Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Phil Karlson

Walking Tall (1973) with Joe Don Baker as Buford Pusser. From The Phenix City Story (1955) from the Brothers Rico with the great Richard Conte Kansas City Confidential (1952) From Kid Galahad with Elvis (1962)
Phil Karlson, real name Phil Karlstein, (b. July 2, 1908, d. December 12, 1985) began his career as a prop man at Universal studio, then worked his way up the ladder doing virtually every job
on the set, eventually working his way up to assistant director on Abott and Costello films by suggesting gags directly to Lou Costello. He made his best films for tiny "poverty row" studios like Eagle/Lion and Monogram, and today is best remembered for a string of excellent, low budget, film noir and crime pictures made in the 50's-- Scandal Sheet (1952) (written by Sam Fuller), Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953), Hell's Island (1955), 5 Against The House (1955), The Phenix City Story (1955), The Brothers Rico (1957), and Key Witness (with Dennis Hopper, 1960). These all show up on TV, especially TCM late at night and are all worth watching. The 60's were not kind to Karlson and he was stuck directing awful Elvis (Kid Galahad), and Dean Martin (The Silencers, The Wrecking Crew)
formula drek, he was obviously hired because he was known to be able to work on a small budget. He made a comeback witht the self produced drive in hit-- Walking Tall (1973) with Joe Don Baker as Buford Pusser, a former wrestler turned sherrif who attempts to clean up his corrupt backwater hometown (it was remade in naughts with The Rock). Walking Tall is a masterpiece and stands with Monte Hellman's Cockfighter and Richard Compton's Macon County Line (written by Max "Jethro Bodine" Baer Jr.), as the best of that peculiar early 70's genre "country noir". Where the original 40's film noir genre exposed the corruption and sleaze behind the enticing bright lights of the big city, country noir showed that the same corruption was found back home in the small towns the city folks left behind. This genre lived and died in fairly short time period and was even touched upon by a-list directors like John Boorman whose 1972 classic Deliverance horrified middle America. Phil Karlson was right at home with this genre, and his final movie-- Framed (1975) which also starred Baker is almost as good as Walking Tall, and worth another look. Interviewed by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn for their excellent, groundbreaking book Kings Of The Bs (E.P. Dutton, 1975) he was quoted: "Every successful films I've made has been based on fact". This is especially true of his two best-- The Phenix City Story and Walking Tall, both of which were taken from then current news stories. Although I originally saw Walking Tall at a seven screen drive in (Florida still has one, there were five when I was growing up), it still looks great on TV and the remake is something of a travesty.Joe Don Baker, who usually plays a bad guy (Charley Varick being one of his most memorable roles) makes the transition to hillbilly hero admirably. Phil Karlson's movies not only show up on TV from time to time, they are easy to find on Netflix. I'd recommend them especially for fans of Sam Fuller, Anthony Mann, Don Siegal, and other straight shootin' types of studio b-list, contract directors of the era. They make great late night viewing.


Donna Lethal said...

Phenix City Story and Kansas City Confidential are stunners. KC (and possibly PC) fell into the public domain, so when I worked in a film archive we used it as filler for generic crime footage. I watched it endlessly.

Anonymous said...

'Phenix City' will haunt you. I saw at as a kid and never forgot it. When I viewed it on VHS, twenty years later, it still had plenty of power.

I have long wondered if the ska tune by Roland Alphonso was inspired by the film.

avidmartinet said...

phil karlson was a master at depicting blunt force. his films were always incredibly visceral, with violence you could feel. that spate of films in the 50's was terrific. phenix cc and kc confidential are rightfully acclaimed, but 99 river street is up there too. i used to program this stuff at the thalia theatre whenever i could and they always went over well.

The Hound said...

"i used to program this stuff at the thalia theatre whenever i could and they always went over well."

I think that's were I first saw 99 River St! In the early 80's, pre-video days. I probably went to the Thalia more than any other revival house in NYC over the years....

avidmartinet said...

those were the days in nyc. there were about 8-9 different movie theatres playing revival double bills at any time. thalia was my fave though, joseph h. lewis double bills, deep film noir, eagle lion studio retros - that's the shit the kids today have no idea about.

Fast Film said...

How come no one ever mentions Richard Conte's "Cry of the City?"
What a great noir!

Mike Caravella said...

Hi, I am also a big fan of Phil Karlson. I think what he meant though when he said he made films based on fact, is that he made honest films about people and not so much about ripped from the headlines type fare...that's just my opinion though.

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