particularly in the way this supposedly key impetus is relegated to a second fiddle plot-point, but the case isn’t dead yet (as Charlie reminds Joe—and the audience—with less than nine minutes left to go in the film). So Fuller hastily, but no less enthusiastically, coordinates a parade set-piece finale. Here and elsewhere in The Crimson Kimono, the action comes fast and furious, with Fuller’s camera careening up and down and spilling into the streets in wide tracking shots. Complimented by Sam Leavitt’s cinematography (three-time Oscar nominee and winner for his work on 1958’s The Defiant Ones), Fuller never lets the viewer down, even when he seems to have gotten a bit sidetracked.
Fuller’s singular stamp is all over The Crimson Kimono, now available on a limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time, from the abrasively humanistic tone to the scenic dispersal of iconic red “1”s (as in The Big Red…). But perhaps the clearest authorial giveaway is the fourth major player in the film, the gleefully caustic Mac, a saucy, boozy painter played by Anna Lee (unlike the other actors, Lee’s filmography would end up long and extensive). She is a classically Fulleresque elder heroine, in the vein of Thelma Ritter’s Moe from Pickup on South Street (1953). She’s quite the character: hardened and seasoned, tough, no-nonsense, maybe even a little charismatic in her own punchy way, ironically boasting about her art being in “Skid Row’s finest bars and brothels.” Though Fuller himself has a few audible cameos (his off-screen voice is instantly identifiable), Mac is a delightful stand-in for the gruff filmmaker, given lines like, “A man is only a man … but a good cigar is a smoke” and the one that sums up the picture best, “Love is like a battlefield. Somebody has to get a bloody nose.”