The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Crimson Kimono

Ahead of its time when it was released does not necessarily mean a movie will age well over the years.  What's new or innovative whether in film-making techniques or types of storytelling in the 1960s or 1970s is almost certainly not exciting or unique some 40 years later.  This can give a movie some cult status as fans embrace the nostalgia, but there's got to be something else for me to latch onto.  That's my main problem with 1959's The Crimson Kimono.

From director Sam Fuller comes this noirish detective story that pushed some late 1950s boundaries when it came to on-screen relationships.  No, we're not talking hardcore love scenes or anything, instead we're dealing with something that many might consider even more controversial....pause for dramatic effect...interracial relationships!!!!  Pretty scandalous, huh?  I guess it's an issue for some people, and in 1959 you can understand why it would have been controversial.  I didn't even think twice about the ending, but reading some reviews I was completely caught off guard by the then-scandalous ending.  You'll have to decide for yourself, but a supposedly controversial ending was the least of this movie's troubles.

One night after finishing a show, a stripper is murdered in Los Angeles on a busy street but no one saw who did it.  Called in to investigate the murder, detectives Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) and Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta) try to piece the evidence together. A handful of paintings with an artist's signature is the only clue so they manage to track down Chris (Victoria Shaw), a pretty co-ed at USC who drew the paintings. Her description of the possible murderer puts them on the right path, but that's the least of their problems.  Staying involved with the case as it unfolds, both Charlie and Joe fall hard for Chris.  So now instead of just worrying about tracking down the killer, the two detectives are wrapped up in the worst thing possible, the love triangle!

Fuller does a great job filming the movie in making Los Angeles another character in the story.  He films predominantly in the Japanese quarter of the city so you see (or at least I did) a part of LA that I was unfamiliar with.  We see the sub-culture, the shops, the businesses, the traditions as our two intrepid detectives go about solving a murder case.  Lots of great tracking shots through the city give the story a documentary-like feel as if it isn't a movie being filmed, instead a real police investigation.  It goes too far at certain points because the story feels tacked on, like Fuller realizing 'oh wait, we've got to wrap this up...okay wait, one more shot of a Japanese parade.' So as with most movies, it's the balance between good and bad, just finding that right middle ground.

In a career that covered a little over 30 movies, Fuller did his best work with stars who weren't superstars, Hollywood actors who were as tough as Fuller himself.  So not surprisingly, I was glad to see lesser stars like Corbett and Shigeta get a shot at starring roles.  Well, it's not all good.  Making his film debut, Corbett is pretty awful here.  He was typically at his best in supporting roles where his stern demeanor (some might call it stiff or wooden) didn't require him to carry scenes on his own. There are scenes where he's required to show emotion that sound more like a little kid lashing out at his parents more than a veteran detective on the case. Shigeta goes for calmer, cooler and smoother, and in the process almost puts you to sleep.  He speaks in a low mumble so it's nearly impossible to even hear him, much less be interested in the character.

There's potential with their background -- Korean War vets from the same unit turned detective partners -- but it gets lost in the shuffle of the love triangle and murder mystery.  Honestly, the murder mystery gets lost in the shuffle of the love triangle. Fuller almost completely disregards the drive and focus of the story at the expense of this semi-controversial love story between a white detective, a Japanese detective and a white co-ed.  What's worse is the portrayal of the Chris character.  Shaw is a pretty girl, but her character is awful.  She tells Charlie she'd be interested in seeing him post-investigation, makes out with him, and then doesn't understand why he's pissed when Joe professes his love for her, and she chooses him too.  I couldn't decide if it was poor writing or plain laziness, but it's bad regardless.  A love triangle is typically bad to begin with, and all these shenanigans don't help.

This builds to the finale when Charlie and Joe put their differences aside to oh yeah, catch the freaking killer.  Blah blah blah, someone gets caught, but the case leading up to it is so ridiculous with so many clues mysteriously jump from one clue to the next with most of it going unexplained how these two detectives actually got to that point.  Catch the bad guy, stare each other down, and Charlie lets his friend and partner take the girl.  The ending has Shigeta kiss Shaw passionately while Corbett walks away with drunken artist Anna Lee (decent in a supporting part).  An Asian man kissing a white woman? Let's hang him! By that point in the movie I was so frustrated it would have taken a lot more than that interracial kiss to impress me. It is available to watch on Youtube, start HERE with Part 1 of 8. 

The Crimson Kimono <---TCM clips (1959): * 1/2 /****

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