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Category Archives: Phil Karlson

99 River Street

There are worse things than murder. You can kill someone an inch at a time.

I guess it’s no secret that I have a real fondness for low budget movies; there’s something fascinating about seeing how filmmakers are able to stretch their resources. There have been a fair few highly successful film noirs that fall into this category, and that shouldn’t be all that surprising. Noir is arguably the type of movie best suited to budget filmmaking, relying less on location and high production values than almost any other style of picture. In truth, a clever director and cameraman can not only transcend the limitations of a tight budget, but can actually turn it to their advantage. Those directors who spent much of their early careers working in the B units were able to capitalize on their years of experience, and the better ones could make a virtue out of austerity. Phil Karlson was one of those who managed to make quality movies even when the finances were severely restricted. 99 River Street (1953) may be his best film noir, Kansas City Confidential would possibly challenge it for that honor though, and it’s certainly among his better films.

For Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) it wasn’t so much that he could have been a contender – he was. The opening sees Driscoll slugging it out in the ring during a world heavyweight title fight. He actually floors the champion and is just ten seconds away from glory. However, Driscoll is a classic noir protagonist – fate has got his number – so his opponent picks himself up, lands a lucky punch that opens a bad wound over his eye, and wins the bout on a TKO. Just to underline Driscoll’s fall from the big time, the camera pulls back to reveal that the fight scene we’ve been watching is in reality a syndicated rerun on TV. Driscoll’s sitting there, reliving every blow traded, torturing himself, as the pain flickers across his battle-scarred features. With his boxing career in tatters, Driscoll makes a living as a cab driver. He’s not exactly thrilled with this, but that’s nothing compared to the contempt felt by his disgruntled wife Pauline (Peggie Castle). Pauline is a former showgirl, bitterly disappointed at the way things have turned out and convinced that Driscoll is nothing but a loser. She may have a point too; not only is Pauline about to run off with a small time hood, Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter), but Driscoll finds himself suckered into believing a melodramatic tale spun by an aspiring Broadway actress, Linda James (Evelyn Keyes). The point here is that Driscoll is one of those eternal fall guys, the kind of man who has bad things happen to him just because. As such, it’s no major surprise, least of all to Driscoll himself I guess, when he finds himself framed for murder and on the run. Nevertheless, he does have a few things in his favour – a kind of two-fisted toughness and never say die tenacity, and a couple of friends in his boss (Frank Faylen) and a repentant Linda. With the odds heavily stacked against him, and time running short, Driscoll has no option but to scour the city at night in pursuit of the real murderer in the hopes of catching up with him before he skips the country.

Lots of movies tend to get tagged as gritty, and not all of them deserve it. 99 River Street is the real deal though – positively brimming with lowlife characters, sudden and brutal violence, and the stench of hard luck. Driscoll is marked as a loser right from the first scene, but just about every character we meet fits that description to a greater or lesser extent. The strongest examples of film noir introduced viewers to a gallery of misfits, chiselers, cheats, and saps. 99 River Street seems to have nothing else but such people, and director Phil Karlson positively revels in the sordid, seedy world these guys inhabit. The movie studiously avoids any sense of glamor, telling its tale against a backdrop of run down stores, dingy back rooms and waterfront bars. The decrepit city setting was a staple of many a noir picture, and Karlson uses it well to evoke a world of lost hopes and broken dreams. He also keeps the pace brisk and that helps add to the sense of urgency of Driscoll’s quest. Stylistically, the film only intermittently features what could be termed classic noir visuals in the first half – the “confession” by Linda in a deserted theater being one example – but cameraman Franz Planer does turn it on as the climax approaches. The final chase and fight along the dockside makes use of a selection of long, medium and close-up shots, and bathes them all in atmospheric, inky shadows. Karlson was doing some great work in the 50s, and a movie like 99 River Street genuinely celebrates the meanness and toughness of film noir at its best. It’s also interesting to note the way the movie plays around with the viewer’s perceptions of reality – the opening sequence that turns out to be a television recording, and the theater scene that tricks both the audience and the lead character.

