Phil Karlson | Subjects | Visual Style

Films: The Texas Rangers | Mask of the Avenger | Scandal Sheet | Kansas City Confidential | 99 River Street | Tight Spot | 5 Against the House | The Phenix City Story | The Brothers Rico | Gunman's Walk | The Scarface Mob | Hell to Eternity | The Young Doctors

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Phil Karlson

Phil Karlson was a Hollywood film director.

Phil Karlson: Subjects

Society and Social Change: Persuasion and Talking: Characters: Relationships: People and "nature in the city": Imagery: Communication technology, shown operating on-screen: Cleaning: Technology, general:

Phil Karlson: Visual Style

Mirrors: Staging: Architecture: Paths and Corridors: Visual Style: Geometry: Groups of Characters: Camera Movement: Costumes and Color: Costumes:

The Texas Rangers

Cleaning Up Corrupt Communities: Links to The Phenix City Story

The Texas Rangers (1951) is a film in Phil Karlson's full personal traditions. It takes place in an era when Texas was completely dominated by vicious bandits; it deals with the attempt to organize the Texas Rangers, clean up the bandits, and restore law and order. In this, it resembles the later Phenix City Story (1955), which deals with the attempt to bring martial law to the similarly corrupt Southern city of the title.

The film opens with a documentary like look at all the famous Texas outlaws depicted in the film, around a half dozen. It shows each operating in a typical manner. This too recalls the semi-doc opening of The Phenix City Story, which gives a similar look at the corruption in town.

The outlaws of this tale are remarkably vicious and violent. Their monstrous use of force resembles that of the horrendous crooks in Karlson's 99 River Street (1953). The specialty of the crooks here is shooting unarmed men in the back. This is a violation of all the taboos of the Western, and it comes across as genuinely shocking. Although this film takes place in the old West, it has similar themes to some of Karlson's modern day noirs, focusing on crime, lawlessness, and attempts to clean up communities.

There are also scenes of public outrage here. The Phenix City Story closes with a mass meeting of the citizens, demanding that the governor send in troops and declare martial law. Here the mass meeting occurs in the beginning, with the citizens of Waco demanding the end of the outlaw gangs, and the return of law and order. Just as in The Phenix City Story, the film takes place in a small, geographically well circumscribed area: here the regions between Waco and Austin. We are even provided with a map at one point. Waco is the heart of the film. As in The Phenix City Story, it is a Southern town overwhelmed by violent hoods. There are also crusaders in both films: the female newspaper editor here. The crusaders in both films are non-violent, but extraordinarily gutsy in their public standing up to a reign of terror. As in the later film, the women show equal courage to the men, in standing up to the evil organizations.

Male-Male Family Ties

Equally personal in the film are the use of family elements. Karlson's heroes tend to be members of complex families. These families often resolve around male-male relationships, such as father-son or brother-brother. The two men can be on different sides of a political question. As in The Phenix City Story, the involvement of one man in a clean up campaign can gradually bring in another.

Here we see two brothers, both in the Texas Rangers. Even when the two men are brothers, we see a father-son like quality to the relationship, with the kid brother here both idolizing and defying his older brother. There is a similar naive young man who hero worships an older but rather corrupt father figure in Karlson's newspaper noir Scandal Sheet (1952).

A Woman in the Media

There is a woman with a public media profession in many of Karlson's films. Here Gale Storm plays a crusading newspaper owner. Similarly, Donna Reed is a reporter in Scandal Sheet, and we recall the aspiring Broadway actress in 99 River Street. The tone keeps darkening in these three films. Here both Storm and her paper are wholly good. Donna Reed is a similar moral compass, one who guides the hero to truth, but her paper is a moral disaster area, corrupt and sleazy. Finally, in 99 River Street, both the actress and her Broadway playwright friends are full of moral corruption and dubious ideals.

This film features Gail Storm as the owner of a small town newspaper she recently inherited on the death of her father. This set-up is similar to that in Cy Endfield's The Underworld Story (1950). Gail Storm's performance is very different in both movies, however. She plays a good woman in both films, but very restrained in Underworld, very fiery in Rangers.

The Hero: A Bad Guy who Reforms

The hero in this film has the moral ambiguity that often afflicts Karlson's heroes. He is an outlaw taken out of prison to become a Texas Ranger. Throughout the film, his allegiance between the two worlds wavers. Such crooks turned cops are unthinkable in modern day crime fiction, but they were fairly common in the pioneering 19th Century detective novels of Émile Gaboriau. Gaboriau published in the 1860's and 1870's, precisely the era of this film. There is a definite similarity between his Parisian detectives and the Texas Rangers of this film, despite the geographical differences. It is the outlaws in Texas who have nicknames, not the Rangers however, unlike Gaboriau's detectives, all of whom have a moniker.

Costumes: Working Class Tough Guys in Leather

Karlson sticks to his approach to his heroes' clothes. Both the hero and the villain are in leather: leather chaps for the hero, a leather coat for the villain. This recalls the hero's leather taxi cab jacket uniform in 99 River Street. Karlson did not adhere to the standard suit outfits worn by most noir heroes of his day. The extreme toughness of his characters' appearance symbolizes their likelihood to take part in fights. Also, their working class origin. The hero also wears leather gloves and cowboy boots. The costumes for this film were designed by Jean Louis, no less, and are unusually fancy for a Western.


The hero's clothes are a wide variety of colors, a symphony of earth tones.

The colors in the film are striking. Many of the buildings are some shade of pink to pinkish purple, both the interiors and exteriors. This makes them really stand out in the compositions. There is also an occasional use of bright green, in the heroine's dress, or in a table cloth.

Western Actors

The performers in this film have a paradoxical status in film history. The lead is George Montgomery; his kid brother is Jerome Courtland, and the villain Sam Bass is played by William Bishop. All three of these handsome leading man types men made oodles of films in the 1950's and adjacent decades, and were very well known to the public. Yet all three managed to avoid working with auteur directors, the sort of directors now celebrated in film history. This film is nearly their only encounter with any of the directors celebrated in Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema (1968), for instance. How is this possible?

For one thing, the three men stuck largely to Westerns, and an occasional war movie. Huge numbers of these were Westerns created in the 50's, often by filmmakers who are forgotten today. These Westerns constitute almost a parallel universe of film history, one made up of men who only rarely intersect the standard film histories.

For another, all three of these actors rarely played in film noir, although they passed through the film noir era. George Montgomery's main noir appearance is as private eye Philip Marlowe, no less, in John Brahm's The Brasher Doubloon (1947), an adaptation of Raymond Chandler's The High Window (1942).

This film is much better known today than most of Montgomery's Westerns. My parents remembered George Montgomery for his furniture polish commercials in the 1960's; after they mentioned them, I did too. The commercials showed Montgomery beaming with pride at various beautiful pieces of furniture he'd shined up. There is a quality of pleasure and enthusiasm to Montgomery. He seems like a person with gusto.

Karlson and Anthony Mann

The Texas Rangers often recalls Anthony Mann's T-Men (1947). Just as in that film, we see the hero and his sidekick recruited by a crime fighting organization at the start, and brought into new roles. Both films show the hero going undercover into a sinister gang of crooks, and in both films the hero sees his partner murdered before his eyes by the gang, while he is undercover and helpless to do anything about it. While taking place out West, The Texas Rangers is mainly a crime film, and can be considered in the Mann traditions of film noir. The monstrous character of the villains, here and elsewhere in Karlson's work, also recalls the horrifying villains in T-Men.

The article on Mann points out how close the villain in Karlson's 99 River Street (1953) is to the murderer in Mann's Side Street (1950). In general, one suspects that Mann was a big influence on Karlson's work.

Depth Staging: Shooting against hills & Elevated Angles

The archetypal image in The Texas Rangers shows a character in the close foreground, while an in-focus background shows a wide sweep of landscape behind. The landscape tends to be meaningful: some sort of action will occur there. Karlson uses several techniques to get this background. Often, he stages his characters high on a hill in the foreground, looking down on a flat landscape at an angle. This allows him to shoot the characters with a vast landscape spread out behind and below them. There are variants on this approach. He also finds scenes where the foreground is a level plain, but in which some object rises up in the far background: a set of hills, or a train. This too allows him to have his characters posed against a meaningful backdrop. A level, non-angled shot will show a character in the foreground, with the hills or the train in the rear. A third approach: a low angle shot of a hero, with trees behind him. Karlson does not seem to want open sky behind his characters. Rather he wants trees to make a beautiful visual pattern far behind them.

In general, Karlson's heroes tend to be quite close up in the foreground of the shots. There is an intimate feel to them. The viewer feels they are experiencing them at first hand. The feeling is quite pleasant and warm.

All of the above shots are ubiquitous in the film. But Karlson also stages some scenes with complex action going on in both foreground and background. One classic shot shows the Sundance Kid standing by some rocks. Sundance drops down, and the camera follows him. He is framed within a gap in the rocks. Then, far distant behind him, we also see the entrance of the hero. He too appears in the gap in the rocks. The hero is full figure, but he is so far back he looks like a little toy human, a doll or a shrunken person. The hero gradually shifts around, and gets the drop on the villainous Sundance. It is a classic one take, depth staging sequence.

Another depth shot occurs in Belton. The villainous gang is in a hotel room. They look out of their second story window, and see a gold shipment arriving at the bank across the street. We can see the operations of the gold unloading in detail. It is quite a remarkable shot.

Another depth shot shows the bad guy on the train, sneaking up behind the hero over a railroad car full of firewood.

Color film is supposed to be harder for depth photography than black and white. The depth staging in this film would do credit for a black and white film noir. Here it is all done in color. One does not know if some of these shots use process photography, especially the bank and hotel room scenes.

Camera Movement

There are plenty of pans in the film. They are usually done fairly rapidly, and seem designed to reveal new perspectives to the viewer.

There is a memorable track in on the hero, during his confrontation in the bar with Sam Bass. Bass keeps advancing on him, and the camera tracks in closer and closer on Montgomery. This is partly a Point of View shot, showing Bass seeing Montgomery more and more close up, and partly a way of making Montgomery seem bigger and bigger, and more and more intimately close with the camera.

Mask of the Avenger

Mask of the Avenger (1951) is a swashbuckler. It is dull and one of Phil Karlson's lesser films.


Many Phil Karlson films have a hero who is gifted at persuading others. A persuasive hero is also central to Mask of the Avenger. However, his ability to persuade is not something located in his mind and voice, as is typical of Karlson. Instead, it comes from the hero taking on the clothes and trappings of the town's dead leader, including the man's revered sword.

Only at the film's very end, does the hero use his own vocal and reasoning skills to persuade the townspeople, without using his props. One wishes he had done this from the start.

The villain also is good at persuading the townspeople. To do this, the villain lies about his goals. The townspeople like his alleged goals, and support him. They do not realize that the villain is actually doing the opposite of what he says he is attempting.

