In this weekly column, one writer will send another a new piece of writing about a film they have been watching and pondering over, in the hopes that this will prompt a connectionâ€”emotional, thematic, historical, or analyticalâ€”to a different film the other has been watching or is inspired to rewatch. This ongoing column will be in the spirit of many past Reverse Shot symposiums, in which writers found connections between seemingly disparate cinematic works, and it will also help us maintain personal connection among our writers and our readers.
The Crimson Kimono
I watched Samuel Fullerâ€™s 1959 movie The Crimson Kimono a month before the police murder of George Floyd and the groundswell of mass protests for Black Lives that still sweep the country, but it remains one of the films that has stuck closest with me since they began. At first glance, this film might seem like an odd relic to consider right now. It does not address, or even clearly acknowledge, systemic racism. Nor does it directly examine the ingrained nature of racial hatred as had Fullerâ€™s ferocious White Dog. Indeed, the filmâ€™s core drama revolves around two LAPD detectives in Little Tokyo, one Japanese American, the other white, who fall for the same white woman only for the former to accuse his partner wrongly of racial prejudice. Fullerâ€™s hackneyed endorsement of a â€śreverse racismâ€ť narrative thus precludes any potential engagement with the truth of white supremacy from the get-go.
Nevertheless, The Crimson Kimono rises above its dated premise thanks to the muddled character of Joe Kojaku, as incarnated by a gracefully shy, stiff, and unseasoned James Shigeta (Flower Drum Song, Die Hard) in his screen debut. Ever the crude but effective iconoclast, Fuller elevates Joe as the filmâ€™s hero over his handsome white friend Charlie (Glenn Corbett), and endows him with an incoherently drawn, but potently dialectical Othello complex. At the filmâ€™s conclusion, Joe not only solves the case but also gets the girl. Whatâ€™s more, rather than succumbing to his tragic internal conflict, he overcomes it, unlocking the forbidden promise of an integrated future. In the repressed landscape of the American popular cinema of the 1950s, leave it to Fuller to attempt something exceedingly rare: a credible portrayal of a person of color with a palpable inner life who also lives to see a brighter tomorrow.
Paul Schrader once identified a void at the center of The Searchers: John Fordâ€™s inability to imagine and depict the relationship between the Comanche war chief Scar and his white captive Debbie. The void gapes a little wider and more darkly each time I revisit that film. This structuring absence probably makes the film a stronger work of art, a more suggestive expression of the psychological refusal of American white supremacy in its time, but itâ€™s revealing that the Jewish Fuller, even with his own generational and ideological limitations, allows himself to go precisely where the Catholic Ford cannot.
In Fullerâ€™s film, Joe Kojaku is a Nisei, an American-born Japanese, who served with distinction in the Korean War alongside his partner and best friend Charlie. At first, Joe seems to resemble the conventional fifties image of the stoic, upstanding minority figure, so familiar from Sidney Poitier films. All business, he doggedly pursues the murder investigation at hand, while the roguish Charlie gets to flirt with their star witness, the comely and sensitive painter Chris (Victoria Shaw). For a while, it seems weâ€™re in for a standard issue thriller with Joe as our tour guide through the exotic Japanese backdrop of Little Tokyo, but Fuller pointedly flips the script as the film moves into its second half. Now, Charlie must face peril in the streets, while Joe attends to Chris and the two unexpectedly fall in love.
The symmetry of this structure underlines Fullerâ€™s concern with the relationship of these two men, divided only by race. More than just friends, Joe and Charlie live together. Moreover, we learn that Joe saved Charlie during the war by giving him blood. Most importantly, Fuller continually demonstrates the Japanese and the white man to be each otherâ€™s equal. Both make major breaks in the case. Both behave gallantly toward Chris. 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 Joe.
