Every time I’ve reviewed an old Hollywood film (come to think of it, any old film) that either deals with racism or has tones—overt or covert—of racism, I’ve ended up being reminded of The Crimson Kimono. Invariably, I’ve noticed, to the advantage of The Crimson Kimono. It was time, I decided, to publicise this little-known noir film a bit. Not merely because it’s a decent noir with a somewhat shocking (for its time) beginning, but also because it is far ahead of its time in addressing the subject of racism.
To start with, that daring beginning. Main Street on Los Angeles, the glitter of neon lights and busy traffic on the roads. A burlesque show featuring Sugar Torch (Gloria Pall), who strips to the bare essentials and after blowing kisses to the audience, comes offstage to borrow a smoke from her manager…
And runs smack into a coat-clad, hat-topped murderer who shoots at Sugar Torch. The bullet hits a picture hung on a wall—a painting of Sugar Torch dressed in a crimson kimono. Sugar Torch herself is unhurt, and in a panic, whirls and rushes out on to the street, pursued by her attacker. Back in 1959, a nearly-nude woman running through a crowded street (which is what it really is, not just a film set; only a couple of stuntmen were used, on downtown LA’s actual roads) would have made a lot of eyes open wide.
Anyway, what does happen is that Sugar Torch’s assailant looses off a few more shots, leaving Sugar Torch dead on the sidewalk.
This is where the police come in. We join the two cops assigned to the case, Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta, in his debut) and Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett), when they’ve already reached Sugar Torch’s green room and have begun their investigation. Over the next few scenes, as we follow Joe and Charlie about the room, and eventually about town too, we learn more about them. The two men have been close friends since the Korean War (during the course of which a badly wounded Charlie had to have a blood transfusion—Joe gave him a gallon of blood). They share an apartment now, and of course work together. As a mutual friend describes them later in the film, “It’s like mixing two dabs of paint together. You can never separate them.”
Sugar Torch’s manager, on being questioned, isn’t able to give Joe and Charlie much information, other than the fact that Sugar Torch was working on a new routine that was Oriental in flavour. The new show was supposed to have Sugar Torch stripping off a crimson kimono while accompanied by two other players, both men, one acting as a samurai and the other as a karateka. The only help the manager can provide with relation to that is that the samurai is called Willy Hidaka—a bit of luck for Joe, since he knows Hidaka (George Yoshinaga. Incidentally, though George Yoshinaga acts in this film, another actor plays a character named George Yoshinaga!)
The only other clue is the painting of Sugar Torch in the crimson kimono. The manager doesn’t know who painted it, but there’s a signature on the work: Chris.
Joe goes off to question Hidaka, while Charlie goes to meet Mac (Anna Lee), an old friend of his and Joe’s. Mac is a painter, the type who spends as much time guzzling beer as she does splashing paint onto her canvas. What she doesn’t drink, she sprays onto the canvas. Mac is mad, irreverent, eccentric—and very, very fond of the two young detectives. A little bit of wracking of brains, much lubricating with bourbon, and Mac is able to assist, finally leading to a name: Chris Downs, an art student at the University of Southern California.
And Chris Downs, when Charlie shows up at the University, turns out to be the lovely Christine Downs (Victoria Shaw). In answer to Charlie’s questions, Chris admits that she didn’t know what Sugar Torch was up to. Just that a man named Hansel had commissioned Chris to paint the picture of the stripper in the crimson kimono. Who was Hansel? Chris doesn’t know. But she agrees to sketch a portrait of him for Charlie, so that the police can publish it in the newspapers and hopefully get hold of someone who knows who Hansel is.
In the meantime, Joe goes to meet Willy Hidaka, who (as Joe suspected all along) is innocent. But the man who’d been hired to do the karateka role in Sugar Torch’s Oriental striptease seems to be a shady one. All Hidaka knows is that the man’s a Korean named Shuto; he knows no English, only a little broken Japanese. Joe ends up following Shuto’s trail through Little Tokyo, only to find that it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere much: Shuto is belligerent and inclined to let fly at anyone who tries to even ask questions, but what is he really hiding? Is it in some way connected to the killing of Sugar Torch?
But that, right now, isn’t important. What suddenly puts Sugar Torch, the crimson kimono and all the seediness of Little Tokyo in the shade is the—wouldn’t you expect it?—attractiveness of Chris Downs. Charlie, from the word go, is obviously quite smitten with the loveliness of this girl. He watches her while she draws a portrait of Hansel; he chats with her while she sits at the police station and goes through photo after photo of all the known criminals, searching for Hansel. He asks if, once this case is over, there’s any chance of the two of them getting together. He kisses her. And, chatting with Joe, he confides in his bosom buddy, telling him all about how he, Charles Bancroft, has finally fallen in love.