The hero talks with a strange accent, while masked, to disguise his identity. Karlson films often use strange ways of talking, often as comedy relief.

Both hero and villain talk to the people from a height, a staging that runs through Karlson films.

The townspeople's mass meetings somewhat resemble the mass public assemblies in other Karlson films. However, the meetings in Mask of the Avenger are less directed towards clear political goals.

A Militarized World - and Zorro

Karlson films often take place in a militarized world. Mask of the Avenger is an example: both the hero and villain are military officers, the town is run by a Military Governor, uniforms are everywhere, and the basic story situation involves a military conflict.

In many ways, Mask of the Avenger resembles Zorro. We have:

However, there are differences. Mask of the Avenger has a background situation of armed military conflict, absent from Zorro. The good guys support Italian independence, the bad guys want Italy to be occupied by Austrian troops. The hero's goals are military. While he is trying to free the town from the villain, this seems subsidiary to his military goals in supporting Italian troops.

I found the military goals in Mask of the Avenger unappealing. Zorro is an admirable story of resistance against dictators. Mask of the Avenger wants us to support a military action. This drains Mask of the Avenger of the richer meanings of the Zorro story.

The hero is one of several Karlson good guys who clean up a dictatorial regime.

Nothing To Do With Dumas

The hero's father is referred to as the Count of Monte Cristo. The Count is the subject of a famous, much-filmed novel by Alexandre Dumas. As best I can tell however, the plot of Mask of the Avenger has nothing to do with Dumas' novel. It is thus an odd thing for the film to include.

Commenters on the IMDB seem to believe that Mask of the Avenger is an adaptation of a Dumas novel. As best I can tell, this is just not true. Mask of the Avenger references one of Dumas' characters, period.

Lies About Treason - and Joe McCarthy?

Framing innocent people is a plot event that runs through several Karlson films. Often times, the framed person is a modern-day working class man: Bowery Bombshell, Kansas City Confidential, 99 River Street.

The villain in Mask of the Avenger is constantly framing townspeople for treason. He claims to produce letters written by the people showing their treasonous activities. He then has the framed people arrested or killed. Unlike other Karlson films, the framed townspeople in Mask of the Avenger come from a variety of social classes.

In Mask of the Avenger, this framing is possibly a reference to the career of Senator Joe McCarthy. McCarthy became famous in February 1950, with his claims of Communist traitors in the US State Department. These claims are now widely seen as mainly false. Mask of the Avenger was released in June 1951.

The townspeople in Mask of the Avenger believe the villain's false claims, and attack the hero, believing him a traitor. This is perhaps an allegory about how many American's believed McCarthy's charges.

These scenes might also refer to dictators who lie. Stalin's infamous "show trials" and many subsequent Red Bloc trials put dissidents and enemies on trial on false charges of treason.

Mask of the Avenger is an obscure film. I have never seen any discussion of its possible political meanings. It seems to be rarely mentioned by either political writers or film historians.


Mask of the Avenger has a feisty heroine, who publicly defies the villain. She can be seen as a role model.

SPOILER. The final sword battle has a startling, effective episode, that I have never seen in any other film. It stands out as the most creative, original moment in Mask of the Avenger.


The hero wears large leather boots. So does the villain's aide. These are perhaps an example of the leather clothes in Karlson films.

The villain's aide Colardi (Arnold Moss) gets big boots as part of his uniform. This is a traditional Lancer's uniform, and probably the best-looking of the numerous uniforms that run through Mask of the Avenger. It is a conventional leading man look, and somewhat unexpected on a villain. It features a combination of blue, red, and yellow/gold: the three primary colors, also a standard design tradition.

Scandal Sheet

Scandal Sheet (1952) is a film noir thriller set at a sensation grabbing tabloid-style newspaper. It is based on the novel The Dark Page (1944) by Samuel Fuller, himself a major filmmaker.

Phil Karlson's films tend to be very precisely set. Scandal Sheet is filled with New York City atmosphere, even if much of it is provided by back projection of stock footage. In The Texas Rangers, we are even shown maps so we know where the characters are at all times.

Crowd Scenes: Depth Staging

One of the opening shots is among the most complex in the movie. It shows a lower East Side tenement from above. We see no less than four separate fire escapes, each from a different angle, with people on them. Deep focus reveals an alleyway between two buildings, and a car below. Both the deep focus and the complex geometry of the shot make it a kind that is archetypal in film noir. Robert Aldrich will create even more complex shots of this type in Kiss Me Deadly (1955). The geometry of the fire escapes is beautiful. It is a complex polygonal arrangement in 3D. Some of the fire escapes are filmed so that they extend perpendicularly to the plane of the camera; others are closer to being parallel, while others jut at angles. The shot then pans down to a slightly lower angle, then to the left to show a new building, then up its exterior wooden staircases, all crowded with people.

Crowd Scenes: Characters Moving Though Crowds

This is the first of many shots in Scandal Sheet which show crowds. These scenes include the newsroom, the coffee shop, various murder scenes and the ball. In many of these, the protagonists are working their way through huge groups of people that are crowding them on all sides. The leads have to work against the rest of the crowd, who are often either moving or looking in a different direction. Scenes in Karlson often have a hero facing up to a group of people. They are in deep opposition to him, ranging anywhere from mere hostility or disagreement, to actually threatening his life. The shot where Chapman's wife works her way through the crowd is a key example here. The camera travels with her at a slightly overhead angle, emphasizing her difficulty getting through the crowd, and her determination to do so.

The newsroom is the core set and location of the movie. It is the home base of all the major characters. The set can be viewed from any direction; it has four walls and extends a full 360 degrees. Karlson shoots the set from any angle. Individual scenes often shoot from one angle, but collectively, we see the set from all directions. Karlson frequently employs pans and tracks, following his characters as they move through the crowds in the newsroom.

The Hero: A Bad Guy who Reforms

Karlson protagonists often change their minds through the course of the film. The young newspaperman here starts out as a jerk, being an exploitative tabloid reporter, and gradually reforms. A similar reformation process affects the outlaw hero of The Texas Rangers. Both heroes fall into the categories of charming scoundrels. They often rely on this charm to get them out of trouble. But eventually they discover that this does not always work.


Karlson's hero is in a suit and hat throughout, as is de rigueur for both movie reporters and noir heroes.

Karlson has not abandoned his enthusiasm for leather outfits: his police are prominently featured in black leather cop uniforms, guarding crime scenes. These are honest cops, like other policemen in black uniforms in Karlson.

Kansas City Confidential

Hard-luck Heroes in Kansas City Confidential and 99 River Street

Kansas City Confidential (1952) stars John Payne; Phil Karlson would also star Payne next year in 99 River Street (1953). Both of these are very tough examples of film noir. In both, Payne plays a working class diver of a vehicle (delivery van, taxi) who is framed for a serious crime he did not commit; in both he is hounded by both police and bad guys, and has to track down the crooks himself and prove his innocence. In both films, he plays a man who is something of a loser, a man with a once promising career whose violent acts and poor judgment have reduced him to his present meager existence. In both, the tough situation in which the hero is innocently enmeshed just keeps getting worse and worse. In fact, it seems hard to believe that either film will ever arrive at a happy ending, considering all of the hero's terrible problems. It takes especially clever screen writing in the finale of Kansas City Confidential to tie up all the plot threads, and give the hero a happy life.

The idea of a working class man who keeps getting into hard luck situations was a pulp magazine specialty. One especially recalls John K. Butler's taxi driver sleuth Steve Midnight, who always had similar hard luck in a series of prose mystery tales for Dime Detective.

Even in the Fox musicals in which he appeared in the 1940's, John Payne was always something of a sourball. He often played surly, sulking heel-heroes, who did not treat the heroine right. His leading men here are much darker than those of previous Karlson films, such as The Texas Rangers (1951) and Scandal Sheet (1952). Even though he played a desperado in The Texas Rangers, George Montgomery came across as a charming nice guy, a man who was enthusiastic and kind to children. I'm not sure if I like the darkening of Karlson's tone here. Both Kansas City Confidential and 99 River Street are less fun to watch than earlier Karlson films. However, both have their merits, as well.


Phil Karlson emphasis on persuasion persists here. First criminal master mind Mr. Big pushes a series of crooks into helping him out with a bank robbery. Then a comedy relief saleslady at a hotel talks men into buying expensive gifts. Finally, the hero talks his way undercover into the gang of crooks.

Confidential? What does this title mean?

Kansas City Confidential is a strange name for a movie. There were a whole series of best selling non-fiction books, such as New York Confidential, that revealed the inside story of mob life and corruption in those cities. The title Kansas City Confidential is in the same format. However, the film is only tangentially related to organized crime, being about a bank robbery instead, and tells us nothing about Kansas City itself, let alone anything confidential. Although the robbery takes place in Kansas City, most of the exteriors look as if they were shot either on a movie back lot, or on the streets of Los Angeles. We see the familiar criss cross gridded tanks that show up in so many LA set crime films of the era, for instance.

The Bad Guys - and their Close-Ups

The three robbers are played by Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand. Elam is today so associated with Westerns that he is hard to recognize in his suit, running through the frames of a film noir.

All three of the robbers emote intensely throughout the film. Karlson often shoots them in medium close up. One can see every inch of intense emotion, frenzied expressions and overwhelming expressions of agony and malice, in these huge close ups. As if this were not enough, make-up men have also doused these actors with sweat in some scenes, so that every hair and part of their face is brimming with exertion. I have no idea why Karlson instructed these three men to act with such over the top drama. Both Elam and Van Cleef, especially, are noted character actors, and really pull out all of the stops here. It is very different from Elam's trademark humor in his Westerns, for instance. I'm not sure the effect is altogether pleasant: it can be frighteningly intense. It does however give much of this film a unique feel. The close ups are striking, and can be fascinating to watch. Karlson often shoots these close ups on an angle; this allows him to build interesting compositions out of these close images. A line from a seat or a path will also run through the background of the image, adding to the composition, and balancing the figure's face.

Noir Imagery: Clocks, Staircases, Mirrors

The film contains such film noir features as mirror and clock shots. There are a number of shots of the clock above the bank, at just before 10 AM. Ten is when the bank opens and the robbery will begin; these are in the film noir tradition of people watching a clock intensely, waiting for some dramatic event to occur.

The docks include a three part stairway leading down to the boats. This continues film noir's fascination with staircases. However, it is a bit unusual to see one outside.

When Mr. Big first brings Jack Elam to his hotel suite, we see Mr. Big in one room, while a mirror reveals a deep focus image of another room. At the far end of the other room Elam comes in through the suite's door. This is a classic noir image, with the mirror frame, the frame of the door connecting the rooms, and the door of the suite all concentrically framing Elam's tall narrow figure. Meanwhile, Mr. Big puts on his mask in the foreground. This is the first time we have seen the mask; it is a very surrealistic image. Soon we will see Elam in a double breasted 1940's suit, confronted by a masked Mr. Big, wearing his own very elaborate double-breasted suit. The combination of suits and criminality is a typical Karlson image: he often associated suits with criminals. The meeting is the most dressed up either character has been so far in the movie; both before and after, they are likely to have their suit coats unfastened. Later, in jail, the falsely accused hero will be surrounded by irresponsible cops all wearing suits, determined to pin the crime on him.

