There’s some pretty stiff completion for the toughest director in film noir. In the forties and fifties, the directors of B-level crime pictures seemed to be locked in a contest to see who could inject the most head-thumping into an 80-minute potboiler. Any list of noir’s toughest directors would have to include such pugilistic auteurs as Anthony Mann, Robert Aldrich, Richard Fleischer, and Sam Fuller. That said, the toughest noir director of them all might well have been Phil Karlson.
He started out in Chicago as Philip Karlstein, born in 1908 to parents who wanted him to be a lawyer. The dutiful son headed to Loyola Marymount University in California to pursue a law degree, but he wound up taking odd jobs at Universal Pictures to pay the bills. He worked his way up from prop man to assistant director, and eventually to director at “Poverty Row” studios that churned out low-budget fare like timber mills spitting out piles of pulp. His first film was a cheapie comedy for Monogram called A Wave, a Wac, and a Marine (1944). As a first film it was somewhat less impressive than The Maltese Falcon, but Karlstein was finally a director.
After his first few films, he changed his name to Karlson and hunkered down at his new job, shooting quickly and cheaply. In 1945, he knocked out three films. The following year, he shot seven, most of which were crime pictures (including one Charlie Chan mystery and two Lamont Cranston “Shadow” adventures). For the rest of the forties, he did it all: crime flicks, comedies, romances, westerns, whatever.
1952 was his watershed year. He directed Kansas City Confidential, a hard-as-nails caper picture starring John Payne as an ex-con who infiltrates an armored car gang and has to duke it out with heavies like Preston Foster, Lee Van Cleef, Neville Brand, and Jack Elam. This first pairing between Payne and Karlson would spawn two more films, but they never topped Kansas City Confidential for sheer sweat-soaked brutality. The picture was lensed by ace noir cinematographer George Diskant (The Narrow Margin) so it’s got atmosphere to burn, but the main appeal of the thing is watching the hard boys play rough. The film also gave Karlson the opportunity to work on a theme that would surface repeatedly in his work: a man forced to overcome some moment of failure in his past. Karlson’s protagonists always seem to be trying to find physical solutions to innately ethical problems. It says something about his simplistic view of the world that they usually succeed.
Of course, the antithesis of that worldview came the same year when Karlson shot a much different picture, Scandal Sheet. Based on Sam Fuller’s novel The Dark Page, the film concerns an unscrupulous newspaper editor who tries to get away with murder. Though sometimes dismissed by Fuller purists, Scandal Sheet is an underrated masterpiece of noir. Under Karlson’s smooth direction the film brilliantly mines an essential noir theme: a morally compromised man trying desperately to avoid the consequences of his actions. As the murderous newsman, hulking Broderick Crawford (the James Gandolfini of his day) dominates the screen in performance that is both fierce and somehow strangely sympathetic. Meanwhile, veteran cinematographer Burnett Guffey (whom I discuss in my article on the best of noir’s cinematographers) does perhaps the best work of his long career. Notice, for instance, how the film starts out as crisp and clean as newspaper prose and gets progressively darker and darker until it arrives at its shadow-drenched final scenes. Scandal Sheet is a film ripe for rediscovery.
The next year came Karlson’s best film, 99 River Street. John Payne stars as Ernie Driscoll, an ex-boxer turned taxi driver who endures the longest night of his life after his wife dumps him for a jewelry thief. The film is a pitch-perfect example of the Dark Night of the Soul, the noir subgenre wherein a character wrestles with his or her demons over the course of a single treacherous night. 99 River Street keeps adding complications to its plot (before the night is over Ernie will find himself tangled up with the cops, jewelry thieves, murderers, and—perhaps worst of all—Broadway producers). Led by an excellent John Payne, the cast features some of classic noir’s best players: Evelyn Keyes, Peggie Castle, Jack Lambert, and Brad Dexter. In many ways, this film is the ultimate Karlson picture. At its core is the frustration of a man of violence boxed in by situations which keep moving out of his control. Naturally, since this is a Karlson picture, when redemption comes, it comes with a hard right hook.
The director continued punching out the pulp throughout the fifties: Tight Spot with Brian Keith; Hell’s Island, a disappointing reteaming with Payne; 5 Against the House, a crappy heist flick notable only for the presence of the divine Kim Novak; The Brothers Rico, an interesting family drama with Richard Conte. Perhaps his best of this period was The Phenix City Story, a bracing real-life story about corruption in the notorious town of Phenix City, Alabama. While the film’s historical accuracy can be questioned (it whitewashes its protagonists), Karlson directs with his usual sure hand and a devotion to grittiness, and the film remains a highly effective example of the docu-noir subgenre of crime exposé that flooded out of studios in the mid-fifties.
In the sixties, with noir’s classic era winding down, Karlson went soft. His nadir came when he directed Dean Martin in two unforgivably campy adaptations of Donald Hamilton’s badass Matt Helm novels. (The Matt Helm homepage angrily dismisses the films.) Perhaps the worst thing about these films is that Karlson would have been the obvious choice to adapt Hamilton’s spare, hard prose to the screen.
It seemed like Karlson’s career was running out of gas until 1973 when the 65 year-old director made Walking Tall, a violent neo-noir about a redneck lawman (Jon Don Baker) dispensing justice with a baseball bat. While the film didn’t fare well at first, it started gaining traction in rural markets in the south. Eventually it turned into a box office phenomenon—a kind of hillbilly Dirty Harry. The critics groused that it was just hicksploitation and red meat for reactionaries, but if the unexpected blockbuster didn’t earn Karlson any kudos from the intelligentsia, it did make him a millionaire. Not bad compensation for a lifetime of doing it the hard way.
Jake Hinkson, The Night Editor