The scene where Joe and Chris fall in love contains some of Fullerâ€™s sappiest dialogue, but as played by Shigeta and Shaw itâ€™s also tender and painful. Fuller, who famously cast Jean Peters over Marilyn Monroe for Pickup on South Street, always preferred down-to-earth heroines rather than bombshell beauties, and Shawâ€™s Chris is no exception. Gently and sweetly seductive, she woos Shigetaâ€™s demure, privately insecure Joe. â€śChris,â€ť he stops himself after embracing her, â€śletâ€™s not trigger off a bomb.â€ť By this, we know Joe means his relationship to Charlie, but the tone conveys something else too: the fear of transgression.
As a writer, Fuller never establishes the real-world stakes of such a transgression. The script of The Crimson Kimono insists again and again that Joe merely has to overcome his own neurotic racial hang-ups and all will be right, but the explosive texture of that world belies this mushy, liberal sentimentality. As Manny Farber put it, â€śthe daring, uninhibited use of semi-documentary techniquesâ€¦save the movie from Fullerâ€™s mindâ€¦â€ť Here, itâ€™s an opening sequence where a low helicopter shot leads into a crane down the marquee of a burlesque theater, followed by an abrupt tilt up, then a sudden cut to a jawing stripper named Sugar Torch, who will be shot dead in the street a minute later. While Fuller the man might have failed to appreciate it, his films perceived, perhaps more clearly than those of any other American filmmaker of the era, the ceaselessly convulsive violence of a racially bifurcated society.
Charlie triggers Joeâ€™s paranoia that the former is jealous of him not for winning Chrisâ€™s heart, but for being Japanese while doing so. Now Fuller resorts to his signature move: the close-up. The two men, their faces sweaty and bloodied from combat, have never been brought nearer to each other than in this moment marking the irreconcilable end of their friendship. Hereafter, Joeâ€™s character shifts into a more stereotypically noirish register, pursued by his own feelings of self-loathing. For me, this turn recalled the fate of Rufus Scott, the Black drummer who commits suicide in James Baldwinâ€™s Another Country. Like Rufus, Joe wrestles with the divided sense of self the American color line engenders. There is also something about Fullerâ€™s use of the close-up here and throughout his cinema that conveys an impulse akin to Baldwinâ€™s fiercely intimate prose. Itâ€™s a frame of sudden and bracing closeness that yearns to bust through what the writer designated Americaâ€™s â€śterror of human life, of human touch.â€ť â€”Edo Choi
What Have You Done to Solange?
The unflinching bluntness of White Dog continues to haunt me years later, but something Charlie says to Joe in The Crimson Kimono lingers, too: â€śNobody cares who killed that tramp.â€ť But in the end they do care. Thereâ€™s never any question that they wonâ€™t do Sugar Torch the final honor of investigating (and ultimately solving) her murder. Not for the first time, weâ€™re having conversations about which bodies are â€śvaluedâ€ť and, implicitly, who deserves protecting. By now we know some deaths provoke more outrage than others.
Admittedlyâ€”and not incidentallyâ€”itâ€™s been difficult for new films to hold my attention. Iâ€™m quarantining deep in the Bible Belt at my motherâ€™s house, surrounded by artifacts from my adolescence, namely questionable horror/thrillers like Frailty (2001) and Murder by Numbers (2002). Lately Iâ€™ve been reevaluating my relationship to the genre, where death abounds, satiated only by more death, which is to say the killerâ€™s, when death becomes â€śjustice.â€ť Crime features in particular, like the noir and giallo, inevitably end up interrogating gender and sexualityâ€”fitting that the woman who comes between Joe and Charlie, given the homoerotic dimension of their relationship, is called â€śChrisâ€ťâ€”to say nothing of race, often overlooked because these films tend to be largely, if not entirely, populated by white people. But of course race is happening even in absence of racializedâ€”non-whiteâ€”bodies.