Chris, it transpires, is probably closer to the ugly truth than she realises; that very night, at the apartment she shares with her sorority, someone (Hansel?) takes a pot shot at her from the balcony. Chris is lucky and escapes with nothing more than a bad shock; but, for her own safety, Joe and Charlie decide to have her shift into their flat. Mac can act as chaperone.
Which, initially, seems all very well. Joe and Charlie are gracious hosts, and their flat is comfortable, even well appointed, with a piano (which Joe plays) and paintings (by Joe’s father, who used to be an artist).
Charlie gets a lead from an informer who asks to meet him personally; so Charlie goes off, leaving Chris and Joe to their own devices… and what do they do but go and fall in love?
And the story suddenly goes from being a taut noir to a romantic triangle complicated by not just friendship but also what might be racism. Or is it?
What I liked about this film:
I have to admit to a very deep liking for this film. The first time I saw it, I was struck by writer-director-producer Samuel Fuller’s courage in depicting an interracial romance, straight out on screen. In subsequent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate more about The Crimson Kimono: the neat way in which Fuller blends different genres, the deft layering of the story, the surprisingly mature way in which issues such as racism and friendship and love are handled. And the fact that it is, after all is said and done, also an entertaining and enjoyable noir film.
The most emphatic point about The Crimson Kimono is that it is defiantly anti-racist. And not anti-racist in the wishy-washy, ‘wherever it is convenient’ way of other contemporary (or even later) films. Look at something like The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, for instance: I wouldn’t call that racist, but I think a film in which an important role—a Chinese mandarin—is played by an English actor in yellowface, is showing traces of racism. Or look at any of the many other Hollywood films that show Asians (or Africans, or anybody not Caucasian) speaking pidgin English, and playing either of two extremes: the evil savage or the naïve native bearer who lays down his life for the white sahib. Fuller, thank heavens, manages to avoid that trap. Partly, of course, because native bearers and/or evil savages wouldn’t really fit into the milieu of 1959 LA; more importantly because he treats the Asians in his film as normal human beings. Not foreigners whose way of life is so different from those around them, there’s no possibility of a common ground.
Which, as Fuller does bring out in the film, is no guarantee against racism. Joe Kojaku may speak English better than he speaks Japanese (interestingly, James Shigeta did not speak Japanese until Toho Studios invited him to Japan; he lived in the country for several years, learnt the language and became a major star—major enough to be called the ‘Frank Sinatra of Japan’). Joe may have fought for his country—the US—in Korea. He may be as American as Charlie. But is that enough? Or will the fact that Joe looks the way he does, work against him? Will Charlie—who, it may be expected, will be angry and jealous—accept the fact that the girl he loves loves another? And not just any other, but Charlie’s best friend? Charlie’s best friend, who happens to be Asian? How do race relations work when it comes to basic relationships like friendship and work and love? Can one distinguish between reactions at different levels: can Charlie say he hates Joe because Joe stole his girl, or is there something deeper, uglier, and inherently racist to it? Or is the racism there, but only in Joe’s mind? Is he seeing racism?
James Shigeta is the second major reason I loved The Crimson Kimono. The only other film in which I’ve seen Shigeta is the Rodgers and Hammerstein Flower Drum Song, where he’s wasted as a mere ‘singing-dancing-wooing pretty lady’ young man. Joe Kojaku is a much meatier character, both an emotional and sensitive man, and eventually a successful detective too (there’s plenty of action, and some good chase scenes on the streets of Little Tokyo!) And Shigeta plays Joe with such finesse, I ended up liking this man a lot. Incidentally, his chemistry with Victoria Shaw is superb. Every time I watch this film, I end up dawdling over their scenes together, watching them again and again until I can almost say the dialogues all by myself!
What I didn’t like:
There’s a little, somewhat simplistic handling of the racism question. Joe, in one instance, raves and rants, saying that in all his years in the army and then in the police, he’s never encountered racism. That does seem a little strange, especially keeping in mind the strictures imposed on Japanese residents in America during World War II. Joe Kojaku is nisei, second-generation Japanese American; he would have been at least a child during WWII, and would have experienced something of that racism.
The Crimson Kimono made me look for more films starring James Shigeta (unfortunately, very few, and even fewer that are easily available) and more films made by Samuel Fuller. I’ve got some leads for the former (White Dog and The Steel Helmet, among others). If they’re half as good as The Crimson Kimono, I’ll be happy. This is one film that needs to be better-known and better-loved.