The Crimson Kimono (1959)

The Crimson Kimono (1959) is a brave bold and swingin Samuel Fuller race relations cop buddy noir with James Shigeta, Glenn Corbett and Victoria Shaw talkin and walkin the truth of Japanese American living on the West Coast in the late 1950s.

Amid a racial tolerance plea and a complicated love story that blossoms and battles its truthful way to a happy and promising conclusion, there is amid this and lurking there somewhere to be found a murder melodrama too. 

In one mouthful cheap and cheerful buddy noir when buddy noir was not really a thing — nobody should trust anybody in film noir — least of all your partner.

But perhaps here, amid that plea for racial tolerance. There is some bold love across the races material in this late and end of the cycle film noir from Fuller.

Gloria Pall as Sugar Torch
The Crimson Kimono (1959)

The vision of tolerance is pure in The Crimson Kimono. As film noir is not just a style of crime film but expresses something more — something darker most usually. To call noir cynical might be one way to best express it, and that cynicism can be with life, with society, with romance, with the family, with all aspects of human nature. 

In film noir a picture about an alcoholic becomes an Oscar winning deep dive into more problems than just the drink itself, in The Lost Weekend (1945). What a picture to make about World War 2 from America's point of view.

Pain and prejudice in the 1940s and 1950s are therefore a part of film noir, and so this is what turns a police procedural into a film noir. Buddy movie might also be a call to make on The Crimson Kimono, and as far as the handful of admittedly strong racial buddy-movies there are from this stretch of the 1950s — The Defiant Ones (1958) being the brightest and best.

Cops on the case backstage in The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Samuel Fuller's films can tend towards the genre-busting and the satirical, as well as cynical. Films like Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss and White Dog, looking within the underbelly of America. As a director, Fuller's personality was charismatic and large hearted and he was never without his cigar. Is it true that instead of calling action, he would fire a revolver on set?

Straight up pals — James Shigeta and Glenn Corbett in The Crimson Kimono (1959)

To bolster this cop buddy late late period classic film noir and offer a similarly apposite 1959 film noir look, there is what is technically known as a gritty and atmospheric appearance to The Crimson Kimono, and this tendency is most obvious in the street-location shooting in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, with some shots of the faithful Los Angeles City Hall — almost a stand-alone symbol of film noir in itself.

The opening scene of exotic dancer Sugar Torch played by Gloria Pall, fleeing an unseen assailant down a busy LA strip is frighteningly good and breathtakingly unique for its time. The search for realism really began in cinema in earnest in the 1950s, and when it did come to film noir, the mix was more of a question about what filmic reality might be.

In The Crimson Kimono, street realism pays off, as well as for the so-called grit and realism but also for the novelty of this racially tense part of the city.

This view of race relations is most charged and interesting, and of its day, and The Crimson Kimono really looks with a deliberate glass at how the intersection of Japanese and American culture comes apart, even when not mentioning World War 2. 

Japanese actors would virtually only circa 1959 habitually be known in any studio movies or worse still, television, in the context of war dramas or service comedies. Interracial romances were non-existent in cinema thanks to the Hays Code, which was ignored by 1959, to varying degrees, but was actually in effect until a decade later in 1968.

The Crimson Kimono is not a story cross-cultural hijinks tale, which would have been much more in keeping with its day. It is a cynical and examining film noir, pepped with action, and loaded with self-examination.

Julia Shaw in The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Glenn Corbett in The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Charlie and Joe, the two buddy cops of The Crimson Kimono, do not actually start the film with the film noir world view that most afflicts cops. They are not cynical at first. They are pals and palsy, and Glenn Corbett's cop really does flirt nice with Julia Shaw's artist character, and real love blossoms in his beating young cop heart. With no cynicism on their hard smokin chops, Corbett and Shigeta share locker-room memories and seem to care properly about catching a villain. They are heroic, honest individuals with the duty of weighing through this noir world as part of their vocation. 

However, personal hang-ups that tear them apart, and it is then that race do its work. 

Their investigation leads them to the Japanese quarter of LA,  an everyday environment that is almost a point of drama in itself, it's so un-American at times. into a point of drama. Again, this locale is shot for realism, unlike the great film noir streets of Anthony Mann, John Huston and so many others from the decade before. The streets of Little Tokyo, so-called, are not bathed in shadows, the camera is usually horizontal, and there is a certain curious tension, especially as already mentioned, the Los Angeles City Hall is also visible.

