Bob and Sam Get Real
On what would have been the 98th birthday of enduring favorite Robert Stack (1919-2003), it’s interesting to note that both he and director Samuel Fuller both chronicle vivid and identical memories of key incidents from the Japanese location filming of the marvelous Cinemascope gangster thriller House of Bamboo (1955) in their respective autobiographies Straight Shooting and A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking. House of Bamboo was groundbreaking in several areas: it was the first major Hollywood studio movie shot in Japan and depicted the island nation’s contemporary life, still recovering from the ravages of World War II, with beauty and brutality in equal measure; it included a soulful, adult romance between an American (Stack, playing a cop posing as a down-and-out grifter who infiltrates a criminal gang of American ex-GIs commanded by the terrific Robert Ryan) and an Oriental woman (the wonderful Shirley Yamaguchi as the widow of a slain gang member); and it subtly but unmistakably portrayed a homoerotic undercurrent between gang kingpin Ryan and his first “ichiban”/right-hand man (Cameron Mitchell) and successor Stack. This was par for the course for daring director Fuller, new and adventurous for rising leading man Stack. Both men tell the story of the scene that got away, not in the finished film. From Fuller’s A Third Face: “In one early scene, I hid our cameras on a rough Tokyo street where gangs, winos and derelicts lived. I costumed Bob in an old raincoat, and told him not to shave so that he’d fit right in. He was supposed to rummage through the garbage cans, then run down the street when we cued him….Suddenly, my Japanese production assistant screamed something in Japanese and started pointing at Bob. People came running. Bob didn’t understand Japanese, but when he saw the mob rushing toward him, he took off and ran like hell. I’d told the assistant to yell out: ‘Thief! Thief! Get him!’ People didn’t know that it was a movie, so they chased after Bob. It looked damn natural. That was the idea.” From Stack’s Straight Shooting (written with Mark Evans): “Since no one had been told that I was an actor, and since there was no movie camera in sight, the problem, of course, was too much authenticity. When I started running, I realized the crowd was full of skid-row characters who might think I really had stolen some pearls. An assortment of knives and other deadly weapons were sprinkled throughout the crowd. When we reached a blind alley, the Tokyo police were there to try to the raggedy crowd that it was all just make believe. I was lucky not to get a real knife in my ribs. After three days of preparation and insane risks, the film was underexposed, and the sequence never appeared in the movie. So much for naturalism.” About another “too realistic,” “stolen” harbor-set scene Fuller put him through, Stack writes: “In one sequence, I had to jump from one sampan to another, duck in, go through, and come out the other side. I burst in for my grand entrance, surprising a grandfather, his grown children, and a family who hadn’t been advised that their dinner would be interrupted. I continued the chase scene, running through the boat several times. The third time, the grandfather, with long whiskers and a determined look in his eye, was standing there with a butcher knife. He was ready to defend his family’s honor. ‘Get someone down here!’ I screamed, trying to call for help. I threw my hands up in the air and began bowing. Finally the assistant director came down into the boat to explain that I wasn’t a marauder bent on violence. The poor grandfather put down his knife, while I insisted that these people be paid for the intrusion.” The other observation on which Fuller and Stack converge had to do with something movie folk do all the time: defying the elements to illustrate an alternative season. From Straight Shooting: “It was incredibly cold, despite the fact that our story was supposed to take place in spring. One poor fellow from special effects had to climb the trees and glue paper cherry blossoms to the top branches while it was snowing. All the while, Shirley Yamaguchi and I were playing a love scene in our make-believe spring.” From A Third Face: “Another tough scene for Bob was when his character was supposed to be romantic with his Japanese lover, Mariko, in a park full of cherry trees. It was February and freezing. Bob had on slacks and a thin shirt. The entire crew were bundled in quilted jackets. There was an assistant art director up in the trees gluing on paper cherry blossoms because the real ones weren’t out yet. Everything was finally ready. ‘Bob,’ I shouted. ‘Goddamnit, warm up to her!’ ‘How?’ cried Stack. ‘I’m freezin’ my ass over here!’” The hardass, haunting and great-looking House of Bamboo on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray leaves one with much to savor. In celebration of a beloved actor, these recollections add more frosting to the already Stacked birthday cake.