Architecture in the Bank Robbery Sequence

Karlson's style is often geometric. He will find a simple, emphatic geometric pattern in the architecture of the characters' environment, and use it as the center of his compositions. This geometric, architectural approach is also found in the films of Fritz Lang.

Architecture is especially prominent in the early bank robbery sequence.

The bank building is in the turn of the century Art Nouveau mode, with elaborate carved grill work over an elaborate set of doors. Such a Nouveau style was considered appropriate for banks; the great architect Louis Sullivan designed many such Art Nouveau banks in the Middle West in the first part of the century. Down the street from the bank is an Art Deco building, beautiful, and in a completely contrasting style of architecture. This building has Moderne Deco features such as a circular porthole style window, other windows which are made of repeating subunits and which wrap around corners, and streamlined horizontal flanges and recessed bands. Much of the bank robbery takes place against these two buildings. Their beautiful architecture forms the visual basis for many compositions during the robbery.

The Art Deco building is mainly visible in a series of shots that show it and its corner from an angle. At one key moment of the getaway, the villains' van backs out from the curb. The van pauses, pointing directly towards the camera, perpendicular to the plane of the shot. The whole Deco building rises above it, in the background. It is a strikingly composed image.

At the end of the robbery, the robbers close the door of the getaway van. The shiny closed doors reflect in clear detail the whole Art Deco building. It is a kind of mirror shot. The cinematographer must have made a special effort to capture this architectural reflection. It is an example of the compositional bravura that often is featured in noir films. The reflection is slightly curved, due to the curvature of the van doors.

The Dissolve after the Robbery

After the robbery, Karlson dissolves to the police radio dispatch unit, reporting the crime. This dissolve is carefully composed. Like the dissolves in the films of Sternberg and Orson Welles, both images that are superimposed are carefully constructed so that when they overlap, they form a well composed image. The bank image shows people along the lower part of the frame, which the bank facade rises above them, filling most of the image. The police officer at his machine is in the upper part of the image. The vertical left hand band of the bank facade exactly frames the officer's image. Parts of his machine are on the right side of the screen, also framed by vertical bands of the bank. The bank clock, however, is not superimposed by anything in the police image; it shines out broad and clear in the center of the dissolve, its last appearance in the movie. The uniformed, spit and polish officer looks completely in charge, his large commanding image floating over the smaller figures in front of the bank below. His calm demeanor contrasts with their panic and agitation.

Masks and Surrealism

The robbers in Kansas City Confidential are all masked, so they will not be able to identify each other later. It is a much imitated gimmick in later "big caper" films. The masks are unusual. They form fit over the upper part of the face, revealing the contours of the person's nose. This helps the audience recognize the characters, even with their masks on. We see a person's eyes, hair and facial shape; it is enough to recognize Jack Elam or Neville Brand. But it surrealistically transforms the person, as well.

One striking shot shows Elam and Brand masked. In addition to the masks themselves, the shot is full of other geometric material: the men wear uniform caps with curved visors, and the truck background is full of circles and round knobs, almost like the interior of a spaceship. It is like being transported to a purely geometrical world, a world in which everything, faces, clothes, truck, are made of geometrical forms. It is one of Karlson's most surrealistic moments. Karlson had favored surrealism elsewhere, such as the strange dialogue of the designer and the butler in Ladies of the Chorus. These moments tend to transform daily life into something utterly strange.

Karlson liked to get his male heroes into uniforms. The military style caps, masks and coveralls do this with a total effectiveness. The men are all dressed completely alike. Uniforms and masks are both typical film noir images.

Motion in Composition

Karlson often sets up his compositions so that one person is moving around in them. When John Payne is being interrogated in jail, he is seated under a glaring light, and motionless cops are standing all around him. The composition is very elaborate, with cops in every part of the frame. They all make a complex visual pattern. One cop is conducting the interrogation. He regularly moves from place to place, in a carefully choreographed series of moves. First he will be standing still in one spot. Then he will move to another spot, and stand still there too. Then he will move on to a third location. Karlson has clearly picked out each spot. All of the spots make a graceful composition with the cop standing there. Karlson has clearly blocked all this out, then had his actors rehearse it, so they can find their exact positions and cues.

It is a form of staging he has used several times in the movie. During the bank robbery, a guard is first in the background, amongst many other people from the bank. Then he moves to the foreground, takes up a dramatic pose, and starts firing at the getaway car. Both the original composition, and its final form with the guard in a complex geometric position while firing, have been carefully composed by Karlson.

Similarly, when the police are flagging down Payne's van after the robbery, the relative positions of the main cop within the frame have all been worked out. This shot also employs interesting buildings as an architectural background. Once again, one of these buildings is in Art Deco mode, with windows that wrap around corners again.

99 River Street

99 River Street (1953) is a thriller.

The Theater

99 River Street contains what must be one of the most de-glamorized, deliberately unappealing looks at the Broadway theater, in a traditional Hollywood film. This is consistent with the negative view Phil Karlson takes of other institutions oft-promoted by Hollywood, such as the South in The Phenix City Story.

Women do not have the prominent position in Phil Karlson's version of Broadway, that they often have in other Hollywood movies. We see around six well-dressed men running the theater. The only woman in sight is a hard-working stenographer. The dialogue makes clear she is taking dictation under difficult circumstances. Karlson's version of the theater is a "wealthy white male enterprise", much like a 1950's corporation.

These men also really look down on working class men, as the film makes painfully clear.

Economic and Politics

99 River Street has a working class hero, one who is mistreated throughout by more well-to-do middle class men in suits. It shows his rage against this, as he is repeatedly stripped of his dignity.

In part, I think this is impressive. But there are also complications.

There are ambiguities about the hero's problems. Is he upset because he is not a big shot, such as a star boxer? Or because of being mistreated as a working class man? We can't all be big shots. But we all deserve a dignified life with a steady income. The film seems to be mixing up two different kinds of problems.

The hero's wife is furious that he is not making more money. Occasionally, the film itself seems to be backing her up. For example, the small size and dingy appearance of the couple's apartment is stressed in the early scenes. It looks grim.

But today, many unemployed people would love to have the hero's steady job, paycheck, home and plenty of food on the table.

This gap affects other art works too. Mystery stories of the 1950's are full of women who are upset that their husbands aren't making much money. Today, the mere fact that many 1950's men had steady jobs seems impressive. The horrendous suffering caused by unemployment was not something the hero of 99 River Street has to face.


The dispatcher tells the hero, how he can talk his wife into their having a child. This is an example of a Karlson character being good at persuasion. Unlike many such Karlson movies, it is not the hero, but rather his friend, who is good at persuasion.

Similarly, the actress persuades the hero to come along to the theater.


The overhead fixture at the boxing ring has many circular lamps. Karlson often angles the camera, so that these circles are in the background of the shot.

Links to Semi-Documentaries

99 River Street is not a full semi-documentary crime film: its lead is not a cop or government agent. But it does share one characteristic of the semi-documentaries: its finale takes place in an industrial area, here a docks. As in the semi-documentaries, this area is exploited to the max to make a photogenic background for the action.

Also like semi-documentaries, 99 River Street shows high technology at work: here the radio used by the cab dispatcher. Unlike most semi-documentaries, in 99 River Street this technology is not used by the police, but is in private hands. The taxi drivers use their radio to do real detective work, ingeniously tracking down the location of the bad guys and where they are going. Detective work using technology is done by the police in other semi-documentaries; in 99 River Street it is performed by the taxi drivers.

Earlier we saw television. We don't get an inside look at how TV works, though.

The title 99 River Street is in the tradition of street name titles used in some semi-documentaries.

The Finale: Outdoor Staircases

The finale contains some of Karlson's beloved outdoor staircases: The Art Deco porthole windows on the saloon at the end, recall the Deco building in Kansas City Confidential.

Camera Movement

After the murder, the hero returns to the cab office. A camera movement follows him out of the radio room; then later, the camera follows him back into the room. These camera movements first follow a path, then the reverse of that path.

There is a pan at the cafe, showing much of its interior.

Costumes and Detection

The villain wears an expensive suit, like bad guys that run through Karlson's films. His suit is part of the detective plot: the hero uses it as part of the description he gives to the villain's landlady. This helps the hero track the villain down.

Tight Spot

Stage to Screen

Tight Spot (1955) is a crime thriller, and an adaptation of a stage play.

Lenard Kantor's play Dead Pigeon (1953) starred Joan Lorring, Lloyd Bridges and James Gregory, during its very short Broadway run. (They presumably played the roles taken by Ginger Rogers, Brian Keith and Edward G. Robinson in the film.) I know nothing about how close it is to this movie adaptation.

Tight Spot shows certain conventions of the American theater. The dialogue is often rhetorical and heightened. Many of the lines seem designed to be Vivid, and Verbally Creative, in a manner recalling Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Similarly, Ginger Rogers often tries to give extra punch to her lines, in a theatrical style performance. She is a bit over the top, but one also has to admit that she creates a memorable character. As in Kansas City Confidential, Karlson favors a style of performance that can seem like over acting, but which has certain merits, as well.

The Heroine: A Bad Gal who Reforms

Tight Spot has much in common thematically with other Phil Karlson works. It resembles Karlson's Western The Texas Rangers (1951), in that both films center on a convict who is let out of prison on the proviso that he or she will cooperate with the police. In both films the convict is originally deeply skeptical about doing this. But in both cases, the convict gradually changes their mind throughout the course of the film, and for similar reasons. There are extenuating circumstances which led to both protagonists being sent to jail in the first place, but both have become deeply hardened over the course of their prison experiences. In both films, the protagonist and his new police allies go up against a monstrous set of villains; in both films, the convict and the police are often surrounded by these villains, and under deep physical danger from them. Tight Spot is in many ways a version of The Texas Rangers, but one set in modern times, staged as a film noir, and with a gender reversal: the convict in Tight Spot is a woman (played by Ginger Rogers).

On the lighter side, Karlson clearly enjoys the idea of his hero and heroine being cooped up in a hotel room together. The flirting that ensues recalls the middle section in the apartment in Hell to Eternity. The square guy hero and racy heroine are also Karlson types.

Cleaning Up Corrupt Communities

Tight Spot also anticipates The Phenix City Story (1955). Both are set in cities dominated by sinister, nearly untouchable organized crime figures. Both unleash a murderous reign of terror against the few people who dare to oppose them. The citizens of Waco in The Texas Rangers are also under siege by a reign of criminals.