For race relations noir, The Crimson Kimono is a key part of a tight picture. Key race relations film noir from this year also include Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), in which Robert Ryan plays a racist in a duet with Harry Belafonte, in a situation that is set in the more traditional line of crime and film noir work — to explode.

Previous to this a theme of racism against the Japanese is a motivating plot factor in Bad Day At Black Rock (1955). This is a superior and excellent tension-filled thriller which pits a quite enigmatic Spencer Tracy against the whole town of Black Rock because they are all complicit in the killing of a  Japanese man named Komoko whose son fought with honour overseas during WWII. The Japanese characters in question however remain unseen in Bad Day At Black Rock (1955).

Street throwin' Japanese wresler guy in The Crimson Kimono (1959)
(note cardboard boxes stage right)

A further cinematic nod must be made to No Down Payment (1957), which is a conscious drama from 1950s which does well to prod out the hypocrisies of the time and places. Iko (played by Aki Aleong) is a Japanese-American employee for a local store run by Pat Hingle. He wants to move his family closer to improve his commute — however, resistance goes up as WWII veterans and churchgoers shudder and grimace at what will become of the neighbourhood. The moviethemes could be summarised as alcoholism, racism, promiscuity, and discrimination. All of which —  film noir.

A gun pointed ominously in a girls' dorm
 The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Blending the regular police format with a bit no-nonsense street corner crime drama The Crimson Kimono offers a lucid dialogue about Japanese-American identity — especially for the time — The Crimson Kimono focuses on a friendship between two detectives (Glen Corbett and James Shigeta). 

The crime and the chases — there are three chases in The Crimson Kimono — pale next to the love interest which is played heavily, and existentially. Popular wisdom and the philosophies of France were working their way into the great culture jam of Hollywood, and this love interest is explored by tteh three parties through flirting, fun and then soul-searching.

“I was born here. I’m American but what am I? Japanese, Japanese American, Nisei? What label do I live under?”
Victoria Shaw and James Shigeta
The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Not all film noir is femme fatale-based and breezily absent is any Cold War paranoia or political sentiment, but this is still a harsh film. Samuel Fuller's versatility is impressive and he had written westerns, crime films and war dramas, elevating them to some pretty radical and subversive stuff from time to time, and a part of the reason that he did well at this is because he never suckered himself to conventions and so works hard to make as realistic description of  race in some of his other work like The Steel Helmet (1951) and Run the Arrow (1957).

The story of the two inseparable war buddies —  the boys play veterans of the Korean War — is just as keen as the romance making this a darb and eggs-in-the-coffee love-triangle film noir. 

The subverting of the norm became an edgy action in the 1950s, harder-hitting by far than the 1940s, when the phantasm of cinema still aimed to remove viewers as far as possible from the reality — most of the time.

Victoria Shaw and James Shigeta
The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Between the two men there is a thread of what could potentially be-called reverse racism. Some people will with reason simply refer to this as racism — although when talking about racism — which The Crimson Kimono does more so than just about every other classic film noir — it helps to know who is being racists about you.

Joe, played by the James Shigeta — the most memorable appearance readers will likely be aware of was as Takagi in Die Hard (1988) — Joe mistakes the mess of romantic feelings and male rivalry and relationship with racism, ultimately, which is fascinating to watch and not the normal message by any means.

Buddy moves — James Shigeta and Glenn Corbett in The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Period posters for The Crimson Kimono are racist to the core, unlike the content of the movie, it is an odd marketing conclusion to reach, but it does likely state what is in everybody's minds in 1959. The captions read:

“Yes, this is a beautiful American girl in the arms of a Japanese boy!” 

and on another:

“What was his strange appeal for American girls?”

The idea of the crimson kimono itself derives from more naked stereotypes, as Japanese culture is about to be minimised into a striptease show, which could never be tasteful. And perhaps the resulting hurt is down to that base atrocity, rather unacknowledged. 

Fuller later said himself, “The whole idea of the picture is that both men are good cops and good citizens. The girl just happens to fall in love with the Nisei. They’ve got chemistry” (quoted in A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking, by Christa Lang, Jerome Henry Rudes, and Samuel Fuller)

James Shigeta

As a deeply felt story of love, The Crimson Kimono has to be one of the more abiding love stories in film noir —  admittedly not a style know for its happy love stories. Charlie the cop is just as much in love as Joe the cop — and Charlie the cop is not angry because Joe, an Asian cop, stole his girl. 

