Phil Karlson | The Texas Rangers
| Scandal Sheet | Kansas City Confidential
| 99 River Street
| Tight Spot | 5 Against the House
| The Phenix City Story
| Gunman's Walk | The Scarface Mob
| Hell to Eternity | The Young Doctors
Ladies of the Chorus
| There Goes Kelly | The Shanghai Cobra
| Live Wires | Bowery Bombshell
Classic Film and Television Home Page
Phil Karlson was a Hollywood film director.
Some common subjects in Karlson films include:
- Heroes who try to help out and bring peace to the enemy in
racial wars (They Rode West, Hell to Eternity)
- Heroes who clean up corrupt regimes and cities run by crooks
(The Texas Rangers, The Phenix City Story,
The Scarface Mob)
- Non-violence as a political solution (They Rode West,
The Phenix City Story, Hell to Eternity)
- Sympathetic portraits of racial minorities (Native Americans: They Rode West,
blacks: The Phenix City Story, Native Americans: Gunman's Walk,
Native Americans: The Scarface Mob, Japanese Americans: Hell to Eternity)
- Heroes who are innocent working class guys framed for crimes
they did not commit (Bowery Bombshell, Kansas City Confidential, 99 River Street)
- Heroes who are crooks who reform (hero: The Texas Rangers,
sleazy reporter who sees the light: Scandal Sheet, heroine: Tight Spot,
Keenan Wynn: The Scarface Mob)
- Heroes interrogated (by cops: Bowery Bombshell,
by cops: Kansas City Confidential, by crook: 99 River Street)
- Strong working women, especially in the media
(photographer: Bowery Bombshell, secretary, candy store worker: Live Wires,
publisher: The Texas Rangers,
reporter: Scandal Sheet, actress: 99 River Street,
doctor: The Young Doctors)
- Good guys who are skilled at persuasion (fast talking hero: There Goes Kelly,
hero, street pedlar: Live Wires, hero: Bowery Bombshell,
undercover hero talks to bad guys, heroine: The Texas Rangers,
glib reporter: Scandal Sheet,
dispatcher, actress: 99 River Street,
doctor preaches peace, medical care: They Rode West,
Mississippi Mac: Tight Spot,
Kerwin Matthews and doing something: 5 Against the House,
political oratory: The Phenix City Story,
hero stops battle: Hell to Eternity)
- Strange comedy relief figures with unique ways of talking and acting
(Gorcey and malapropism: Live Wires,
Bowery Boys imitate gangsters, aural hallucination: Bowery Bombshell,
Dave Barry: Ladies of the Chorus,
Mississippi Mac: Tight Spot, Alvy Moore: 5 Against the House,
whistling and strange sound to scare horse at start: Gunman's Walk)
sometimes with modified sound (aural hallucination: Bowery Bombshell,
Dave Barry: Ladies of the Chorus)
- Burlesque queens (Ladies of the Chorus, The Silencers)
and strippers (The Phenix City Story, The Scarface Mob,
Hell to Eternity)
- Women and card games (dealer at club: The Phenix City Story,
sexy hostess and gin rummy: Hell to Eternity)
- Militarized worlds (They Rode West, recent veterans: 5 Against the House,
The Phenix City Story, Hell to Eternity)
- Men who have trouble controlling violent behavior (hero: Live Wires, boxer hero: 99 River Street,
Brick: 5 Against the House, hero at end when provoked: The Phenix City Story,
gun-obsessed rich kid: Gunman's Walk, hero loses it in battle: Hell to Eternity)
- Boxers (Dynamite Doyle: Live Wires, hero: 99 River Street)
- Shooting men in the back (villain: The Texas Rangers,
hero loses it in battle: Hell to Eternity)
related (shooting unarmed man: Gunman's Walk)