There are also some plot similarities with Joseph H. Lewis' The Big Combo (1955) of the same year. Both involve attempts by the police to gain evidence against major mobsters; both involve molls as witnesses; in both, mysterious events on a yacht play a role in the mobster's backstory, which is investigated by the police in the film. It is hard to tell if either movie influenced the other.

Ultra-Modern Pads

The mobster's ultra-modern, luxury apartment in Tight Spot is in the same general style as the hero's bachelor pad in Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955). One suspects that such pads, full of electronic equipment, were something fairly new in interior design in this era. Both the mobster here, and Aldrich's sleazy "hero", are both deeply corrupt figures, and their self-indulgent, sleekly modern apartments convey this.

Depth Staging: How Karlson Shoots Corridors

Tight Spot often employs the depth staging Karlson favors. He likes to shoot down long corridors of the hotel. The sets are built so that one can see from one room into the next. A memorable shot shows the long corridor outside the hotel suite, through the open door of the suite's living room.

There are also two memorable long take moving camera shots down the hotel corridor. One shows the first arrival, walking from the elevator to the hotel room. The other has Robinson leaving the hotel room for the elevator, followed by Brian Keith returning back down the corridor to the room.

For outdoor corridors, roads and tunnels of all sorts, Karlson has a preferred method of evoking perspective. He likes to shoot one side of the corridor, often the right side, almost straight on. The viewer can just get the faintest view of this side of the corridor and its walls, just enough to make clear to the viewer what is there. Otherwise, this right side is almost directly perpendicular to the frame of the shot, sticking in a straight line directly towards the viewer. By contrast, the left hand side is stretched out in a pronounced perspective shot. Its elaborate reach across the screen makes a rich, large scale geometric pattern. Karlson does this again and again with:

Each use this common approach to the left and right sides of the shot. However, the compositions are quite different in each case, because of the different geometric effects produced by the varying figures on the left wall of the corridor.

Mirrors: Film noir imagery

A mirror in the hotel suite is used to create the complex shots beloved by film noir.

Outdoor Staircases: Film noir imagery

The opening murder is on the outdoor steps of a building. It has an unusual architecture, with a narrow staircase region set off by a pair of railings. This is typical of the interest in unusual staircases in film noir. A highway ramp near the start, used by the hero to evade pursuit, is also an unusual sort of "staircase". Both of these staircases are outdoor constructions, like the dock staircases in Kansas City Confidential. We also see the ramps that lead into the service entrance of the hotel.

The second shot of the steps is on a slightly oblique angle. It causes a slight perspective recession of the steps across the screen from left to right. This is common in Karlson's exteriors. The store windows where Rogers later sees the dress are also in this slightly oblique perspective.

Wall Shots

Several shots are "wall shots": shots of flat surfaces that are rich in patterns. These include the brick walls outside the warden's office. Parts of these walls also have complex lighting effects superimposed on them. These lights are regularly repeated, just like the bricks, making an intricate but regular geometric pattern.

Another memorable shot in this mode: the early scene in the hotel room when Ginger Rogers looks down out the window. We see elaborately patterned drapes, combined with a peaked chair with strong vertical stripes. In the middle is the window, showing skyscraper buildings with rectangular grids of lighted windows at night. This image is rich in various kinds of visual patterns. It is like a two-dimensional still life, arranging different kinds of patterned regions into a complex visual design. Rogers dangles her small purse from the peak of the striped chair, further calling attention to this peak as a geometric feature.

A third "wall shot": the shower sequence, featuring elaborate grids on the shower curtain.

Rectangular Region Shots

Karlson builds several shots out of rectangular regions on the screen. When we first see Ginger Rogers on the bed in the hotel room, the pictures on the wall, pillows, the bed, an open suitcase, all form rectangular regions. Karlson builds a pleasing design out of all of these.

Similarly, the shop windows outdoors are made up of interestingly nested squares and rectangles, many of which repeat along the street.

There is nothing especially avant-garde about such compositions - they are a staple of traditional film - yet Karlson does them nicely. He has a pleasing sense of geometric balance and overall design in such shots. Karlson sometimes employs other standard features of such shots, in terms of people placement: people will be in angles of walls, along vertical lines separating two sections of rooms, have their heads surrounded by picture frames or their bodies by bookcases. This is all like Traditional Staging 101, yet Karlson at least does it gracefully.

When Rogers learns that her old friend Torrelli is dead, Karlson suddenly empties the screen behind her of all rectangular regions and detail. Instead, she is suddenly in front of a blank, pure wall. This reminds one of the way the music dies in Hell to Eternity, after the battle scene while the camera surveys the dead.

Curves on top of the composition

Karlson likes shots involving "multiple complex curves in the upper regions of the screen". Several occur at key moments in the film:

Posture: Men Stretched Out

Brian Keith lounges against the top of a couch in one scene. Karlson keeps showing his body in various elaborate postures on top of the couch. Similarly, the men in Hell to Eternity are in a wide variety of prone positions on the ground throughout much of the final third of that film. In both films, Karlson tends to show their bodies in full figure.

A Strange Comedy Relief Figure: Cowboy Costumes - and Persuasion

Tight Spot has costumes by Jean Louis. Louis also created many spectacular cowboy outfits for The Texas Rangers. Tight Spot also has a character in cowboy clothes: the singer who stars in a telethon watched intermittently by the heroes on TV. This singer, Mississippi Mac, is an enthusiastic spoof of Country and Western singers, and done to a fare thee well by Doye O'Dell, a popular singer and local Los Angeles TV host of the era. He looks terrific in his cowboy costume, which is once a humorous exaggeration of cowboy clothes, and a glamorous costume in its own right. He reminds one of George Montgomery in The Texas Rangers, both being handsome leading men who look great in their cowboy costumes. The earlier film was in color, but the new film is in black and white. Louis cannot use a rage of colors to set off the various parts of the cowboy gear, as he did in The Texas Rangers. Instead, he makes each region of the cowboy clothes use a different pattern of shading, ranging from solids to subtle checks. This serves a similar function.

The singer here figures as a brief bit of comedy relief in an otherwise serious film, like the designer in Ladies of the Chorus. Both men are bizarre and strange, but highly welcome in their films. This satire on TV also recalls the satire on journalism in Scandal Sheet (1952).

Like the hero of Scandal Sheet, Mississippi Mac is one of Karlson's glib, charming young men who is a master of persuasion. Here this persuasion is applied to a good purpose, raising money for charity. There is still satire here: Mississippi Mac is oily and obviously fake in his charm, which is never the less real. The phrase he uses, wanting "to creep into your heart", oddly recalls the calypso singer in Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie (1943).

The Clock

Mississippi Mac appears against a large clock, and figures announcing how much money he has raised on his telethon. These recall the huge dial showing the rising circulation in Scandal Sheet and the bank clock in Kansas City Confidential.

Corrupt Men in Suits

The other male characters in Tight Spot all wear suits. As in other Karlson films, the suits suggest that these men are less than wholly admirable human beings. Many turn out to have hidden flaws.

As in 99 River Street, the suits in Tight Spot are the new solid colored, single-breasted 1950's style suits. These came after the pinstriped, double-breasted suits of the 1940's that were beloved by film noir. These new suits are much less sharp than the old ones. They are far more low key, and less heightened. In fact, they seem downright dull. In real life, they were often linked to the blandly corporate Organization Men of the 1950's. Karlson brings out this sinister quality in the suits, having them worn by men who are full of moral compromises and attachments to dubious institutions. The only man in pinstripes here is the witness Pete Torrelli, in the opening of the film. And his pinstripe conveys the fact that he is a two-bit out of date character of the old school.

Unlike other Karlson films, there are few shots of police in uniforms, or anyone in leather clothes. Most of the police detectives here are in suits. This is perhaps because all the policemen here are slightly corrupt: they are all more interested in getting the witnesses to talk, rather than in protecting their lives. This exploitative side of the behavior is reflected in their being in suits. None is genuinely heroic.

Black Police Uniforms

When uniformed police finally do enter the film, they are engaged in patrolling the outskirts of the hotel after the shooting. These men are doing genuine police duty. They are not trying to exploit witnesses. So they are not in suits, but rather in police uniforms. These uniforms look black, and much more LAPD-like than anything one associates with New York City.

Karlson's filming emphasizes their uniform caps; he keeps having the officer talking to Robinson turn slightly, so one sees his cap from all angles. This reminds one of the black-uniformed officer in Key Witness (1960).

5 Against the House

5 Against the House (1955) is a movie about a bunch of college guys who rob a casino. It is a strange and not very successful film.

World's Tackiest College Students

5 Against the House goes against every convention, both of college movies and Big Caper films.

Most college movies feature infinitely clean cut young people, who oscillate between football games, chemistry classes, and the Big Dance. By contrast, Karlson's college students are relatively unique in film history, by being... sleazy. The four spend their free time hanging out in tacky night clubs and even tawdrier casinos. They are mainly patrons of vice. The places they like are only one step up from the awful vice joints in Karlson's next film, The Phenix City Story. It makes sense when the WWII soldiers on leave in Hell to Eternity show up in a vice area for a night. It is disconcerting to see a bunch of college guys with limitless options and time doing the same thing.

The hero's girlfriend has become a night club singer, over summer vacation. She is not one of Karlson's strippers, but she is a first cousin.

Back at the college dorm, our heroes spend time hazing a college freshman. This is treated apparently as comedy. But it too is tacky. We see the gang in various stages of undress, always piling work on freshman Spiegy. The whole effect is odd.

I have no idea how realistic the college guys in 5 Against the House are. Is this an accurate portrait of 1955 university life, with the clean-cut students in other films merely some sort of white-washed Hollywood fantasy? Or is 5 Against the House just another Karlson look at vice, transposed into an unlikely college arena?

The Not-So-Big Caper

5 Against the House also violates standard expectations of Big Caper films. The actual robbery takes only the last 15 minutes of the film, and is small and simple. It lacks any sort of excitement or pizzazz. It also seems sordid: an armed threat against a fear-filled casino worker. Undoubtedly Karlson knew the effect he was producing, with this anti-climax. Still, I don't get the point, and fail to find it either enlightening or entertaining.

I confess that I have never actually enjoyed a regular Big Caper novel or movie. Parodies, yes: Mario Monicelli's spoof of caper films, Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), is a delight, and Alexander Mackendrick's darker satire The Ladykillers (1955) shows style. Beyond these tongue-in-cheek satires, lies a whole genre I just don't get. I'm always bewildered, for example, when The Asphalt Jungle is treated as a four star movie, and Tom Cruise hanging from the ceiling in Mission: Impossible is a bore. Consequently, it is possible that I am just not receptive to Karlson's goals here.

Karlson Types

Alvy Moore's comedy relief character, shows the odd vocal stylings one sometimes finds in Karlson's clowns. His voice is especially odd when he sings.

Kerwin Matthews' rich boy, who actually dreams up the robbery, shows some of the persuasive ability of a Karlson hero. His speech about doing something new is quite potent, one of the best things in the movie.

