"The truth is lost when a woman finds love" - words of wisdom that befuddle a potentially duplicitous Steffi Novak!
Although Tokyo File 212 is a long-forgotten classic from the red menace sub-genre that popped up during the forties - Communism was the new global evil, kept at bay by the expert know-how of American agents - the film's real selling point is that it was filmed entirely on location in Japan.
A number of American studio films were shot in Asia during the exotica-hungry fifties, but most were rather benevolent cultural travelogues: tales of more genteel cultural clashes, dramas depicting a once-remote and insular society slowly adopting the wise ways of the West, or sudsy romantic exotica. In most cases, the films intercut arresting second unit location photography with studio-bound scenes, the latter filmed back in Hollywood.
212 makes for an intriguing comparison with Samuel Fuller's own genre transposition, House of Bamboo (1955); in the latter, the qualities of film noir were given a new spin via an overt portrayal of Americans as occupiers and bullies while postwar Japan was clearly evolving into a powerful economic and industrial nation; 212, made four years earlier, makes greater use of the U.S. military personnel in several scenes, and the film shows a population both discreetly displeased with foreign solders and the various ideologies - radically simplified to American democracy vs. Soviet Communism - duking it out, as innocent locals are scarred by the ensuing mental anguish and physical shrapnel.
The imagery of an explosion that (somewhat) bookends the film is just a potent today - occurring on a busy city street, with plenty of passersby in close proximity to the detonated charge - and from a production value angle, the dangerous stunt also happens pretty close to onlookers, and the fleeing cast members.
More intriguing, however, is a nightclub scene - surprising for its risqué, table dancing crooner - in which American investigator Jim Carter (played by the pseudonymous Robert Peyton, a less-talented Fred MacMurray knockoff) becomes an interloper when he enters a locale posted as "Off Limits to Allied Personnel." He's loud and condescending, but unlike Bamboo's own military investigator (Robert Stack), Jim manages to leave without throwing a single punch.
Florence Marly's character, Steffi Novak (who only refers to herself in the third person), is a rather bizarre variation on the exotic and nationless Ilsa character in Casablanca; Steffi remains in the industrial city of Tokyo because it's the closest she can be to her sister, trapped somewhere in deep, red North Korea.
The detective procedures in 212 are clichéd and awfully familiar, but screenwriters Dorrell and Stuart McGowan (who directed the film's largely static visuals) do include some unique cultural scenes, including Jim's dinner meeting with a local crime kingpin (Tetsu Nakamura), plus the inclusion of Japanese dialogue that isn't (and doesn't need to be) subtitled.
Alternatively, there's some hysterically clumsy moments in a Kamikaze school flashback: punctuated by future Commie insurrectionist Taro (Katsuhiko Haida), the young lad breaks discipline by smashing his toasting glass, and mopes away from the celebration table when his superior informs the group of Japan's wartime surrender; it's a completely misplaced reaction, taken from the American School of Melodramatic Acting, that contradicts the message in a lengthy montage meant to depict the steely inculcation procedures.
Alpha's source for the DVD is a 1954 re-issue print, which is pretty beat up - lots of scratches, dirt, and a serious break a quarter into the picture. Likely a TV print, the RKO logo at the head & tail of the print have been chopped off, and footage of the final shot - a plane taxiing for take-off - is optically run backwards, so the name of the current distributor - M and A Alexander Productions, Inc. - has time to fade up from a separate title card. Rather reminiscent of the old 16mm C&C Movietime TV prints from the RKO film library, the opening credits also have the M and A distributor name that's superimposed via a video character generator. (The soundtrack is also pinched and dirty, and Albert Glasser's melodramatic but above-average score gets pretty shrilly during orchestral surges.)
It's all best seen as creaky but surprisingly engaging curio from a collection of creative minds long involved with B-movies and TV shows prior to the fifties - plus famous attorney Melvin Belli, credited as the film's executive producer!
Co-writer Dorrell McGowan later wrote The Littlest Hobo (1958), which decades later became an indestructible Canadian TV series about a traveling German Shepherd enriching the lives of aging, hammy character actors.
Florence Marly, best-known for her role as the space vampire in AIP's kitschy Queen of Blood (1968), also appeared in a few notable films, including Tokyo Joe (1949) with Humphrey Bogart, and René Clément's Les Maudits (1947), before apparently being mis-branded a Communist sympathizer by HUAC, and pretty much ruining her film career.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan