The Forgotten Master of Film Noir

Born: 2 July 1908
Died: 12 December 1985

Director Phil Karlson’s best films – Tight Spot (1955), Five Against the House (1955), The Brothers Rico (1957), Hell to Eternity (1960) – present a consistent theme of betrayal, violence and revenge and an admirable bluntness of style. –  Mark Bergman1

To call Phil Karlson a ‘forgotten’ director is sad, but apt. For most of his life, except for a white-hot string of films in the 1950s, Karlson labored on films he had no real interest in, and was in many senses a victim of the Hollywood studio system, blackballed by Harry Cohn just as his career was getting off the ground. But in the end, even though many of his best films have fallen into the Public Domain, Karlson had the last laugh when his self-produced film Walking Tall (1973) made him a millionaire near the end of his life. Karlson is also attracting more critical attention of late as a superb noir director – and if anyone deserves a box set of their key works, and a book length study of their career, Karlson is that person.

Born Philip Nathan Karlstein on 2 July 1908 in Chicago, Karlson knew from an early age just how tough the world really was. As he told Todd McCarthy and Richard Thompson in a 1973 interview, even as a youngster, he was intimately acquainted with the workings of the Chicago underworld. Said Karlson,

I was born in Chicago, and I was raised in Chicago, and I went through the days of the killings and whatnot in Chicago. I remember getting twenty-five cents to stand on a corner, and if the cop was on this side of the street, to whistle real loud, and if he was on that side of the street, just to whistle softly. I was keeping a brewery going by a little whistle. So, I sort of saw all that.2

Karlson attended Marshall High School, later took painting classes at the Chicago Art Institute, and briefly pursued a career as a song and dance man, with little success. As he put it, “I had a one man show and never sold a painting”.3 Karlson then decided to pursue the law as a career as a more stable way of making a living, and attended Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles on a scholarship. To make extra money, he sold gags to comedian Buster Keaton, who then had his own studio, and started hanging around the Keaton lot.

By 1927, it was clear to Karlson that whatever interest he had in the law was minimal, and he quit one year before graduating to join Universal Pictures as a prop man. Young and brash, Karlson described his job as “washing toilets and dishes and whatever the hell they gave me”4 and talked his way into a number of short-lived assignments as an assistant to directors Arthur Lubin, Henry Koster, Tay Garnett, William Wyler, Stuart Walker and John Ford, and successfully pitched a story idea to Will Rogers, who unfortunately died in a plane crash before the film could be made. By 1940, he had spent time as a film editor, second unit director, assistant director, and had become a seasoned professional in the business.

In 1940, however, Karlson impulsively quit Universal to become a flight instructor for the Air Force, but in 1943 suffered a serious plane crash that put him in the hospital for several months, and ended his flying career. Returning to Universal, Karlson was offered his old job back, but chances of advancing to the director’s chair seemed slim.

However, Karlson soon struck up a relationship with Lou Costello, of the famed comedy team Abbott and Costello, who were just starting their long career at the studio. Bypassing all the regular channels of communication, Karlson would directly pitch gags to Costello, which Costello liked and would then insist be written into the script. While this didn’t endear him to Universal’s brass, it impressed Costello enormously, even though it ultimately cost Karlson his job at the studio.

Undeterred, Karlson took a job at Monogram Pictures, one of the cheapest ‘B’ studios in Hollywood, once again serving as an assistant director and all around utility man, until Lou Costello tracked Karlson down and made an him a rather unusual offer. Remembering Karlson’s chutzpah at Universal, Costello – who was always involved in one business venture or another – proposed that Karlson direct a film that Costello would finance. As Karlson remembered,

He said, “I want you to direct a picture. I’m not going to be in it, but I’m going to give you the money to make the picture.” He said, “What do you want to make?” I said I don’t know. By this time I’m so flabbergasted that I had no idea what I wanted to do. But he put up the money and we decided on the crazy story A Wave, a WAC and a Marine (1944). It was a nothing picture, but I was lucky because it was for Monogram and they didn’t understand how bad it was because they had never made anything that was any good. Meanwhile, they had given me another story that I flipped over. Oh, I knew this was surefire. So I got into production as fast as I could with the second picture and the second picture was a tremendous hit. It was called G.I. Honeymoon (1945).5

Astoundingly, G.I. Honeymoon was actually nominated for an Academy Award in 1946 for Best Music Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, something that never happened at Monogram. Nevertheless, both projects were strictly program pictures, ground out for the bottom half of the double bill at the nation’s theaters. But Karlson was on his way as a director, and began cranking out atmospheric programmers for the company on a regular basis.

None of Karlson’s Monogram films are really any good; but all have flashes of brilliance. In such early projects as the Charlie Chan vehicles The Shanghai Cobra (1945) and Dark Alibi (1946), the best sequences are usually wordless, and often come at the beginning of the film, as characters and setting are established with a series of heavily angled, noirishly lit sequences that sadly soon become a dim memory once the film’s dialogue-heavy script kicks in. Karlson was also saddled with some Bowery Boys films, surely the bottom of the barrel, but finally got a shot at directing something with a bit of juice – Wife Wanted (1946), starring former Warner Bros. ‘A’ lister Kay Francis, now at the end of her career.

Francis hated the film’s original script, so she and Karlson set about re-writing it almost entirely, which was helped along by the fact that Francis was the co-producer of the film. Shot in June and July of 1946 with Monogram’s typical speed and cheapness, the film effectively portrays the sordid life of a former movie star, now down on her luck (Francis, playing to type), who becomes mixed up in an illegitimate matrimonial agency run by her husband. Grimly efficient, Wife Wanted was Francis’s last film – it was not well received by the public – but it offered the first real taste of how acerbic Karlson’s vision of American life could be, something he would expand upon in his later work.