Charlie the cop is bothered because his best friend took the girl that he really liked without sharing his true feelings. This is a factual case of a film noir tale in which one cop does not share his true feelings with another cop, resulting in a cop depresses cop, and cop gets girl scenario. 

In film noir the cop usually gets the cop and the girl gets killed. But this film The Crimson Kimono by Samuel Fuller is a true love noir, as well as a racial reality drama and police procedural.

Denouement and unmasking — shadow cops included
The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Maybe the reality is that when race becomes an issue, things get blown out of proportion. You'd like to think was an exaggeration, but it may be the message of The Crimson Kimono — one of the messages. Human reactions are seen in this picture to be attributable to powerful feelings of love and loyalty — and so not everything boils down to racial tension. At the other end of the scale, actively, we are all racist insofar as we are thinking about the subject too hard — too much of the time.

Incredibly, this is one of the true messages delivered by The Crimson Kimono (1959).Characters here, it is suggested, like Joe, are taking their racial identity too seriously. 

Racial identity is no joke, and Bridge to the Sun (1961), based on the true story of a Japanese diplomat (James Shigeta) and a southern belle (Carroll Baker) who met during the 1930s and wed, is a couple of years down the line from The Crimson Kimono. In this story the proclamation of war between the United States and Japan throws their lives into a spin. The couple represent how love can bring people  together in troubled times. Generally forgotten today, it’s quite an extraordinary story.

Telephone paranoia — classic film noir
The Crimson Kimono (1959)

The third chase during the annual Nisei Week Festival features a huge mash of music. It's a chaotic finale for what have been a chaotic mix of themes. The real question of the film is certainly not who killed Sugar Torch the stripper —  this becomes ridiculously irrelevant near then end — but will Shigeta (whose character is called Joe Kojaku) and Victoria Shaw get together. Or more prosaically, will the Japanese guy get the white girl?

It's out like this because this is the unthinkable situation, odd even to the progressives of the day, an unthinkable case of outcome. It happens by the way, and this after this incredible noisy chase. The noise is because of three different clashing styles of music playing — Japanese, classical, and hot-jazz style. The music certainly reflects Joe's and Charlie's confusion — and most cynically too, they seem to leave The Crimson Kimono, not real friends anymore.

A reasonably complete essential-noir and relevant other Fuller picture Sam Fuller filmography might include:

  • Adventure in Sahara (1938) (writer only)
  • I Shot Jesse James (1949)
  • The Steel Helmet (1951)
  • Park Row (1952)
  • Pickup on South Street (1953)
  • House of Bamboo (1955)
  • Run of the Arrow (1957)
  • Forty Guns (1957)
  • The Crimson Kimono (1959)
  • Underworld U.S.A. (1961)
  • Shock Corridor (1963)
  • The Naked Kiss (1964)
  • The American Friend (1977) (actor only)
  • The Big Red One (1980) (Re-Cut version released in 2004)
  • White Dog (1982)
Not exhaustive but should be complete enough for most.

Do watch this interesting trailer. It is a shame that it says of James Shigeta's character "what is his strange fascination for American girls?" because this is a sentiment far from the movie and not expressed in the picture either. If anything it is Shigeta's character Joe who has the issues, not any women, American or otherwise.

The Crimson Kimono (1959) at Wikipedia

Gloria Pall as Sugar Torch, had small roles in films such as Ma and Pa Kettle on Vacation (1953), Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953), The French Line (1954), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), The Night of the Hunter (1955), Jailhouse Rock (1957), The Brothers Karamazov (1958), The Crimson Kimono (1959) and Elmer Gantry (1960).

She appeared on the cover of several national celebrity magazines and twice was a centrefold in Esquire.

In late 1954 and early 1955, she developed a television show called Voluptua for KABC-TV that caused a furore for what was then seen as obscenity. 

Cancelled after seven weeks, Voluptua got Pall feature stories in Life and Playboy magazines. In 1959, Pall began developing a career in real-estate and in 1962 opened her own office on Sunset Strip. Her final known screen credit is the 1964 TV short Low Man on a Totem Pole.

She had earlier in the 1950s worked as a showgirl in both Reno and Las Vegas as well as in Hollywood where for a time she was chosen to be "Miss Earl Carroll" from the huge cast. This was at the Earl Carroll Theatre on Sunset Blvd. in 1952. She dated Howard Hughes for a time.

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