The intense relationship between the Guy Madison and Brian Keith characters is another Karlson example of a close relationship between two men. As in Scandal Sheet, this unravels frighteningly through the picture.

The relationship also looks at the after-effects of the men's service in the Korean War. Like the hero of The Phenix City Story, they are recently home from military service abroad. We are seeing another example of a militarized world in Karlson.

Two of the buddies are accidently implicated in a crime at the casino, near the start, even though they are actually innocent. This perhaps reflects in a small way, Karlson films in which the heroes are framed for a crime they did not commit.


The cowboy costumes echo the spoof of the TV cowboy in Tight Spot. Also: comic books of the era loved to show modern-day Western festivals, in which everyone gets dressed up in cowboy clothes - and often link them to crime schemes. They appear in movies, also linked to capers, in 5 Against the House and Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1949).

The cops in 5 Against the House wear black leather jackets, and so does Spiegy. Spiegy's clothes are perhaps related to his being hazed. As in 99 River Street, we have a leather jacketed character who is dominated by more powerful men. Spiegy's situation is played for comedy, however.

The heroes are also often in sports wear. It is hard to tell if lead Guy Madison's jacket is suede or not. The heroes also sometimes wear really bad suits. All-in-all, the film shows Karlson's preferences for less dressy clothes, unusual in the noir era.


The automatic car park that opens and closes 5 Against the House is the best thing in the movie. Its multi-story construction links it a bit to the outdoor staircases in Karlson - but the resemblance is not close. It also recalls the ferry in Tight Spot.

The mirror surveillance in the casino, and the alarms that connect it, recall other high tech communication in Karlson, especially the television jukebox in The Shanghai Cobra.

Some of the perspective shots down Reno streets, recall similar views in Tight Spot.

The trailer interior, recalls the truck interior used by the crooks in Kansas City Confidential.

The Phenix City Story


The Phenix City Story (1955) is one of the most political of all American films. It is unusual in that it deals with sensational events taken right from current headlines. The dialogue and the treatment of issues like race relations still seem daring. While most "political" films seem full of cautious compromise, with craven calculation on whether this or that would appeal to or be accepted by elements of the public, this one seems determined to let freedom reign and say whatever is on its mind. Its uninhibited approach still seems almost unique in Hollywood history. The film has a good deal of formal excellence too, with its steadily mounting drama, and a wealth of good performances.

Daniel Mainwaring (also known as prose mystery writer Geoffrey Homes), who co-wrote The Phenix City Story with Crane Wilbur, also wrote The Lawless (1950), directed by Joseph Losey. Both films depict break downs of law and order on a truly massive scale in the modern USA. These are both remarkable films, with plenty to say.

The Phenix City Story deals at an early date with the problems of black people in the United States. It shows the systematic discrimination and prejudice they faced. It also has sympathetic, dignified black characters, who are light years away from the stereotypes that used to populate so many old Hollywood movies. The film does not depict the still young Civil Rights movement of the era, although there are brief hints in the dialogue that some of the characters might be involved in it. Still, the film is one of the most bluntly pro-black, pro-equality films made in the old Hollywood era.

Edward Andrews plays the villainous owner of one of the vice clubs. He was also a bad guy in Vincente Minnelli's Tea and Sympathy (1956); the two are among the most ferocious political films of the 1950's. In both, he shows how people can "go along and get along" with a corrupt order of society. He is smooth, venal, and very conformist, both comic and with an air of menace. He represents established orders of evil societies.

The Phenix City Story might make an interesting double bill with Man Is Not a Bird (Dusan Makavejev, 1965). Both films mix documentary and fiction elements; both give unvarnished looks at disastrously bad societies.


For such a violent film, one of the main subjects of The Phenix City Story is the value of non-violence. The film repeatedly makes the point that earlier efforts to clean up Phenix City failed, because they were violent vigilante tactics. Instead, a campaign based in non-violence and the ballot box is followed instead.

The film does not explicitly mention the Civil Rights movement. But it evokes it, by having the black man Zeke being one of the principal advocates of non-violence in the film.

The values of non-violence are central to Karlson's films about ending racial wars: They Rode West, Hell to Eternity.

The Poppy Club - and the newspaper in Scandal Sheet

The early part of the film shows the Poppy Club which Andrews owns. It resembles the newspaper in Scandal Sheet:

Threats to Democracy - and Hell to Eternity

The imagery and depiction of society in The Phenix City Story will recur in Karlson's Hell to Eternity (1960).


Persuasion is a major theme of this film, as elsewhere in Karlson. Both the good guys and the bad guys spend a great deal of screen time trying to persuade others to join their cause.

Police Corruption - and Police Radio

Police corruption plays a major role here, as it did in Kansas City Confidential and Tight Spot. The police radio scene here depicts the nadir of police corruption: it is the exact opposite of the competent police manning the radio in Kansas City Confidential.


We see a television broadcast being made. This is one of many scenes in Karlson showing media being created. Karlson seems fascinated by the rise of television, and it runs through his films.

There is also the police radio room.


The image of typical school early in this film shows the playground in front of the school. This is similar to the school at the start of Hell to Eternity, which also seems like a playground with a school building in the back of the image.

Later, when a protesting patron is thrown out of the Poppy Club, Karlson will once again film this so that there is a lot of the sidewalk and street in the front of the image.

The first shot of the downtown is an elevated view of 14th Street, the vice area of old Phenix City. Karlson frames the shot on an angle, so a large number of street signs are clearly visible. Signs, filled with words, often signify sleazy urban areas in film noir: see the downtown area that is the hub of William Keighley's The Street With No Name (1948).

Karlson often mixes scenes of people within a car, with exteriors showing events along 14th Street. These recall the shots near the beginning of Tight Spot where Ginger Rogers is in the car, being driven to the hotel. Such shots also anticipate the films of Jim Jarmusch, such as Night on Earth (1991).

Staircases: Film noir imagery

An outdoor staircase is featured along the alley leading to the Poppy Club's parking. It recalls the tenement staircase that opens Scandal Sheet.

There are isolated shots of such outdoor staircases later. One shows a fight. Another has Ellie sneaking a look out of a remote window in the Poppy Club, at a staircase outside the window.

The steps out of the airplane also form an outdoor staircase.

The father's office is upstairs in a downtown building; we also see the interior staircase leading to it. Such staircase shots are film noir staples. The courtroom is also reached by an indoor staircase.

The Brothers Rico

The Brothers Rico (1957) is a film noir crime thriller, and a gangster picture.

Loyalty and Belief in a Evil Leader - links to Scandal Sheet

The Brothers Rico has broad similarities to Scandal Sheet. SPOILERS. Both films: The consequences are far more tragic in The Brothers Rico. It can be gut wrenching to see how much harm the hero is causing, through his misguided loyalty to the evil leader.

Both films have undercurrents of love, from the hero for the father figure leader. While the hero is sincere, the loyalty, belief and affection he shows the leader have bad consequences.

Both films might have unspoken allegories. They might be warning about:


Both the hero and the leader are powerful at persuading other people. Persuasion is a major subject in Phil Karlson films.

Often, Karlson heroes use their persuasion powers for good. By contrast, in The Brothers Rico the hero's persuasive skills lead to horror. He persuades first his brother, than his mother, to do exactly the wrong thing.

Only at the end does the hero use his persuasive powers for good, when he talks with Peter Malaks. (Malaks is played by the young Lamont Johnson, already embarked on a major career as a director.)


The first half of The Brothers Rico makes spectacular use of modern design. Both indoors and out, the hero is constantly engulfed in a world of up-to-date buildings and decor. The effect is visually fascinating.

It can also seem ominous. This design seems to express wealth and power. And much of this wealth comes from a corrupt source: the mob. The hero is immersed in this world, just as he is stuck in the mob. And he is stuck more deeply than he knows.

Only in the film's second half, do we see more traditional settings. These are the homes of "ordinary" people, often with no mob connections, and leading financially modest lives.


Peter Malaks is described as a young man who is always studying, and trying to improve himself. He represents the middle class self-improvement alternative to corrupt big money success-through-the-mob. When we go into his home near the film's end, we see large numbers of books for the first time. It makes a striking change of pace.

Gunman's Walk

The 1958 Western, Gunman's Walk, was directed by Phil Karlson and scripted by Frank Nugent. The film is consistent with the personalities of both men. For Karlson, it shows the effects of hate and violence poisoning people's characters. For Nugent, it preaches against racial prejudice, as in The Searchers, and Sergeant Rutledge. It also constitutes an attack on the macho code that men are taught. Just as in The Quiet Man John Wayne tries not to use his fists or get into fights, here Tab Hunter is going to be destroyed by the macho and racist codes drilled into him by his dad. So are a lot of the unfortunate people around him. The film shows tremendous skepticism about guns. As one of the townspeople says, "If you put a gun in a man's hand, he will use it." This film will probably never be shown at any NRA meetings.

The visual compositions of the film are consistently inventive. So is the plot and the dialogue. Almost every scene reveals something about the personalities of the central characters, and the codes they live by. This portrait is very elaborate and detailed. Both Tab Hunter and James Darren give outstanding dramatic performances, some of the best of their careers.


Gunman's Walk opens with Tab Hunter and James Darren riding. Hunter is whistling, and refuses to answer in words anything Darren says. So Darren makes a strange loud noise, that frightens Hunter's horse. Then Darren starts whistling. The whole scene reminds one of the comedy scenes with unique ways of talking in other Karlson films.

Architecture and Geometry

The hotel saloon is striking. The doors form a series of repeated ovals, which recall the repeated circles in other Karlson films.

In the background, seen in deep focus, is the staircase in the hotel lobby. This huge, open stair with high platforms recalls some of the large outdoor stairs in other Karlson films, even though this Gunman's Walk stairway is inside.

The hotel room where the brothers are told not to leave, has a circular mirror. Tab Hunter rather narcissistically primps using it.

The corral, where Hunter is arrested, is a pure rectangle. It is used to make a series of compositions.


When Tab Hunter sings "I'm a Runaway", the saloon gals are in red-blue-and-yellow clothes. These are the three primary colors: mixing them is a popular design scheme. Furnishings in the saloon in this scene also involve these colors. Some of the yellow in this episode is gold. The bright colors add cheerfulness to an upbeat interlude, in what is mainly a serious, even grim movie.

Tab Hunter is in neutral earth tones in this scene.


The hero's chaps are some of the leather clothes frequently worn by Karlson heroes.

The shirt, tightly buttoned at the collar but without a tie, is strange looking. It suggests somehow that the hero is uptight, high strung, and has emotional problems. There is also something juvenile about the costume, like something a little boy would wear. A grown man would wear a tie with a shirt.

The Scarface Mob

A TV Pilot

The Scarface Mob (1959) is the pilot for the hit TV series The Untouchables (1959 - 1963). It tells the story of federal agent Eliot Ness, and his small team of incorruptible agents, who battled gangster Al Capone and his illegal booze empire in 1929 Chicago.