Like you, Edo, the film that has stuck closest with me during quarantine inadequately addresses these times; in fact I think I have returned to it so often because it promises nostalgia rather than prescience. Massimo Dallamanoâ€™s sleek, seductive giallo What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) is a deeply European story, and its preoccupations are particularly retrograde, sometimes by design. The London schoolgirls preyed upon by what appears to be a sexually sadistic killer priest are equally haunted by harbingers of childhood: an old nanny becomes a key, if elusive witness; the titular Solange regresses to an infantile state following a trauma. To be clear, it is precisely because they refuse to remain â€śinnocentâ€ťâ€”that is, virginalâ€”that they incur such sexualized violence at all.
The film opens with the murder of a teenager witnessed by her classmate Elizabeth (Cristina GalbĂł). Elizabeth is having an affair with her married Italian gym teacher Enrico Rosseni (Fabio Testi), a beautiful sleazebag (my taste in men continues to atrophy under lockdown conditions) who emerges as the filmâ€™s central character. Enrico falls under suspicion after the affair is discovered and two more girls, including Elizabeth, are killed. In a surprising turn, he and his long-suffering wife, Herta (Karin Baal), conduct their own unofficial investigation to clear his name, and manage to repair their marriage in the process.
In one endlessly fascinating scene, Enrico interviews Philip Sullivan, a Black photographer who reveals the girls were sexually adventurous with other boys and each other. Already the film unfolds primarily as the story of two immigrantsâ€”the Italian Enrico and his German wifeâ€”in a largely secular and Protestant country where the mystery is animated by Catholic iconography and ideologyâ€”even when critical of the Church. The English detectives immediately flag Enricoâ€™s Italian-ness, and practically forgive him for cheating on the cold German Herta. Philip, however, exposes rather familiar racial anxieties, all the more curious because he is ostensibly, given his accent (in the English version), American. In the same scene, he photographs a naked white woman, powdered in white makeup head to toe. It is impossible not to link her grotesque, vivid whiteness to Enricoâ€™s hedonistic pupils, whose exploits Philip describes in lewd detail, all the while hinting at his own personal sexual knowledge of them. He, too, becomes part of their deviance, a vestige of the sexual underworld they mapped for themselves. And it would be a mistake to dismiss the implications of his body, his Blackness, and this particular interracial sexual dynamic, to which Europeans are not nearly as immune as some Americans might believe. Europeâ€™s racial animus may diverge in significant places, but our histories are intertwined.
In the tradition of the giallos and the American slashers they inspired, Solange, with its polished cinematography by Aristide Massaccesi, is conventionally lecherous but ambivalent about sex, especially for women. Revealingly, Philip insists Elizabeth wasnâ€™t like the other girls: â€śShe didnâ€™t hang around with them.â€ť This moment recalls an earlier scene where Enrico and Elizabeth are in bed together. Another meaningful close-up: the static camera revels in Elizabethâ€™s pleasure, Enrico somewhere out of frame, something divine conveyed by Ennio Morriconeâ€™s famous title theme â€śCosa avete fatto a Solange?â€ť paired with Edd Dellâ€™Orsoâ€™s heavenly vocals. Later, a peculiar detail is mentioned twice: Elizabeth was a virgin when she died. And while the other girls are penetrated vaginally with a knife, she is drowned, left, shall we say, undefiled.
It seems important that Elizabeth is never penetrated, although ultimately, it doesnâ€™t save her. Itâ€™s even more telling that having some sort of sex (which the film forecloses on because it isnâ€™t penetrative) with her married, much older professor is tacitly preferable to sex with a Black man or other girls. Iâ€™ve watched this film three times already, continually stunned by its beauty, struck by an unexpectedly relevant portrait of intimacy amid a host of sexual and racial hang-ups. I write this on the birthday of James Baldwinâ€”that changer of livesâ€”and now, maybe more than ever, the â€śterror of human life, of human touch,â€ť that Fuller's frame could not quite break through, seems so tragic. â€”Kelli Weston
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