The Crimson Kimono (1959)

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.

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26 thoughts on “The Crimson Kimono (1959)

  1. Happily, the Criterion Collection has released many of Fuller’s films – haven’t seen them all but the ones I particularly like are Pickup on South Street, The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor. I’m sure you’ll have a good time discovering his work!

    • I’ve heard of Pickup on South Street and The Naked Kiss, but haven’t seen either of them yet. From what I’ve seen of Fuller’s work in The Crimson Kimono, I’m looking forward to watching more of his films! If only these were easier to get hold of in India than they are at present… right now, it’s pretty much a question of picking up whatever DVDs you find in a rack. And as far as old films are concerned, the stores seem to stop at Vertigo or Where Eagles Dare, or others which are about that well-known. Sad.

      • And as far as old films are concerned, the stores seem to stop at Vertigo or Where Eagles Dare, or others which are about that well-known.

        Madhulika: not so true anymore. There’s greater variety now – though the prices (for DVDs that usually don’t even have any Extras on them) are ridiculously steep in the legit stores. There’s a new company called Enlighten, which seems to be a Criterion rip-off; they have very well-packaged discs of old films, accompanied by a shoddily put-together booklet (basically a copy-paste job off the Internet), priced at Rs 400. Which is way too high, but the selection of films is good.

        Most of my DVDs of old Hollywood and foreign-language films are the pirated “original copies” from Palika Bazaar. That’s the only way I can afford Criterion DVDs!

        • I obviously haven’t been looking in the right places! Palika Bazaar gives me the jitters – I can’t summon up the courage to brave those narrow underground corridors – so about the only place I look at DVDs are stores like Planet M or Music World. Will look more closely in future.

          I wish http://www.induna.com would stock Hollywood and world cinema – they’ve made me so dependent on them for Indian DVDs, I don’t even bother to look elsewhere.

  2. That’s what I love about your blog – there is no dearth of “new” must-watch films! This one sounds superb. An intelligent and thoughtful noir-cum-romance? *Running (not walking) to amazon/ebay!*

  3. Hi Madhu,

    Samuel Fuller has always been a favourite of mine. He participated to the Normandy landings, and henceforth directed his way to Hollywood as actor and director, with a special touch for international realities. As a child, I used to enjoy the series “The Iron horse” on TV (I can still sing the tune), and many of his gritty movies echo back. He’s a fighter of the “good” cause, and so you’re definitely right to be on his side.

    • I hadn’t heard about Samuel Fuller till I first saw The Crimson Kimono about a year or so back. The skill with which he weaves a ‘message’ into what could have been a run of the mill noir-cum-romance dazzled me. This film would probably have raised a lot of hackles way back in 1959…

    • You’re welcome, Sharmi! Actually, The Crimson Kimono is a good crossover noir film: not strictly and purely noir, but a fine mix of noir, romance and social drama. The thriller bit is mainly isolated at either end of the film – the middle part, the bulk of the film, is more about the relationships between Joe, Charlie and Chris. But, a great film.

  4. What I like about old English language films is that the emphasis was on the story and treatment. I miss those films like Chase A Crooked Shadow, Hitchcock’s Notorious, Spellbound, Burt Lancaster starrer The Train. These were edge of the seat thrillers and from your review I guess Crimson Kimono is in the same league. Nowadays films are all about special effects. I really miss those films.

    • Shilpi, you’ve named two films I really, really like: Spellbound and The Train (though Notorious is also pretty high on my list). Such fine films, where so much attention was paid to the story and the dialogue and the acting. You’re right about most films nowadays being more about special effects than anything else. I remember going to watch Avatar and actually dozing off in the course of it! When the film ended, my husband was gushing about it, but I was rather disappointed: I agreed that the SFX were great, but that seemed to be the main thing about the film.

      I’d rather watch a film like this – or a good Hitchcock – any day.

  5. Yaay some love for this little seen film! I saw this on TCM the other day, and it really was such an interesting take on racism but like you said the chemistry between James and Victoria is so good and compelling. This film by Sam Fuller seems miles away from his pulpy and punchy noirs and expose films! I need to rewatch this pronto!

    • Oh, goodie! I’m so glad to see someone else who’s as enthusiastic about The Crimson Kimono as I am! The scenes between James Shigeta and Victoria Shaw were so good, I wish they’d acted together in something else – but then, I guess there weren’t too many Samuel Fullers in that day and age. And in any case, Mr Shigeta seems to have shifted focus mainly to TV…

  6. Wow…definitely ahead of its time…Oriental actor, blood transfusion, apartment sharing and mixed relationship…I am surprised it made pass the bigoted Yankee censorship! Another movie to add to the list.

    • “I am surprised it made pass the bigoted Yankee censorship!”

      Yes, I’d have thought they’d have shot it down as soon as there was a whiff of a romance between Joe and Chris! Interestingly, this is what Variety magazine had to say in its review of the film, back then:

      “”The mystery melodrama part of the film gets lost during the complicated romance, and the racial tolerance plea is cheapened by its inclusion in a film of otherwise straight action…The three principals bring credibility to their roles, not too easy during moments when belief is stretched considerably…”

      Which does seem to smack of disapproval, even though an attempt has been made to camouflage that with more politically correct verbiage!

  7. Lovely write up, i had read a long while ago that this was ground breaking in its relation on race and i remember looking for the dvd and not being able to find it on its own, i’ll keep looking

    • Unfortunately, Amazon UK offers only a US import DVD which is part of a Samuel Fuller collection and costs £46.09 for new… I can’t vouch for the other films in the DVD, unfortunately!

  8. Oh I must look for this…I love James Shigeta and I love Anna Lee too—she was a dowager for many years on the soap General Hospital and so very elegant and beautiful, really stayed as gorgeous as she was when young.

    • I just discovered that Anna Lee acted in The Sound of Music. I had no idea! The only other film in which I remember her is How Green Was My Valley – saw it years ago, but it did leave quite an impression on me.

      I love James Shigeta too. :-) I wish he’d acted in more films back then in the 60’s, not merely stuff where other people like Elvis stole the limelight.

  9. I was lucky enough to catch this on Bbc2 recently and indeed i agree with your comment on the simplistic handling of racism, was the film trying to say that racism is bound by perception or in the mind, as based on Glenn’s speech at the end. I was slightly confused but its a fast and quick mock movie to watch

    • From what I could tell, I think it was more of an attempt to show the various aspects of racism – also to the extent that it can exist in the minds of the people who think they are likely targets of racism. But not that you mention it, I do agree that there seems little proof in the film that anybody subjects the James Shigeta character to racism.

      Still, at least the film had the guts to talk about things that most films in that era tended to shove under the carpet. And the mere fact that the leading man is not Caucasian – and their romance is not doomed – is very different from the other films of that period.

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