The Scarface Mob was originally shown in two parts, as part of an hour-long TV anthology series. The first part has Capone off-stage; the second hour deals with Capone's return from jail, and the struggle to send Capone back to prison. The filmmakers have hedged their bets. Each hour of the film itself breaks down into two distinct segments. This would allow the show to be aired as a series of four half-hour episodes. Thus The Scarface Mob could serve as the pilot of either a half-hour series or as an hour series. Eventually, The Untouchables was made as an hour-long TV series.

Defects of the film: cold characters and no plot

I don't like The Scarface Mob as a whole, although it has some good scenes. It is an oddly cold work. The hero, Eliot Ness is a cold, unemotional Organization Man type, always correct and restrained in behavior, always dressed in a stuffy-executive type three-piece suit. None of his men have any personality, except for Keenan Wynn. The bad guys are either psycho crooks (like Al Capone) or routine mob types.

Worse, The Scarface Mob does not really have a plot or a story. Instead, it has a series of disconnected, repetitive incidents, where Ness tries to destroy Capone's stills and breweries, or spies on Capone's gang to find out where the breweries are hidden. Meanwhile, the gang tries alternately to bribe or intimidate Ness and his men. None of this amounts to a plot, in the sense of one event causing a second event, which causes a third event. It is just a static string of anecdotes.

Links to The Phenix City Story

The basic premise is similar to The Phenix City Story, with: Barbara Nichols plays one of the many sympathetic strippers who run through Karlson's work.

Despite these similarities to The Phenix City Story, The Scarface Mob seems like a much lesser work. There is none of the richly original social and political material that makes The Phenix City Story such a unique work. Eliot Ness tries to solve his problems through violence, whereas the hero of The Phenix City Story mobilized public opinion.

Joining the Team - and The Texas Rangers

The Scarface Mob has links to The Texas Rangers, especially in scenes involving Keenan Wynn, who has the "second lead" in The Scarface Mob:

Telephone tapping - and leather jackets

The telephone tapping scene is one of the best in the film. While many Karlson films look at radio or television, here 1929 phones are the technological focus. Towards the end, we also see a room full of telephone operators.

The heroes get in fancy leather jackets for their undercover roles as telephone linemen. This is part of Karlson's fondness for getting his heroes into leather clothes. Like the hero's leather taxi cab jacket uniform in 99 River Street, here the leather clothes are associated with a working class profession. The lineman outfits also include huge boots.

Overhead camera movements

Karlson stages some of the raids using shots that combine an overhead camera angle, showing the layout of the scene, with camera movements that follow his heroes' progress through the scene. This includes:

Outdoor Staircases

The first two overhead camera movements have that Karlson trademark, an outdoor staircase. We also see staircases outside the windows in the D.A.'s office.

Camera Movements: Following a man through a crowd

When Capone gets out of prison and goes to the Cafe Montmartre, he is followed through the crowd in camera movements, a Karlson tradition. A final camera movement follows him up the staircase.

The Last Raid: A Visual Spectacular

The aftermath of the final raid is a unique visual experience. There are white beer suds all over the floor, making unusual black and white patterns. There are also steam columns rising, and huge cylindrical barrels. The whole interior landscape looks like something out of a science fiction movie, like the bubbling moon pools in Fritz Lang's Woman in the Moon (1929).

The opening shot of the film had shown big pools of water in the street outside the Cafe Montmartre. These reflecting puddles are a visual precursor to the floods of beer everywhere in the last raid. The opening shot also forms a vivid design in black and white, like the raid to come.

During the actual raid, beer gushes everywhere, from holes in the barrels. In an earlier scene, Ness had opened a barrel with an ax. The axes used by the heroes anticipate the hero's club in Walking Tall.

The Funeral - and the clock dial

The funeral preparations begin, with Ness calling Capone, and telling him to watch for something special at 11:00. Later, we see Capone looking at a clock, near 11:00. This relates to other dials in Karlson, whose completed movements marks the climax of an event. Here the clock is small, unlike the typically larger dials in Karlson.

The procession itself is seen through the window. This recalls the deep focus street scenes through windows in The Texas Rangers.

Hell to Eternity

Ending a Racial War - links to They Rode West

Hell to Eternity (1960) is an unusual war film. It has many elements not found in conventional war stories, such as a look at politics and Civil Rights, as well as an extended look at the personal life of its hero. Like The Phenix City Story, this film contains a ferocious attack on racism. The hero of this true story is a white man who was raised by a Japanese-American foster family in California. When World War II breaks out, he has to stand by helplessly and watch as they are interned in camps in California. The realism of this approach is still admirable.

The final section of this film is a long look at the hero's unit fighting against the Japanese Army on the island of Saipan. This contains a good deal of traditional action material. It also contains more unusual events, as the distressed hero is increasingly concerned about the horror and waste of the combat. His dual background, as someone who speaks both English and Japanese, gives him a unique perspective on what is going on.

Hell to Eternity closely resembles in themes Phil Karlson's earlier Western, They Rode West (1954). That film involved characters who straddled two deeply divided racial groups, Native Americans and whites out West. Both groups were at war in that film, just like the Japanese and the Americans in Hell to Eternity. In both films, the hero gives medical treatment to a small child of the opposite group, an event that first gets him involved with the other race. And both films come to a similar daring climax (unspecified here to avoid spoiling the movies). The plot similarities in the two films are somewhat startling, and suggests that Karlson had something to do with the story of Hell to Eternity.

The procession at the end, also recalls the scene in the middle of They Rode West where the Native Americans march to a new camp site.

The Middle Section: Romance

A long comic middle section takes place among servicemen stationed in Hawaii. These parts resemble From Here to Eternity, and perhaps helped give Hell to Eternity its name. The way the starched heroine eventually loosens up, and joins in a burlesque dance in the apartment, recalls the other burlesque dancing that runs through Karlson's films. Karlson's characters always have dual goals. They want to have some fun, and some lively romance. They also want to go on to have families, and a full normal life. This dual perspective is part of their characters, and part of Karlson's world view, too.

Joining an Institution

Earlier Karlson films, such as The Texas Rangers and Tight Spot, describe the hero gradually joining an institution. This happens twice in the first part of the film. First the boy joins the Japanese family; then the grown man joins the Marines.

The hero here joins a largely male institution, and finds great personal satisfaction from it. This is typical of Karlson's heroes: one thinks of the newspaper man in Scandal Sheet, and the hero joining The Texas Rangers. He also bonds with an older male, David Jansen's Marine Corps Sergeant, one of many such male bonding pairs in Karlson. Both relationships here are unusually sunny for Karlson. The Sergeant proves to be a 100% good guy, unlike many of the father figures in Karlson's work.

Costumes: Anti-Suit

The costumes underscore these themes of joining an institution. When the hero is dressed in a series of not very good suits at the beginning of the film, he looks like a wimp. When he gets into his Marine Corps uniforms, he looks terrific. This is all part of Karlson's general distrust of men in suits. Only the villains in 99 River Street are in suits, for example, while the good guys are in leather jackets and taxicab uniforms. One also recalls all the evil spies lined up in similar gray suits at the start of The Silencers.

Even on the island at the end of the film, Karlson has Hunter sometimes in just a T shirt, while the other Marines have fancier clothes on. Karlson likes his heroes to look more proletarian than the men around them.

Visual Style: Echoes of Tight Spot

The shot down the hero's driveway at the beginning of the film recalls the many corridor shots in Tight Spot.

The night club scene involves some long depth shots, showing the heroine down the length of the club. There are also some pleasant lateral tracks through the club.

The climax of the middle section, with the heroine and hero embracing in the doorway, has a visual style that recalls earlier Karlson films. A whole series of rectangular regions is swirling around them. It is very beautiful. The 90 degree angle on the lower right of the screen, shaped like a Greek letter Gamma, is also present in the first shot of the ferry in Tight Spot.

There is a mirror-like reflection in the binoculars carried by the Japanese general in his first scene. Mirror shots run through Karlson.

Cinematographer Burnett Guffey has a triumph in the shots in which the soldiers are under a grid which casts strange striped shadows all over their bodies. The grid is made up of the checkerboard-like repeating patterns that were also found in Tight Spot.

The triangular supports for the playground equipment at the start, are echoed by the triangular support for the overhead grids.


The script emphasizes the hero's persuasive powers. Like many of Karlson's heroes, he is often trying to talk somebody into something. These men need to use all their charm, all their huge verbal skills, all their emotion, all their reasoning, and all their powers of persuasion, to avoid serious disasters that would otherwise fall over communities of people. The hero of Hell to Eternity is like the heroes of They Rode West and The Phenix City Story, in that all three men use their powers of persuasion for the most idealistic, public service causes. Similarly, the hero of The Texas Rangers is often in situations where guns and the use of force are valueless, and must rely on his powers of persuasion instead. He fails sometimes with the bad guys, but succeeds with the heroine.

Such skills can also be used for more trivial purposes. Earlier in the film, our hero manages to drum up some whiskey for himself and his buddy on Hawaii. Here, his persuasive skills resemble those of a con artist. No harm is done here, and the scene is played for comedy. More seriously, the corrupt yellow journalist protagonist of Scandal Sheet spends the whole first part of that film using his charm to extract information out of people, often to write sleazy news stories. He is showing what can happen when a Karlson hero misuses his powers for trivial and unethical ends. The film emphasizes his extreme charm, and its misuse to get sensationalistic news stories. These scenes have a comic edge too - charming rogues and con men have a long history in film and mystery fiction. But underneath all the comedy, Karlson is offering a serious moral criticism. He likes his hero and his skills - such golden tongued persuasive powers are part of the Karlson hero - but criticizes his hero for misusing them on ignoble ends.

The Battle: Sinister Crowds

The last part of the film opens with a set piece, showing a large scale battle on Saipan. This goes through many stages. It reminds one oddly of the Lonely Hearts Club meeting in Scandal Sheet. Both are a group event, involving a large crowd of people. In both, people behave with relentless stupidity. They embrace with gung-ho avidity events that are way below in decency, intelligence and practicality anything they would do if they were on their own, and acting as individuals. Both events come to a tragic, death filled conclusion. Both are involved with sinister technology: television and tabloid journalism in Scandal Sheet, tanks and flame throwers in Hell to Eternity. Both events are frequently filmed from above, at an elevated angle.

The aftermath of the battle is a memorable anti-war sequence. It recalls the anti-war episodes in films of the 1910's. Karlson once again displays some affinities with D. W. Griffith, and other filmmakers of that era. Karlson's working class heroes, sympathetic mothers and documentary-like interest in the world around him also recall Griffith and his contemporaries.

At a later stage in the film, the protagonist degenerates into a killing machine. He starts shooting Japanese soldiers in the back. This is the same as the villains in The Texas Rangers, who also specialize in this despicable activity. Even his Marine commander is upset by these actions. Eventually, a letter from his Japanese-American mother redeems him from this state.

