Friday, June 26, 2009

Impressed with Phil Karlson

The Phil Karlson series ended on June 26 at the PFA. They screened a Phil Karlson double feature every Friday in June. I had previously seen three of the films - 99 River Street, Scandal Sheet and Gunman's Walk. I saw 99 River Street and Scandal Sheet at previous Noir City festivals and Gunman's Walk at the PFA last year.

I saw the other five films in the series.

Kansas City Confidential starring John Payne; (1952)
Tight Spot starring Ginger Rogers, Edward G. Robinson and Brian Keith; (1955)
5 Against the House starring Brian Keith and Kim Novak; (1955)
The Phenix City Story; (1955)
The Brothers Rico starring Richard Conte and James Darren; (1957)

I didn't know much about Karlson. I enjoyed the three films (especially Gunman's Walk) but I didn't connect Karlson to the three films. Now that I've seen five more of his films, I am ready to pronounce Karlson one my favorite director's of the era. Quoting from the PFA's copy, "Karlson is known for a particularly stark and punishing brand of noir, but his visual assaults are based in a brutal morality."

"Stark and punishing" are relative terms but what I note about his films are that they quintessentially noir in that the protagonists are not entirely undeserving of their fates. They have character flaws or made poor choices that have put them in the position they are in but they also elicit some empathy. In short, Karlson develops complex characters that transcend the standard pulp. However, his female character lacks development; Karlson definitely seemed like he was more comfortable with male characters. Karlson seemed to develop his own acting troop that he kept reuniting with - John Payne, Brian Keith and Kathryn Grant.

Kansas City Confidential is probably his best known film of the era. In the 1970's, Karlson directed Ben and Walking Tall. John Payne (who also starred in 99 River Street) plays an ex-con who is framed for a bank robbery. After being worked over by the cops but eventually cleared, he goes after the men who set him up (including Jack Elam and Lee Van Cleef). In this film, cops and criminals are indistinguishable. Indeed the criminal mastermind (played by Preston Foster) is a former cop.

Kansas City Confidential wasn't my favorite of the series. I think Tight Spot would take the top spot. Ginger Rogers plays an aging convict who is furloughed so that prosecutor Edward G. Robinson and cop (or FBI agent) Brian Keith can convince her to testify against a mob kingpin (Lorne Greene). Rogers plays a brassy broad that is making the most of her time out of prison. She falls for no nonsense cop (Keith) but Keith has a secret - he's a mole working for Greene and Rogers has been targeted for execution. Rogers is fearless in eviscerating her glamorous Astaire and Rogers screen persona. Her performance carries the film.

The Phenix City Story was extremely violent and realistic for (1955). Set in Alabama in the era of segregation, one character says something like "I don't have anything against long as they mind their place." He spits the line out making no doubt of his self-delusion even if he hadn't used the N word but I was surprised to hear that line from a 1955 film. Shot on location and based on the actual assassination of the Alabama Attorney General-Elect, The Phenix City Story tells the story of how the mob corrupts the town of Phenix City. Racism doesn't play a major role in the action but it would have been impossible to ignore in 1955 Alabama.

The Brothers Rico tells the story of a man (Richard Conte) who thinks he is free of the mob but gets pulled back in when his two brothers get in a jam. In actuality, he was really never free but his brothers' predicament is the catalyst used to dupe him in setting up his brothers. Conte delivers a solid performance but the happy ending was unusually contrived (even for that era).

Finally, 5 Against the House was a lot of fun but the most dated. Perhaps most notable for a young and luscious Kim Novak in a supporting role, the film is about four Korean War vets in college. They still look too old by a decade to be going to school on the GI Bill or living in a dorm but they are. Keith suffered a head wound that causes him to go off the deep end when agitated (à la William Bendix in The Blue Dahlia). Keith convinces his buddies that they can pull off a casino robbery in Reno. They meticulously plan the heist; the centerpiece is a ruse where they convince the casino worker (William Conrad) that an armed midget is in a change cart. Karlson excels at filming the planning of and execution of the crime caper and 5 Against the House was very entertaining if not a little unbelievable.


I saw Dillinger is Dead at the YBCA. The 1969 film starred Michel Piccoli and Anita Pallenberg and was in Italian with subtitles. It was very "1960's" but not necessarily bad. A gas mask designer decides to kill his wife. The film shows the last night of her life as he cooks dinner, watches movies, drips honey on his naked maid and assembles his revolver. All the while, his wife (Pallenberg) is passed out on the bed after taking pills for her migraine. Containing more plot than I expected, the story must have been difficult to film and script as Piccoli is frequently acting in scenes by himself but his acting skills and screen persona are up to the task. In one memorable scene, Piccoli acts opposite home movie images projected on the wall. A nice soundtrack helps the movie too. In New Wave tradition, there wasn't a message per se. Piccoli is just a man that is dissatisfied with his life and does something (albeit extreme) about it.


Deidre said...

Yes! I too am a recent Karlson convert. I have only seen a handful, but the diversity in style, but consistency in themes are impressive. Have you seen this interesting write-up on Gunman's Walk? Where can I get this?

Dan said...

I din't say it in my post because I didn't see it in June but Gunman's Walk is one of my favorite Karlson films. I probably enjoyed it more than the five films I saw at this retrospective.

I thought Van Heflin's performance in that film was great. I wrote a few paragraphs in this September post.