- People behaving stupidly and self-destructively in crowds
- including battle scenes (Lonely Hearts Club: Scandal Sheet,
Saipan battle: Hell to Eternity)
- De-glamorized portraits of institutions (tabloid newspapers: Scandal Sheet,
Broadway theater: 99 River Street, Cavalry: They Rode West,
college students: 5 Against the House, the South: The Phenix City Story,
hospital funding and keeping up-to-date: The Young Doctors)
- Inside looks at headquarters of crooked institutions (newspaper: Scandal Sheet,
fence: 99 River Street, vice: The Phenix City Story, The Scarface Mob)
- Failed trials (The Phenix City Story, Gunman's Walk)
- Characters who take idealistic risks to help hero (woman dispatcher: 99 River Street,
Native American medicine man: They Rode West,
police scientist from Birmingham: The Phenix City Story)
- Mass meetings demanding change (Waco citizens want law and order: The Texas Rangers,
Phenix City wants martial law: The Phenix City Story)
Imagery in Karlson:
- Sympathetic, supportive mothers (hero's mother, heroine's mother: Ladies of the Chorus,
heroine's mother: Scandal Sheet,
female officer: Tight Spot, hero's mother: The Phenix City Story,
hero's mother: The Brothers Rico,
adoptive mother: Hell to Eternity)
- People with strong family ties between men (brothers: The Texas Rangers,
Native American chief and son: They Rode West,
father and son: The Phenix City Story, brothers: The Brothers Rico,
father and son, brothers: Gunman's Walk)
- White orphans adopted into a new family of different race
(woman and Native Americans: They Rode West, hero and Japanese-Americans: Hell to Eternity)
- Joining a mainly-male institution, and finding satisfaction
in it (The Texas Rangers, Scandal Sheet, They
Rode West, The Scarface Mob, Hell to Eternity)
- Heroes who bond with an older man (publisher: Scandal Sheet,
trainer: 99 River Street, Sergeant: Hell to Eternity)
- Large dials or clocks on walls, that measure progress towards
some climactic event. (circulation: Scandal Sheet,
clock before robbery at start: Kansas City Confidential,
telethon: Tight Spot) related (gambling wheel: The Phenix City Story,
small clock and start of funeral: The Scarface Mob)
- Mirror shots (hero in dressing room: Live Wires,
women dance with mirrors: Ladies of the Chorus,
Elam enters in mirror, reflection in van: Kansas City Confidential,
hero sees himself at gym: 99 River Street,
hotel suite: Tight Spot,
mirror surveillance: 5 Against the House,
circular mirror in hotel room: Gunman's Walk,
reflection in binoculars: Hell to Eternity)
- Insides of vehicles carrying people (truck: Kansas City Confidential,
wagon: They Rode West, trailer: 5 Against the House)
- Restaurants and food scenes (The Shanghai Cobra, ordering food in night club: Live Wires,
The Texas Rangers, ordering dinner: Tight Spot, 5 Against the House, The Scarface Mob)
Drive-in (Hell to Eternity)
- Maps (The Texas Rangers, cab dispatching office: 99 River Street, The Scarface Mob)
- Telephone (The Scarface Mob), police radio (Kansas
City Confidential, The Phenix City Story), cab radio (99 River Street),
field radio (Hell to Eternity), commercial radio (Live Wires), teletype
(There Goes Kelly), mirror surveillance in the casino, voice in cart (5 Against the House)
and television (The Shanghai Cobra, 99 River Street, Tight Spot,
The Phenix City Story) technology, shown operating on-screen.