Shooting against hills & Elevated Angles

Techniques of filming in the battle scene recall The Texas Rangers. Action is frequently set on hills, so that Karlson can show action spread out on different levels all across the screen. Elevated angles are also employed for the same purpose. Trees play a major role in the compositions. Here, a series of pine trees are frequently woven into the shots.

The Young Doctors


The Young Doctors (1961) is a medical drama, set in the pathology lab of a big-city hospital. The tile is misleading: The Young Doctors suggests a soap opera about a bunch of very young interns, following their struggles to establish themselves as doctors. This is definitely NOT the subject of the film, which is instead a serious look at a pathology laboratory and the role in plays in medical diagnosis and treatment of patients. The title of the film's source novel, The Final Diagnosis (1958) by best-seller king Arthur Hailey, better describes The Young Doctors' content.

Hero Ben Gazzara was thirty or thirty-one when the film was shot, and looks it. While thirty is fairly young for a doctor, he seems fully grown-up and rigorously professional and established in his work, as the story opens. And much of the film concentrates on older doctors played by Fredric March or Aline MacMahon. MacMahon's woman doctor is a surprisingly non-sexist character. She is an example of the respectful looks at working women in Karlson films.

The year before, a summer replacement TV series Diagnosis: Unknown (1960) focused on a pathology laboratory. It was based on the popular Dr. Coffee mystery stories by Lawrence G. Blochman, which began in 1947 and long predated Hailey's novel. Diagnosis: Unknown took a lighter-hearted and more glamorous approach to a pathology lab than the grim The Young Doctors. But both stories focused on scientist heroes working in a lab, and contained considerable science and medical information.

Today pathology is a frequent subject of mystery novels and TV shows. It is hugely popular. It was far less common in the days of Blochman, Hailey, Diagnosis: Unknown and The Young Doctors. One difference between then and now: current works are full of gruesome depictions of autopsies, the more hair-raising the better, in filmmakers' eyes, at least. The older works are more restrained and tasteful, concentrating on medical techniques and scientific results.

The hospital is compared (by Frederick March) to a large machine. It is indeed filled with technology. This metaphor recalls some the actual large machines in other Karlson films.


The Young Doctors is grim and harrowing, in its relentless focus on terrible medical problems suffered by patients. I found it an emotionally draining film to watch - but to be fair, I often have this reaction to medical dramas, a genre I usually am unable to enjoy. Still, it is one of Phil Karlson's least enjoyable films. And I cannot recommend it to viewers searching for a good time.

Early Low-Budget Films

Karlson made a number of very inexpensive B movies at Columbia, at the start of his career.

There Goes Kelly

There Goes Kelly (1945) is a modest B-movie mystery, from the start of Phil Karlson's career. The film, a remake of Up in the Air (1940), is not very good, or very personal.

Karlson subjects

There Goes Kelly does have the persuasive Karlson hero, with Kelly fast talking a singer into an audition at the film's start. The hero also spends much time talking his buddy into doing things.

The hero and his buddy, young pages at a radio station, are also examples of working class heroes in Karlson. Young heroes at a radio station, anticipate a bit John Derek's young man working at a newspaper in Scandal Sheet.

A teletype, used to communicate with Cheyenne, Wyoming, is an early instance of Karlson's interest in long distance communication. The switchboard operator in the lobby, is also a prominent character.

Visual Style

A nice camera movement is in the scene where the killer is unmasked at the end. The shot starts out behind a group of men all raising their hands, then moves to the side, to show the killer holding a gun on them. The camera moves along with the killer to the door, then back again.

A strange set shows a balcony or terrace (?) with a giant view of downtown Los Angeles in the background. The process photography is poor - but the whole thing is unusual.

The Shanghai Cobra

The Opening: Visual Style

The best part of The Shanghai Cobra (1945) is its first five minutes. These have an elaborate atmosphere showing city streets in the night and rain.

The film opens with a steep overview, showing a woman walking far below in the rain. The overhead shot shows the depth of field and complex architectural background that Karlson likes. It is a beautiful shot.

So is the low angle shot, with the sidewalk and the rain splashing on it forming a horizontal line across the base of the screen. Both of the shots show a gift for composition. Karlson uses windows and lights to call attention to different regions of the buildings, just as in The Texas Rangers he will use bright colors to mark out architectural sections.


The interior in the opening is of a coffee shop. The owner-cook talks appetizingly about food; there are similar scenes involving a chicken dinner in The Texas Rangers. Phil Karlson clearly like food scenes. Both films made me hungry. The heroine of Tight Spot also talks constantly about ordering dinner.

The Jukebox - TV Controlled

The opening also introduces the film's most unusual subject, a jukebox controlled by television. I have no idea if such jukeboxes actually existed, or whether they are an almost sf device invented for the film. In any case, they are quite interesting and imaginative. There are somewhat similar telephone-based or radio-based piped-in-music services in non-Karlson crime films: The jukebox perhaps anticipates police radio imagery in Kansas City Confidential and The Phenix City Story. It also recalls the TV shows watched in Tight Spot.

Costumes: A Militarized World

Phil Karlson films often show militarized worlds. The flashback to Shanghai is one of these. It is set during the first Japanese bombing of Shanghai. We see men in snazzy uniforms: well-uniformed British police, and even better, Naval officers in white dress uniforms on the boat "launch".

Other scenes are not set in militarized worlds, but have something of a military feel because they are full of uniforms:

By contrast, the crooks are dressed in conventional business suits. Criminals and crooks in Karlson are often men in suits.

I don't have statistics to prove it, but have the impression that Columbia B-movies of the period often featured snazzy uniforms, especially of police, guards and related groups. Among other things, it allowed such low-budget films to offer a bit of visual pizzazz.


After its opening, this film becomes ordinary, with some embarrassing comedy relief. Later scenes involving the jukebox have some modest merit. So do some pans in the bank.

Also, like other Charlie Chan movies of the era, its depiction of minorities is badly dated. During the 1950's, Karlson greatly improved the treatment of minorities in his films, becoming a gung ho enthusiast for equal rights. Karlson's transition, from stereotypes to dignified, non-stereotyped characters who supported Civil Rights, mirrored that of other directors, and of Hollywood as a whole.

Live Wires

Live Wires (1946) is a comedy. It is the first official Bowery Boys picture, although the Boys had a long prior history under other names. While it is simple and no masterpiece, Live Wires is a funny comedy that will entertain people (like me) who enjoy this sort of humor.

The Hero: Persuasion, Controlling Violence

The hero has features of several Phil Karlson heroes to come. The hero is a fast talker and a would be persuader. Many Karlson heroes are really good at persuasion. Leo Gorcey wants to be, but often doesn't succeed. He is effective with some of his process serving, including the scene in the car. The street vendor with the stain remover is also a really good persuader.

Gorcey's constant malapropisms push him in the direction of Karlson comedy relief characters with a funny way of talking. So does the strange voice Gorcey uses when peddling stain remover.

Gorcey is one of many Karlson heroes who can't control violence. Gorcey's violence - he keeps getting in arguments and throwing punches - is less extreme than some more serious Karlson heroes later. Still, it causes Gorcey to keep losing jobs, something the film treats as a genuine problem.

Gorcey and Huntz Hall are eventually set out to hunt down some big-time mobsters. This is comic, but it also anticipates later Karlson good guys who try to clean up corrupt towns.

Finally, Gorcey is seen at the start as a uniformed delivery man, delivering flowers by truck. John Payne will have the same role at the start of Kansas City Confidential. We don't see a florist shop in Live Wires, unlike some other Karlson films, though.

Working Women

As in many Karlson films, the women in Live Wires all work. They are mainly less high-powered than in some other Karlson films, with jobs as secretary, candy store worker, receptionist in dress shop.

The Night Club

The comedy about a process server handing papers to a singer recalls an episode in Man's Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933). Karlson stages it for sheer social incongruity. The singer, night club and radio broadcast represent the height of prestige in the 1940's. And here they are confronted with Leo Gorcey, a true low life. It makes a delicious contrast. And a bit of confronting the powerful with the powerless. Since Gorcey is actually in the right in this conflict, it gives a subtle edge of social criticism.

The announcer and other workers in the night club are in tuxedos. So is hero Gorcey. Karlson links such formal wear, to the life style of the club. This anticipates Ladies of the Chorus, whose Society hero and his friends are also playboy types who frequent night clubs. This is a definite milieu. Karlson clearly shows some skepticism about this world. Unlike many old Hollywood films, which treat night clubs as the ultimate in glamour, Karlson's movies offer a bit of a skeptical edge. In Live Wires, the club is contrasted with the low life Gorcey. In Ladies of the Chorus, it seems to be the home of fairly inane Society types, rather than men who are heroic or deeply admirable.

The name of the night club is the High Hat club. This has two meanings. One simply refers to men getting dressed up in top hats: another reference to formal wear, like their tuxedos. But "to high hat" someone is also slang for a snobbish put down. The suggestion is that the club is simply catering to the snobbery of the well-to-do, against working class types like the hero and his friends. A working class point of view runs through Karlson.

Circular Objects

Mike Mazurki has a striking circular bar. An inner stand revolves. The bar is supported on a base that consists of three concentric cylindrical disks.

The Modiste Shoppe itself also has a circular table.

Mirror Shot

Gorcey departs the singer's dressing room: we see his exit through a window in her mirror. This is a simple but effectively odd mirror shot. Karlson has mirror shots running through his films.

Camera Movement

Karlson frequently has simple camera movements, showing people walking into rooms. These can get more elaborate: when Gorcey enters the Modiste Shoppe, he moves half way across the set, pauses for a talk with a woman, then finishes crossing the set to a door. All this is in one start-and-stop take.

A more complex camera movement shows Gorcey in a tuxedo for the first time. This crosses a room, has Gorcey enter, then moves back along the reverse path to where the take started. It's another example of a path / reverse path camera movement in Karlson.

Also nice: Gorcey crawling under tables at the club, while the camera follows.


Bad guy mobsters are in suits: a Phil Karlson tradition. But so is good guy Huntz Hall.

Bowery Boy Bobby Jordan is one of many Karlson good guys in leather. His leather jacket is one of the closest ancestors I've seen to Marlon Brando's jacket in The Wild One. However, it lacks any motorcycle insignia, and Jordan does not play a biker.

Dark Alibi

Dark Alibi (1946) is another Charlie Chan detective movie. It is far from any sort of success. Like many Chan films, it suffers from racism, particularly in its stereotyped treatment of Chan's black chauffeur (Mantan Moreland). However, the film also has a few good shots and scenes, on which this article will concentrate. The best parts of Dark Alibi are fun. It could have been a pleasant little B-movie, but its makers fouled their own nest with racism.

The title Dark Alibi has little to do with the plot, which instead concentrates on fingerprints rather than alibis. Several Phil Karlson films have such misleading titles.

