Classic Corner: The Crimson Kimono

Sam Fuller started out as a newspaperman, and as such, he knew you absolutely had to grab ‘em with a socko lede. His movies are full of them (the sex worker, her wig snatched off, caught in the middle of beating the hell out her pimp in The Naked Kiss absolutely catapults to mind), and his 1959 banger The Crimson Kimono hooks us in the opening seconds. “LOS ANGELES,” blares the on-screen text. “MAIN STREET 8:00 PM.” Again, a good newspaperman, starting with the dateline. His camera roams the street and settles on a marquee that blasts an irresistible come-on: “BURLESQUE.” On the stage inside, we meet the owner of one of the all-time great movie burlesque names, “Sugar Torch,” and she earns it. But she’s not going to be with us long; after her performance, shots ring out in her dressing room, and the gunman follows her out of the theater, shooting her dead in the middle of the street. And with that, we’re off and running.

Fuller wrote, directed, and produced the picture, his 13th in that capacity, and it’s nestled snugly between the genre triumphs of Pickup on South Street and Forty Guns and the later, cuckoo-bananas likes of Shock Corridor and the aforementioned Naked Kiss. By this point he had made Columbia a fair amount of money by keeping his budgets low and his subject matter lurid, though studio head Harry Cohn was skeptical about this one’s chances for success, due to the centering of (gasp) an interracial romance. 

True to form, he goes about that element in a roundabout manner. The focus, at least initially, is on police detectives Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta, later to achieve screen immortality as Mr. Takagi in Die Hard) and Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett). They’re investigating the murder of Sugar Torch; that investigation leads them to Christine (Victoria Shaw), an artist tangentially involved in the case. Joe and Charlie aren’t just partners — they’re best friends and roommates, and apparently also share a type, since first Charlie and then Joe develop A Thing for Christine. 

In those early scenes, The Crimson Kimono plays very much like a police procedural in the Naked City mold, albeit with Fuller’s trademark hard-edged dialogue and baked-in cynicism (“Nobody cares who killed that tramp,” says a cop of the killing). But even in those preliminary passages, Fuller has more on his mind than clues and leads; the setting is the Little Tokyo district of L.A., and he addresses the story’s potential Orientalism from the jump, in both the Asian-American police detective character and his responses to the white cops around him. 

Even more than the standard issue films noir, which marinated in the darkness of America after WWII, Fuller’s film is heavy with the weight of the postwar Asian-American psyche. We have scenes set, not even necessary to the narrative, in military cemeteries and neighborhood Buddhist temples and local parades; he’s bothering to set the scene here, and while there’s a slight sense of outsider gawking, his approach feels like a genuine attempt to burrow into, and understand, this world, when most filmmakers of the era were simply using such locations as window dressing. 

His approach to the interracial romance is similarly refreshing. He doesn’t pretend that the cultural divide is not an issue — it’s directly addressed in dialogue — but it’s never just about that. Watch how carefully he crafts the different dynamics, subtly conveying who’s in control in each relationship, how Charlie takes charge, perhaps too aggressively, when he’s attempting to court Christine, yet she seems the more dominant component of the pairing with Joe. (Perhaps they both default to that, due to her whiteness; perhaps it’s something more.) Ultimately, Fuller seems to feel as his characters do: that the more concerning aspect of this attraction is not their racial differences, but the fact that his pal Charlie liked her first. And the bond of friendship matters much more than arbitrary racial concerns. 

By the time all of this is coming to a head in the third act, it’s become sort of comical that Fuller cares so little about actually solving the crime. He does so, of course, but by that point, it almost feels like a box to check — and though procedurals of this era frequently (and thankfully) waste little time with resolution, typically slapping on the cuffs and moving straight into “THE END” and a cast card, he keeps the scene going, to wrap up the relationships, which are all he, and we, have come to care about anyway. It’s typical of how the filmmaker does business, getting all sentimental about a story that began with a dead stripper in the middle of the street. But that’s Fuller for you, mixing luridness and purity, exploitation and poetry, with as much care and attention paid to all. 

“The Crimson Kimono” is streaming on Tubi.

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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