- Florist shops run by women (Ladies of the Chorus,
99 River Street) related (uniformed hero delivers flowers by truck: Live Wires,
hero drives florist delivery truck: Kansas City Confidential)
- Bad guys and their pets (pet shop as front for crooks: 99 River Street,
villain's turtles: The Phenix City Story, killer and white mare he captures: Gunman's Walk)
related (flamingo statues in villains' nightclub: Bowery Bombshell)
- Narrators introduce a team of men, one by one (bad guys: The Texas Rangers,
Keenan Wynn and others join hero's team: The Scarface Mob)
related (tracks down Bowery Boys at start: Bowery Bombshell,
tracks down chorus women at start: Ladies of the Chorus)
- Men stretched out (knocked out boxers, victim in theater: 99 River Street,
patients: They Rode West,
Keith on couch: Tight Spot,
man knocked out in brawl, murder victim: The Phenix City Story,
troops in battle: Hell to Eternity)
- Crowds addressed by a speaker from above (entertainers at finale: Ladies of the Chorus,
asking for the National Guard at finale: The Phenix City Story,
Japanese troops told to surrender at end: Hell to Eternity)
- Processions and marches (Native Americans move to new camp: They Rode West,
troops surrender at end: Hell to Eternity)
- Outdoor staircases and ramps (tenement at start: Scandal Sheet,
dock staircases: Kansas City Confidential,
ladder, ramp and stairs at end: 99 River Street,
ladders inside fort at end: They Rode West,
opening steps with murder, highway ramp, service ramp at hotel: Tight Spot,
alley, airplane steps: The Phenix City Story, The Scarface Mob)
- Glass walled rooms (candy store window, phone booth: Live Wires,
mansion, florist: Ladies of the Chorus, newspaper: Scandal Sheet,
dispatcher's office, florist: 99 River Street,
hero's living room at start: The Brothers Rico)
- Urban architecture in cityscapes (Kansas City Confidential, behind drug store: 99 River Street)
- Gates (fort: They Rode West, ferry: Tight Spot)
- Large complex structures (ferry: Tight Spot, car park: 5 Against the House)
related (parking lot: The Phenix City Story)
- Schools with playgrounds in front (The Phenix City Story, Hell to Eternity)
- Front porches of suburban houses (The Phenix City Story, Hell to Eternity)
- People who gingerly approach windows during suspense sequences (hero: They Rode West,
Ellie at Poppy Club: The Phenix City Story)
- Backstage at theaters (dressing room: Live Wires,
Ladies of the Chorus, 99 River Street)
- People holed up in hotel rooms (good guys hide from mob: Tight Spot,
two sons: Gunman's Walk)
- Landscape shots with heroes posed against hills in the background
(The Texas Rangers, Hell to Eternity)
- Elevated shots showing heroes against landscapes below
(The Texas Rangers, Hell to Eternity)
- Shots down indoor corridors or corridor-like structures, paths
or roads outside (stage door alley: 99 River Street,
hotel corridors, ferry, tunnel, road ramp: Tight Spot,
driveway at hero's house at start: Hell to Eternity)
- Depth staging
- Compositions with one character moving around
- Porthole shaped windows in buildings (Art Deco building seen in robbery: Kansas City Confidential,
saloon at end: 99 River Street)
- Shots with repeated rectangles used for graceful composition
- Circles in background (circles and knobs inside truck: Kansas City Confidential,
lights above boxers at start: 99 River Street, circular mirror: Gunman's Walk)
related (repeated oval doors of saloon: Gunman's Walk)
- Camera movements following characters through crowds (many shots: Scandal Sheet,
Poppy Club: The Phenix City Story,
Cafe Montmartre: The Scarface Mob)
- Pans (hero crawls under tables at club: Live Wires,
around fort at end: They Rode West, at apartment, after battle: Hell to Eternity)
- Path / reverse path camera movements (Gorcey enters in tux: Live Wires,
along women at dressing table: Ladies of the Chorus)
These features are not in all Karlson films.