Strange Ways of Talking: Comedy

Mantan Moreland and guest star Ben Carter have a series of conversations, that involve unusual techniques. Each finishes the other's sentences, and seems to know what the unfinished parts refer to. It is a lot of fun. While there is nothing too odd about their voices, the content and technique of the dialogues are definitely off-trail.

Unlike much of Mantan Moreland's material in Dark Alibi, there is nothing racist or stereotyped about these dialogues. It is unfortunate though, that Ben Carter is playing a prisoner. Do we have to link black men and crime?

The Police Lab: Camera Movement

Both times when we enter the police lab, a camera movement tracks down the whole length of the lab. These are well-done shots.

Police lab scenes were fairly common in detective films of the 1940's. The ones in Dark Alibi are no classic, but they are solid and entertaining. Investigating dubious fingerprints goes back at least to the prose mystery novel The Red Thumb Mark (R. Austin Freeman, 1907).

The Warehouse: Camera Movement

SPOILER. Late in the film, a truck is driven through the theatrical warehouse. This is an original, unusual idea. It leads to a spectacular forward track through the warehouse, from the point of view of the truck drivers. This is a creative bit of cinema. While short, it is worthy of comparison to some of the climactic shots in the funhouse in The Lady From Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947).

The warehouse is perhaps linked to the large complex structures that run through Karlson films. Like the multi-story car park in 5 Against the House, it is a place where a vehicle is driven. The theatrical warehouse also seems linked to the backstage scenes in Karlson films.


The prison guard uniforms are sharp: dressy, macho and good looking. The shoot-out in the prison between the guards and a crook is a good bit of macho fantasy. The guards give the prison the feel of one of Karlson's militarized worlds, although the guards and prison are civilian, rather than connected to the military.

Bowery Bombshell

Bowery Bombshell (1946) is the third Bowery Boys comedy. It is both imitative of Live Wires, and weaker as a comedy. It is still sweet and fairly fun.

There is a certain innocence of approach, indicating a care for a family and kid audience. The Bowery Boys hang out in an ice cream parlor. And when they visit a sinister mob-run nightclub, the chief image is a table piled high with fresh fruit!

Camera Movement

We first see the Boys from the back, as the camera moves down the counter where they're sitting. Then there is a similar camera movement from the other side of the counter, showing them from the front. These each anticipate a bit the tracking shots down the women at their dressing table, in the opening of Ladies of the Chorus.

There are also a pair of camera movements at the night club: one shooing the Boys entering through the lobby; a second one showing the heroine enter along the same path.

A movement shows the club patrons and band fleeing the club.

Huntz Hall's aural hallucination is shot in one long take, as Hall and the camera roam around the apartment.


The night club is called the Flamingo Club, and its interior has what looks like relief sculptures of flamingos on the walls. The striking sculptures are vaguely Art Deco. Some villains in later Phil Karlson films will have pet animals. These sculptures are not living animals, but perhaps they are related imagery.


Links to Other Phil Karlson Films

Plot elements anticipate Kansas City Confidential. Both films have a bank robbery, and in both, a good guy outside the front of the bank gets innocently involved, and mistaken for a robber. However, Huntz Hall in Bowery Bombshell is just involved by mistake, unlike the framed hero of Kansas City Confidential. Both films have an innocent hero interrogated by tough cops.

The Boys going into the nightclub and trying to get the money out from the gangsters who run it, also anticipates the casino robbery in 5 Against the House. Both feature "ordinary" people with a plan to go against a powerful institution.

The Hero: Persuasion

Hero Leo Gorcey is once again a Karlson good guy with skills in persuasion. He spends much of the movie giving spiels, trying to persuade people to do things. This is elaborate in the scene where he is undercover as a gangster.

Especially notable: when he interrupts a scene where is is being interrogated by the cops. Gorcey instead starts giving the cops a piece of his mind. His sheer brassiness is encouraging: a sign of the dignity of the common man in a democratic society.

Strange Ways of Talking: Comedy

One of the Bowery Boys does an imitation of Edward G. Robinson as a movie gangster. This ties in with Karlson comedy relief figures with "strange ways of talking".

Huntz Hall's aural hallucination is a unique and fascinating scene. The voice he hears is strangely modified. Such "manipulated voices" apparently return in Dave Berry's strange voice in Ladies of the Chorus.


Bad guy mobsters are in fancy double-breasted suits, while good guys are in casual clothes. This is typical of Karlson's sinister depiction of men in suits. And the Bowery Boys themselves get in extreme double-breasted suits, when they disguise themselves as mobsters. Bobby Jordan gets the dressiest and best looking suit; lead Leo Gorcey gets the most dramatic one.

Bowery Boy Bobby Jordan is once again a Karlson good guy in a leather jacket.

The night club band are in matching tuxedoes. They anticipate the musicians in Ladies of the Chorus. Karlson tends to associate tuxedos with "night life". In the 1950's, Karlson will often focus on sleazier entertainment spots. In the 1940's, he likes night clubs and band musicians. These are less stuffy looking and a bit more sordid than the typical Hollywood glamorized night clubs, without reaching the extremes of sleaze in Karlson's 1950's films.

Ladies of the Chorus

A Low Budget Musical

Ladies of the Chorus (1948) is a little, very low budget musical film about women who work in a burlesque theater. I thought it was really, really awful, but with qualifications. The film is not at all offensive, one hastens to add; it is just lacking in entertainment value. By the 1940's, it was de rigueur for most musicals to be in color, and to have beautiful sets, costumes and photography. Not here. This black and white film has zero production values. High school students have put on senior class plays with more visual beauty than this.

Musicals from the early days of talkies (1929-1930) often were soap operas, about the sufferings experienced by show biz folk in their back stage lives. Ladies of the Chorus is a late example of that tradition. By 1948, musicals were more often musical comedies, rather than soap operas, but Ladies of the Chorus is an exception.

Jack Boyle

The uninteresting choreography is by Jack Boyle. Boyle choreographed twelve musicals in the 1940's, all completely obscure today except the first: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1943), which won James Cagney an Oscar. Boyle also danced in films. He and Karlson had worked together previously on Swing Parade of 1946, a film that is even more totally obscure than Ladies of the Chorus.

Sympathetic Burlesque Queens - and their Romantic Problems

The screenplay is also largely lacking in wit or comedy, being instead a soap opera about the difficulties experienced by burlesque queens in finding happiness and true love off-stage in a condemnatory world. The subject matter here is in fact personal for Karlson. He will return to it in The Silencers (1966), the big budget James Bond spy spoof he did later with Dean Martin. Both films are full of burlesque numbers, in which women perform the naughtiest dances possible on stage. As soon as they are off stage, and interacting with the hero, they become nice, sweet and friendly, good natured pals for the hero. This is clearly a personal image for Karlson. It oddly contrasts with The Phenix City Story (1955), in which such tacky enterprises as girlie shows are part of the vice that has to be cleaned up in the community. Admittedly, The Phenix City Story mainly goes after gambling dens, a much more sinister and exploitative kind of vice. Also, all the women in Ladies of the Chorus and The Silencers keep their clothes on. There is a big difference between being a dancer, even an exotic dancer in a burlesque show, and being a stripper.

The hero here wants to marry the lead burlesque queen, and the whole second half of the film centers on how he will introduce his intended bride to his mother. Oddly enough, this whole aspect of the film becomes quite sympathetic. All of the characters involved are nice people. Furthermore, everyone treats everyone else with surprising decency and concern. This film is an only slightly exaggerated version of a situation faced by many real life couples, who are struggling to accommodate romantic desire and family ties. Comedy is eventually reached, as everyone works out an accommodation.


Phil Karlson likes mothers: Such sympathy for mothers recalls the silent movie era, and such memorable and likable mothers as those in Louis Feuillade's serial, Les Vampires (1915 - 1916) and D. W. Griffith's Way Down East (1920).

Women and Florist Shops

Another personal image for Karlson: the visit to a florist's shop run by a woman. The heroine of 99 River Street (1953) will also work in a florist's shop. There is something feminine about the confluence of women and flowers. Both shops have huge plate glass windows filled with flowers. The shop in 99 River Street is much more realistic looking, however, in keeping with the higher budget of that film.

The dress store in Tight Spot also has large shop windows. Shop windows are also a running image in the films of Fritz Lang. Later, some rooms in the mansion will also have huge walls of windows.

In general, Karlson is extremely sympathetic to working women of all types, and they frequently show up in his films. They are good at their work, and successful in their professions. They also tend to have high moral standards, and be the consciences of their films.

A Strange Comedy Relief Figure: The Designer and his unique voice

Perhaps the best scene in Ladies of the Chorus, and certainly the strangest, involves the designer who comes to the hero's mansion at the end to decorate it for the party. The designer in this comedy relief scene is played by Dave Barry, apparently a specialist in strange voices for animated cartoons: he once played the voice of Elmer Fudd. The designer talks in a strange voice that involves odd echoing and rumbling effects. He might be doing it himself; and his voice also might be transformed by special effects in the recording studio. In any case, I have never heard anything like this elsewhere in my life. The butler who greets him is also talking in a very strange voice himself. The designer is in the full cutaway coat and formal morning clothes that were often worn by designers and floorwalkers in the movies, and the butler is also in a formal butler's outfit. The two men seem to have arrived from some other planet. The scene is utterly surreal, even nightmarish. It is authentically strange. The designer is very weirdly dressed and has a unique voice, but otherwise, he moves and glances around like a regular guy, even the sort of two bit guy off the street who played "regular Joes" in the movies. He is not made out to be gay, at least in any sort of stereotyped way, and the movie is not going after the sort of cheap homophobic humor that sometimes greets designers in the movies. This sort of comic surrealism is very odd. These men are perhaps the dialectical antithesis of the typical Karlson hero, charming leading man of immense verbal fluency and powers of persuasion. Here they are the exact opposite: men who talk in utterly bizarre ways. The viewer seems to have fallen down a rabbit hole, and become part of a very strange world.

In general, Ladies of the Chorus has an odd feel. No one is quite what one might expect. The wolfish guy in the front row of the burlesque theater is not trying to become a sugar daddy, or even a stalker like one fears: he turns out to want to marry the heroine. The mothers are nice people: this in an era of Freudian sludge in which mothers were always at the root of every movie character's problems. The film has a strange quality, almost dream like, in which the characters seem to be moving by some inner logic of their own.

Camera Movement

There is a good long take track at the start, showing the women entering their dressing room, then moving down the row of women seated at the dressing table.

Soon, a similar shot moves down the same row of women in the reverse direction.


Ladies of the Chorus is atypical of Karlson, in that the men are often in tuxedos. The three society men in the cab are all in black tuxedos. So is the husband in the flashback. Near the end, the three musicians are in matching white tuxedos.

The chorus women do a number in which they flash small mirrors. Such a number recalls Roland West's Alibi (1929). This is perhaps another link to early talkies. The women wear dresses with mirror-like panels on them, during this scene.