Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The release of both Nightcrawler (to theaters) and Thom Andersen’s seminal essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself (to Blu-ray) has us thinking back on other films about the City Of Angels.
Sam Fuller, the master of socially conscientious pulp, combined the values of no-bullshit storytelling and old-school liberalism with one of the punchiest camera styles in the history of American film, producing a string of superb, flavorful underworld yarns: Pickup On South Street, in which a New York lowlife gets involved in a Cold War spy plot; House Of Bamboo, a thriller about American crooks in Tokyo that doubles as a master class in widescreen composition; Verboten!, a forbidden romance set against the ruins of post-war Germany; and The Crimson Kimono, an L.A. noir like none other.
A half-dressed showgirl is gunned down in the middle of a busy street. On-screen titles announce the setting as “Los Angeles, Main Street, 8 p.m.,” but this isn’t the Los Angeles most viewers know—it’s Little Tokyo, and the community of Japanese-Americans, Korean immigrants, and whites that surrounds it. Nisei cop Joe Kojaku (the late, great James Shigeta) is on the scene, assisted by his sidekick, roommate, and kendo partner, Bancroft (Glenn Corbett). The case takes them—well, mostly Det. Kojaku—through a cross-section of the city’s vibrant Japanese-American culture, from dojos and pool halls to the Japanese section of Evergreen Cemetery and a memorial service at a Shinto temple.
The pacing is breakneck and the dialogue is thick with the kinds of hard-boiled statements of principle that were Fuller’s stock-in-trade. In place of a femme fatale, the film has real, smart, creative women, Chris (Victoria Shaw) and Mac (Anna Lee); in place of a smattering of local color, it has the most detailed depiction of an Asian-American community to ever grace a genre flick. It’s raw, risqué, more than a little risky, and it isn’t afraid to punch for the gut.
Fuller is best known for his concussive cutting and brusque framing; the French critics who were among the first to champion his work used to liken his style to a “cinema fist.” There’s plenty of that in The Crimson Kimono, but there are also moments that showcase the director’s mastery of the elegant long take. Fluid, minute-long deep-focus shots show how Kojaku changes his voice and body language while navigating cultural lines, talking gently and directly to an older issei man, joking around while questioning a kendo buddy, and, in one early scene, carrying on a phone conversation in Japanese while chatting with Bancroft in English.
Availability: The Crimson Kimono is available on DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix or your local video store or library. It can also be purchased digitally through Amazon.