John Payne is something of a forgotten man these days, probably due to the fact that most of his best work was done in B movies and programmers. Starting with The Crooked Way in 1949 though, he made a series of tough and entertaining noirs and westerns, frequently working for Karlson or Allan Dwan. He had a rough, lived-in look about him that made him believable in these movies, and 99 River Street drew on that weary, beaten appearance. Payne gave a very edgy performance, full of rage, frustration and a kind of bitter misogyny. He completely convinced as a man who knew himself for a sap, who allowed himself to be strung along by the wrong kind of women all his life, and despised himself and them for it. His sudden bursts of violence when provoked too far had a ring of authenticity to them – whenever he landed a punch you could tell he meant it to do the maximum damage. Of course, a hard character like this needs something or someone to balance them, to ground them and stop them sliding too far into macho aggression. Evelyn Keyes was nearing the end of her big screen career, having hit the heights in Gone with the Wind, and so had just the right kind of faded disillusionment for her role. Initially, she comes across as slightly skittish and flaky, but soon proves her worth when the chips are down. There’s a common misconception that the only interesting women in film noir are those who play the femme fatale. However, I’m of the opinion that the frequently unsung Girl-Friday parts are every bit as significant. Keyes’ role here is vital in eliciting sympathy for Payne – without her presence and loyalty, there’s a danger of his less attractive qualities running out of control. That’s not to say the femme fatale, Peggie Castle in this case, is unimportant here. However, her role is much more one-dimensional and consequently less interesting. The film features a particularly strong supporting line-up: Frank Faylen is very likeable as Payne’s stoic boss, and Brad Dexter does a nice line in smarm and self-interest. Rounding out the cast is Jay Adler as a vindictive fence and Jack Lambert as his strong-arm sidekick.

There are a few options as far as DVD editions of 99 River Street are concerned. The film has been released as a MOD disc in the US via MGM, and it’s also available on pressed disc in Spain from Art House/Paycom. I have the Spanish release, and the transfer is pretty good. There are some instances of softness here and there, but it’s clean and sharp for the most part. One criticism I do have is that I found the sound a little low at times – not very poor, but noticeable. The disc has no extra features and subtitles are not forced – they can be disabled from the setup menu. All in all, I think 99 River Street is a fine example of early 50s film noir, exhibiting a harder edge than the usual 40s variety. It also shows off Karlson’s ability to shoot lean, tight little movies economically. He’s a director who’s not really known outside of film buff circles and I think his stronger films, such as this one, deserve a bit more attention. It’s worth checking out.

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2013 in 1950s, Film Noir, Phil Karlson

 

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Gunman’s Walk

I guess one of the most typical features of the western genre, both implicitly and explicitly, is the way it places the whole concept of masculinity under the microscope. The rugged nature of the environment and living conditions in the old west meant that traditionally male qualities were highly regarded, as such it’s only to be expected that western movies should frequently analyse and comment upon these. Even the humblest programmers tackled this theme, although not always in the subtlest of ways. Phil Karlson’s Gunman’s Walk (1958) approached the issue head-on using the framework of a family drama, and also worked in some interesting and important comments on evolving race relations and changing perceptions of law and civilization on the frontier.

Lee Hackett (Van Heflin) is an old-time rancher of tough frontier stock, one of that hard breed that carved out a niche for themselves in a hostile environment. Like many people who have had their character forged by adversity, Lee can’t quite let go of the past. Times have changed, the world has moved on, and Lee has risen to become a respected man in his community, yet he still retains an affinity for the rough and tumble days of his youth. The two sons, Ed (Tab Hunter) and Davy (James Darren), who he’s brought up alone – he appears to be a widower – have learned to address him by his first name, a clear attempt by this man to hang onto the identity he possessed in earlier times. On the surface, Ed seems closest in character to his freewheeling father, while Davy is gentler and more considerate. The story naturally deals with the contrast between Ed and Davy, but the real thrust of it all is the relationship both brothers have with their hard-as-nails father. Lee is a man of rigid principles, his own principles mind, and very firm ideas about the way a man ought to behave, and thus how he should raise his boys. Lee’s whole philosophy is built around the idea of standing on one’s own feet and accepting favours from no man; early on he berates Ed for accepting the ranch foreman’s offer to rub down his horse. This kind of tough individualism is an almost constant feature of the western, and it’s an admirable enough trait as far as it goes. Yet, taken too far, this tends to result in a degree of alienation and social isolation, particularly as the advance of civilization gradually renders the notion less desirable. If Lee has trouble getting to grips with this, then the problem is multiplied tenfold when it comes to Ed. In his eagerness to emulate the past glories of his illustrious father, Ed has both absorbed these teachings and twisted them around in the process. The result is that courage, determination and independence of spirit have distorted themselves into bravado, violence and cruelty. In his quest to outstrip his father’s achievements Ed is driving himself beyond the bounds of acceptable behaviour. We get to see examples of his arrogance, insensitivity and casual racism from he beginning, and it’s not long before this unsavoury combination leads to the killing of a half-breed hireling. From this point on, the movie charts Ed’s inexorable moral descent as his father and brother look on, powerless to haul this increasingly uncontrollable young man back from the edge.

