Director Phil Karlson — born Philip N. Karlstein in Chicago, 1908 — could do just about anything. Starting as a gagman for Buster Keaton, Karlson found work as propman, studio manager, editor, and assistant before stepping behind the camera and calling the shots. His first, A Wave, a WAC, and a Marine (1944) was a comedy/musical but if anyone is going to pick a Karlson film out a line-up, it would be for his tough and gritty 1950s B-pictures.
But even these films didn’t cement Karlson’s legacy in Hollywood history. David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film calls Karlson’s career “modest” and devotes only one column to the director. And despite 99 River Street, Kansas City Confidential, and Scandal Sheet, Alain Silver and James Ursini left Karlson out of their survey of twenty-eight filmmakers, Film Noir — The Directors, altogether.
And while the Karlson appreciation society has yet to be formed, the work endures; evident in three of Karlson’s finest: Scandal Sheet, Kansas City Confidential (both 1952), and The Phenix City Story (1955).
“Things happened and then there’s no end.”
As the saying goes: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In Scandal Sheet, that aphorism butts up against another warning baked into every film noir worth its salt: “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.”
Ace reporter Steve McCleary (John Derek) wishes for a story, the most sensational story out there, and he gets it dropped right into his lap; the story of Chapman (Broderick Crawford), a newspaper editor, McCleary’s in fact, who murdered his way to the top.
Based on the novel The Dark Page by Samuel Fuller and directed by Karlson, Scandal Sheet bleeds noir thanks to surprising, but not entirely unfeasible, twists and turns of choice and chance. Fuller, himself a newspaper reporter, injects a love for the trade while also finding much to loathe. Had Fuller directed Scandal Sheet, the movie may have revolved more around that dynamic — Fuller devotes one sentence on Scandal Sheet in his autobiography, misspelling “Carlson” for good measure. But what Karlson brings to Scandal Sheet is the perfect amount of dread. As the bodies pile up and the noose around Chapman’s neck tightens, we wonder why he doesn’t cut and run. Surely that would make more sense than offering himself up to McCleary on a platter? But as Chapman tells the young reporter: “I gambled. When the stakes are big enough, you don’t run unless there’s nothing else left to do.”
Scandal Sheet is a solid movie with a socko premise that carries the action swiftly for 80 minutes, but what gives the movie that extra oomph is Karlson’s inclusion of social realism. In one standout scene, McCleary and his photographer, Biddie (Harry Morgan of M*A*S*H fame), shake down a bar full of drunks looking for information. The camera captures their faces in harrowing close-ups fitting of a Life magazine spread. Much like the peasants in Akira Kurosawa’s No Regrets For My Youth (1946) and the films of Federico Fellini to come, the camera slowly tracks past these faces with humanity and pity.
No honor among thieves
Starting out like a tightly scripted heist picture, Kansas City Confidential immediately launches into the heist, $1.2 million, before pinning the whole thing on a man who was at the wrong place at the wrong time. He is a floral delivery driver, Joe (John Payne), who also happens to be an ex-con trying to rehab his image. Like many ex-convicts, then and now, one false accusation robs him of everything and Joe needs to find a new way to survive.
He does, by tracking the robbers down to their Mexican hideout where they wait for the money to cool. Because of how the heist was arranged — everyone wore masks at all times so no one could snitch — Joe easily poses as one of the robbers while working his way to the money.
Neither a heist nor a noir picture, Kansas City Confidential is an ace B-picture, the kind filmmakers have mined for a variety of inspirations. In an interview with Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn in 1975, Karlson broke down his approach simply: “I think a B-movie [as] an action movie, and an A-movie [as] a characterization of people. That’s about the biggest difference we have. You never get to know anybody in a B-movie.”
“This’ll happen to your kid too.”
So says a note pinned to the body of a dead black girl. Murdered in cold blood, her body tossed out a moving car and onto the Patterson’s lawn to send a message. Who could do such a thing?
The men behind the corruption and vice of Phenix City, Alabama, that’s who. Ripped from the headlines, The Phenix City Story is far and away Karlson’s masterpiece. And though the events of Phenix City take place in the 1950s, there is an overwhelming sense it wouldn’t take much for these conditions to rise again.
Based on the real-life assassination of Albert Patterson, a man who was elected Alabama Attorney General on the platform of cleaning up Phenix City, Karlson opens the film with real-life reporter Clete Roberts interviewing townsfolk about the rampant corruption that rules the city. Corruption so ingrained in the town, one character sums it up with a shrug: “It’s been like this since we’ve been tall enough to stand on the apple box and pull the slot machine lever.”
The man running that vice is Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews), a smooth-talkin’ southern gentleman who wouldn’t think twice before squeezing the trigger in the face of his problems.
Standing in his way, Albert Patterson (John McIntire), a lawyer who could topple the system if only someone could convince him to put it all on the line. His son (Richard Kiley) does, and Phenix City becomes divided by those who want to clean the town up and those want to keep it dirty. And the innocent bystanders caught in between.
Shot on location and filmed in documentary-like monochromatic black and white by Harry Neumann, The Phenix Story functions as depiction of what is happening in America — and could continue to happen should good men and women refuse to stand up. More than one character draws the parallels between modern-day Phenix City and pre-World War II Germany. In that regard, The Phenix City Story will always have a sadly prescient edge to it. The corrupt we will always have, no matter how hard the just try to beat it back.