Film School: The Crimson Kimono

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Movies Features Samuel Fuller
Film School: The Crimson Kimono

Welcome to Film School! This is a column focused on movie history and all the stars, filmmakers, events, laws and, yes, movies that helped write it. Film School is a place to learn—no homework required.

Martin Scorsese starts his foreword to Samuel Fuller’s autobiography A Third Face like this:

It’s been said that if you don’t like The Rolling Stones, then you just don’t like Rock and Roll. By that same token, I think that if you don’t like the films of Sam Fuller, then you just don’t like cinema. Or at least, you don’t understand it. 

A provocative sentiment from Marty there, but then the iconoclastic, irascible, one-of-a-kind Sam Fuller was the sort of figure to inspire such provocation. A journalist-turned-soldier, turned writer-director, Fuller was known for firing a gun to call “Action!” and for spending his time in Hollywood flirting with controversy at every step. His films were lurid and sensationalist, but often hugely ahead of their time; they were wild, sometimes a little unhinged, and yet always shot with exhilarating passion and conviction.

During the month of May, Film School will be covering four of Fuller’s best movies. First up: 1959’s The Crimson Kimono.

When burlesque dancer Sugar Torch (Gloria Pall) is shot to death on the streets of Los Angeles, detectives and best friends Charlie (Glenn Corbett) and Joe (James Shigeta) are assigned the case. A prominent witness, artist Chris (Victoria Shaw), is targeted by the killer, and so the detective duo decide the best way to keep her safe is by moving her into the apartment they share. Both men wind up falling for her, which causes a deep rift in their previously unbreakable bond.

Between the mid-1950s and early ‘60s, Hollywood put out a raft of films such as Sayonara, The World of Suzie Wong and Cry for Happy focused on romantic relationships between white men and Asian women. While these films were laden with problems, full of stereotypes and a determination to exoticize, they were at least well-intentioned. In general, the widespread practice of yellowface was becoming a little less widespread (though unfortunately, it was still common—Ricardo Montalbán in Sayonara being a particularly horrifying example) and Asian characters were finally being played by Asian actors with more regularity. Things were moving in the right direction, albeit slowly and clunkily. 

The Crimson Kimono marked the debut film appearance of James Shigeta, a Honolulu-born Japanese-American whose career ebbed and flowed over multiple decades; his most famous role would be as Mr. Takagi in Die Hard, almost 30 years later. Suavely handsome, with a warm, rich voice (he’d spent most of the ‘50s as a popular lounge singer), Shigeta was once told by an MGM producer, “You know, if you were white, you’d be a hell of a big star.” 

For much of The Crimson Kimono, Fuller splits main character duties between Shigeta’s Joe and Corbett’s Charlie. The two of them have a proto-Starsky & Hutch closeness; finishing each other’s sentences, living together, working together, going out on the town together. When an acquaintance sees one of them walking down the street, they always ask after the other, as they would a spouse or a family member. Throughout the movie, it’s clear that Fuller is more interested in the tightness of their bond than in discovering who killed poor old Sugar Torch, and he has a lot of fun drawing the details of their lives in the rarely-filmed Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Charlie falls for Chris first, but when Joe falls for her too, it’s clear it’s he who Chris is most interested in. When Joe tells this to Charlie, Charlie is devastated—but in his crushed face, Joe reads a racism that isn’t there. Joe’s false perception, and Charlie’s horror that his best friend could think such a thing of him, threatens to destroy their relationship. 

You couldn’t call the treatment of race in The Crimson Kimono elegant. Elegance was not really in Sam Fuller’s wheelhouse. And the resolution to the tension between Joe and Charlie is misguided, to put it lightly. Reading A Third Face, it’s hard not to cringe at Fuller calling his film’s approach to Joe’s misapprehension a condemnation of “reverse racism,” “a kind of narrow-mindedness that’s just as deplorable as outright bigotry.”

For a director known for being steadfastly progressive, it’s difficult to contend with the ignorance in Fuller’s authorial intent here. As we’ll see in coming weeks, he was usually a man unafraid to take on establishment wrongs, and so even though it was clearly much further from the public discourse in the 1950s than it is these days, his total disregard of systemic racism does seem out of character—especially considering that his 1951 masterpiece, The Steel Helmet, was one of the first movies to acknowledge the horrors of Japanese-American internment during WWII. 

Watching The Crimson Kimono in 2024, it’s obvious that Joe’s assumption of Charlie’s racism wouldn’t have sprung out of nowhere in the way the movie implies, but would have been based on his lived experience; Charlie’s racism may have been imagined, yet surely a Japanese-American cop during the 1950s would have faced a plethora of it from other sources.

Despite the obtuseness in Fuller’s sentiment, one important fact remains: It’s Joe that gets the girl. And as Edo Choi noted in Reverse Shot, it’s after a fair fight where his “opponent” has not been villainized in a way that tilts the scales:

“Thus, when Chris finally chooses Joe over Charlie, we know she is doing so not because Charlie the white man is unappealing, under-accomplished, or impure of intention, but because she feels a genuine, positive connection with the Nisei [American born to Japanese immigrants] Joe.”  

Significantly more than half the film’s 80-minute duration has passed before Joe and Charlie have their fateful argument. Up until that point, Joe is shown to be a kind, handsome, thoughtful man with a good sense of humor, diligent at his job, and with a rich inner life. For a white woman to choose an Asian man over a white one in a 1950s studio film was pretty much unheard of; that Fuller and Shigeta make that choice seem entirely sensible, without having to villainize Charlie—and Fuller fought the studio hard on that point; Columbia wanted Charlie to be at least a “little bit of a sonofabitch”—is what made The Crimson Kimono extraordinary.

Although Sam Fuller was ahead of his time in many respects, he was a man of it in others, and that discrepancy does lead to some deeply unfortunate exchanges during the film’s third act. And yet in an era where Asian representation in Hollywood was tentative at best and wildly offensive at worst, The Crimson Kimono’s depiction of an Asian American man as a rounded, interesting, attractive human being—and an eminently viable romantic lead—was a revelation. 

Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.

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