Phil Karlson spent the majority of his directing career overseeing B movies, and made a number of very classy crime and noir films throughout the 50s. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that he brought some of that dark moodiness and pessimism to Gunman’s Walk, thematically, if not visually – although there is a sequence in the jail towards the end that has a look straight out of the classic film noir handbook. The emphasis on these fractured family relationships has a relentlessly downbeat tone that sets the movie a little apart from the usual genre pieces. It’s been stated before that the classic westerns of the 50s were guided by the idea of redemption for the protagonists. It could be argued that this is achieved in some small measure by the end, but the traumatic nature of the developments leading up to this point suggest to me that it will be short-lived. The way I see it, the character of Lee is left so emotionally devastated by the end of the movie that he’s essentially finished and washed up as a man. The final image does indicate that progress has been achieved, but only by reaching closure and burying the past and those associated with an outmoded way of life. As such, this is very much a bittersweet triumph; the next generation (Davy and his half-Sioux sweetheart) setting off to face the future and the final nail hammered into the coffin of the closing frontier.

Understandably enough, this movie is dominated by two strong central performances, those of Van Heflin and Tab Hunter. Of the two, Van Heflin had the more complex role and probably did the better work. He had to convey a range of emotions throughout, and also maintain a level of control and discipline consistent with playing a man of such iron resolve as Lee Hackett. As I alluded to earlier, his was not an altogether sympathetic part – the ingrained racism of his character, and his belief that he’d earned the right to be above the laws and conventions of lesser men is a bit hard to swallow. However, by the time we get to the final scene, and are confronted with a man whose spirit has been comprehensively broken, it’s difficult not to feel for him. The fact that the viewer is able to regard Lee in this light, after he’s displayed such negative traits, says much about the skills and abilities of Van Heflin. Angry and confused young men were very much in vogue in Hollywood in the 50s, and Tab Hunter’s role slots neatly into that category. The cause of this rebel is to be as big a man as his father, to surpass him in every way he can. Hunter seemed to be having a good time with the excesses of his character and did well with the sudden mood swings and violent outbursts. In retrospect, some of the era’s representations of misunderstood youth can be toe curlingly self-conscious and quite painful to watch, but Hunter managed to avoid the inherent pitfalls and created a convincing portrait of a guy with a hair-trigger temper struggling to emerge from the massive shadow of his father. As the younger brother, James Darren isn’t bad, although the script doesn’t call on him to take an especially active part and he’s pushed into the background somewhat. Kathryn Grant was the only woman in the movie and she too is mostly sidelined by the conflict between father and son that’s at the heart of the story. She does get one good scene though, at the hearing into her brother’s death. She hits just the right note when she demonstrates her indignation at the travesty of justice by flinging Lee’s blood money on the courtroom floor, and the contempt in her voice is palpable as she speaks contemptuously of the pervading racist attitudes of all those around her. The supporting cast also features a notable turn from perennial western lowlife Ray Teal; his small role as a chiseling horse dealer with a strong line in unctuous treachery is pivotal to the development of the plot.

Unfortunately, the two current DVD editions of Gunman’s Walk are problematic. Sony first released the film in Spain and, although it’s not a bad transfer, the disc is a non-anamorphic letterboxed affair. Shortly afterwards, Sidonis in France put the title out with an improved anamorphic scope transfer. However, and this is a major black mark as far as I’m concerned, the disc forces Spanish subtitles on the English language track. The only way around that issue is to make a backup copy with the subtitles disabled. This is particularly irritating when you bear in mind that the presentation is satisfactory in every other respect. Anyway, the movie is a very strong addition to the long list of quality westerns that came out of the 50s. All of the themes it touches on have been addressed in other productions but this picture handles them in a measured and mature way. Furthermore, Phil Karlson’s tight direction, anchored by two fine performances, ensures that everything blends together seamlessly. It’s an enjoyable and thoughtful western that pays off with a powerful emotional punch. I strongly recommend that genre fans give it a go - I can’t see it disappointing anyone.

 
12 Comments

Posted by on April 27, 2012 in 1950s, Phil Karlson, Van Heflin, Westerns

 
 
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