- Heroes in leather clothes (Bobby Jordan: Live Wires,
Bobby Jordan: Bowery Bombshell,
The Texas Rangers, Spiegy: 5 Against the House,
chaps: Gunman's Walk,
Marine recruiters in Sam Browne belts: Hell to Eternity),
sometimes associated with working class professions (cab driver: 99 River Street,
telephone lineman: The Scarface Mob)
- Crooks and corrupt men in suits (crooks: Live Wires,
gangsters: Bowery Bombshell, bad reporters: Scandal Sheet,
masked criminals in suits: Kansas City Confidential,
crooks, theater men: 99 River Street, Tight Spot)
- Honest policemen in black uniforms (Scandal Sheet,
Tight Spot, 5 Against the House, Key Witness)
- White lab coats (pet shop workers: 99 River Street, doctor: They Rode West)
- Modern day men dressed like cowboys (Mississippi Mac: Tight Spot,
Jamboree Week in Reno: 5 Against the House)
- Tuxedos, often associated with night life (night club announcer, hero: Live Wires,
night club band: Bowery Bombshell,
society hero and friends, musicians: Ladies of the Chorus)
The Texas Rangers
Cleaning Up Corrupt Communities: Links to The Phenix City Story
The Texas Rangers (1951) is a film in 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
The colors in the film are also 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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Kansas City Confidential
Hard-luck Heroes in Kansas City Confidential and 99 River
Kansas City Confidential (1952) stars John Payne; 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.
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
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
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,
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
here. 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
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
99 River Street
99 River Street (1953) is a thriller.
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 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 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 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 true semi-documentaries,
in 99 River Street this technology is not used by the police, but is in
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.
- First there is a short ladder the villain and hero climb.
- Then a ramp leading up to a ship.
- Finally, above the ramp, there is a staircase on which
the hero and villain stage their final battle.
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.
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 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
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
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 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.
- the two wagon wheel structures at the ferry
- the sides of the white underground tunnel
- the ramp down which Keith drives to avoid the tailing car.
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.
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
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
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
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:
- Towards the start of the film, we see a New York ferry. It
has two elaborate wagon wheel like grids. Later, the gates of
the ferry will also include three sweeping curves, which reach
down from the posts of the ferry's grill work.
- The phrase "Directed by Phil Karlson" is superimposed
on an elaborate New York monument. The monument consists of a
series of huge arches, through which traffic can drive. The repeated
curves of the mighty arches, in the top of the screen, form a
shot of the above type.
- So do the many shots near the beginning of Rogers in the prison
laundry room. The complex laundry machinery is full of circles,
cylinders and curves of all types. The many machines repeat, forming
multiple curves. And the machines are all on raised platforms,
so they appear in the upper regions of the screen, while Rogers
and her friend are in the lower.
- Another shot shows Robinson in the hotel's ornate lobby. Once
again, there are a series of very ornate arches in the top reaches
of the screen. It too recalls the elaborate building exteriors
in Kansas City Confidential. Karlson likes this sort of
elaborately decorated public architecture.
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).
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 here 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
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.
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
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.
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:
- Both films give an in-depth look at a crooked but prosperous
- Karlson often shows both Andrews and his sinister female henchman
making their way through large crowds of people here, with the
camera following them. This was also a visual motif in Scandal
- The gambling hall in the Poppy Club recalls in architecture
the newspaper office in Scandal Sheet. Both are large,
roughly square rooms, with a separate room off the side for the
- Both are full of men dressed largely alike: in suits in Scandal
Sheet, in Army uniforms in The Phenix City Story. All
of these men look strangely ordinary and even dispirited. They
offer 100% compliance with the sinister boss and his institution.
- Both rooms also contain a Number 2 male who is totally devoted
to the crooked boss: John Derek in Scandal Sheet, the Clem
- By contrast, both rooms have a young woman working there who
is in quiet defiance of her boss: the dealer in The Phenix
City Story, reporter Donna Reed in Scandal Sheet.
- Both rooms have a large circular wheel on the wall: a gambling
wheel in The Phenix City Story, the circulation disk in
- Both rooms are the center of activities in the major institutions
in the films.
- The boss in both films causes murders to happen.
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).
- Both films deal with a highly militarized America, with men
in uniform everywhere. The hero of The Phenix City Story
is in uniform himself, a Major in the US Army who is just back
from Germany, where he was prosecuting Nazi war criminals.
- In both films, soldiers spend a lot of time hanging out in
sleazy bars, where they are entertained by sexy female singers.
- Both films deal with a serious social problem that threatens
fundamental democracy in the United States: the control by organized
crime in Phenix City, which has stopped all free elections and
law enforcement there, and the deportation of Japanese-Americans
to internment camps in Hell to Eternity.
- In both films, the hero is part of a family, and his relationships
with his parents and their community is all-important.
- Both films have much location photography of the American
communities in which they are set.
- Both films express a strong idealism about defending American
values. Both deal with real-life heroes who have done so in unique
- Both films have much about racial minorities, and the need
for better treatment of them.
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
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
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 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 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
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,
Barbara Nichols plays one of the many sympathetic strippers who
run through Karlson's work.
- Gangsters running a town
- The gangsters making their money off of vice and illegal night
- Detailed accounts of how lucrative the illegal trade is
- A small team of good guys fighting them
- The good guys making stirring public speeches against the
- A member of a racial minority being allied to the hero in
his fight - here a Fed who is a full-blooded Cherokee, as the
narrator points out
- The bad guys terrorizing the women of the good guys in their
- Crooked police who support the criminals
- Corrupt politicians who support the crooks
- A basis in actual fact
- An off-screen narrator who tells historical facts about the
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:
- Keenan Wynn plays a ex-con who reforms, and who becomes a
member of the good guy team - like the hero of The Texas Rangers.
- The scene where he and the other G-men join Ness' team is
the best in the movie. This is one of several Karlson films in
which men find satisfaction by joining an all-male institution.
The narrator gives the background of each man - as the narrator
does in The Texas Rangers, when he introduces the bad guys.
- Keenan Wynn's character meets a similar destiny, as does the
hero's brother in The Texas Rangers.
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:
- the first shot of the film, outside the Cafe Montmartre, and
its front steps.
- the platform outside the still, where the pan follows Ness
down the platform staircase to the alley.
- shots in the alley where the telephone line is.
- the scene where the good guys pick up their weapons at Ness'
warehouse. (A similar overhead view at the warehouse opens the
last raid, but without camera movement.)
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 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.
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
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
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 surpassingly non-sexist character.
The year before, a summer replacement TV series Diagnosis: Unknown (1960)
focused on a pathology laboratory. It was based on the popular Dr. Coffee 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 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 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.
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 rigeur 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.
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.
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).
- Both the heroine's and the hero's mother play prominent roles
in Ladies of the Chorus, and are quite sympathetic.
- The hero's mother in The Phenix City Story also has
a major role.
- So does the adoptive mother in Hell to Eternity. It
is his relationship with his mother that finally saves the hero
in Hell to Eternity, and restores his contact with the
- The female officer in Tight Spot is also both the loving
mother of her daughter, and a symbolic mother figure to the heroine.
She is the most sympathetic character in that film.
- The decent journalist played by Donna Reed in Scandal Sheet
is also supported by her mother, with whom she has close ties.
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 they 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.
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.
There Goes Kelly
There Goes Kelly (1945) is a modest B-movie mystery, from the start
of Karlson's career. The film, a remake of Up in the Air (1940),
is not very good, or very personal.
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.
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
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 here is of a diner. The owner-cook talks appetizingly
about food; there are similar scenes involving a chicken dinner
in The Texas Rangers. 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 piped-in-music services
in the later non-Karlson whodunit film, The Crime Doctor's
Diary (Seymour Friedman, 1949).
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.
After its opening, this film becomes very ordinary, with some
embarrassing comedy relief. A later scene involving the jukebox
has some modest merit. Still, it is important to record that most
of this film is dreary - it should not be oversold. 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 (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 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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 Karlson films will have
pet animals. These sculptures are not living animals, but perhaps they are
Links to Other 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 bad 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.