But real recognition was around the corner with Karlson’s next assignment, Black Gold (1947), which was the first film released under the newly-reorganised banner of Allied Artists Pictures – Monogram’s attempt to shed their low-budget past – and the first AA picture to be shot in colour, albeit in the markedly inferior Cinecolor process, often called “the poor man’s Technicolor.”  Even late in his career, Karlson was still proud of the project, telling McCarthy and Thompson that

I got an opportunity there to make one of the first pictures, I think, in which a social statement was made on the screen. I never knew this fellow and I went to talk to him. He wasn’t a star in those days, he was playing Indian parts, and that’s Anthony Quinn. So I went to Tony Quinn and I talked him and his wife (Katherine DeMille, producer-director Cecil B. DeMille’s adopted daughter) into playing Black Gold (1947). I made such a strong statement that the Indian nations all picked it up. They realized what we were saying in there. The average guy that would go see a motion picture in those days went to see entertainment. We weren’t making statements, we were making cops ‘n’ robbers and good guys and bad guys. But to look at something and see the truth, for a change, was something that was unusual in those days.6

The film’s narrative, based on the real-life story of the 1924 Kentucky Derby winner Black Gold, owned and trained by Native Americans Al and Rosa Hoots, is conventional, but Karlson is right in his assertion that Native Americans, accustomed to being ignored or stereotyped on the screen, responded favourably to the film’s sympathetic depiction of Native American culture. The film took nearly a year to make – during which time Karlson shot four other films for Monogram/Allied Artists – and included location shooting at Churchill Downs, with a budget of nearly $450,000, unheard for a Monogram/AA film.

During all this time, Karlson was making just $250 a week for his services, but also meeting a lot of interesting people on their way up in the business. One of the more astounding items on Karlson’s early résumé is his direction of Marilyn Monroe in a leading role in 1948’s Ladies of the Chorus for Columbia Pictures, a minor musical that nevertheless convinced Karlson that Monroe was a major talent. But when he tried to convince Columbia’s boss Harry Cohn to put Monroe under contract, he was turned down flat, to Cohn’s everlasting regret. He also made a two-day (!) feature film with comedian Steve Allen, Down Memory Lane (1949), which used clips from old Mack Sennett comedies for most of the film’s running time, with a surprise appearance by Sennett himself at the end of the film.

Black Gold, however, set Karlson up for bigger things, and with 1950’s The Iroquois Trail, a Western based on James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1757), he was working for United Artists, rather than Allied Artists – a real step up – and with 1951’s The Texas Rangers, Karlson found himself working for one of the majors, Columbia Studios. But it is with 1952’s Scandal Sheet that Karlson finally stepped into the spotlight as a major talent, with a tale of an utterly corrupt tabloid newspaper run by an equally corrupt editor, Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford) and his equally amoral protégé, Steve McCleary (John Derek).

Phil Karlson

For the first time, Karlson was working with an actor who was a real talent, with an impressive résumé to match; Crawford had recently won the Academy Award for Best Actor in the Robert Rossen’s All The King’s Men (1949), and was made to order for the role of Chapman – a brutal, rotten human being in an unforgiving business. Then, too, Karlson had the invaluable services of Burnett Guffey, the two-time Academy Award winning cameraman (for 1953’s From Here to Eternity 1953 and 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde), one of the great noir cinematographers, who gave the film an appropriately dark and foreboding look.

Phil Karlson

Broderick Crawford and Rosemary De Camp in Scandal Sheet

Phil Karlson

Donna Reed and Broderick Crawford in Scandal Sheet

But there was a problem.  Scandal Sheet was based on a novel entitled The Dark Page, written by Samuel Fuller during World War II. Fuller sold the novel to producer/director Howard Hawks for $15,000, but Hawks turned right around and sold the rights to United Artists for $100,000, which were subsequently acquired by Columbia.  In the early 1950s, Fuller was establishing a name for himself as a director with films like The Steel Helmet (1951) and Park Row (1952), and fully expected to direct the film version of The Dark Page. Karlson got the nod instead – and Fuller was furious. As he told Noel Simsolo in 1982, “Phil Karlson directed it and called it Scandal Sheet. I saw the movie, and it was so bad I left in a laughing fit. They had transformed the main characters into heroes . . . It was ridiculous!”.7

Phil Karlson

The climax of Scandal Sheet

Of course, if you’ve ever seen the film, you know that’s simply not true, but Fuller was always a much more astute self-promoter than Karlson, who simply kept his head down and kept on working. Cohn began to turn on Karlson, later admitting to screenwriter Oscar Saul “you know, I did a terrible thing to that boy”.8 What Cohn did was simple but devastating; he fired Karlson during the middle of a film, and replaced him.

First, Cohn assigned Karlson to a cheaply made pirate film, The Brigand (1952), an obvious demotion, and then topped this off by firing him halfway through the location shooting of Assignment: Paris (1952, completed by Robert Parrish), which nevertheless gave Karlson the opportunity to meet Pablo Picasso, who saw Karlson’s French and American crew working during a night shoot in the Montmartre district, and came over to investigate. Karlson thought that Picasso was one of the French camera operators, and was annoyed that Picasso kept peering through the camera viewfinder even when Karlson wanted to see the shot composition.  Finally, Karlson told the assistant director to “tell that cameraman . . . to back off” only to be told “that’s not a cameraman – that’s Pablo Picasso . . . I said ‘that’s Picasso?!’ I went over there and practically got on my knees . . . I said ‘do you like that?’ and he said ‘very nice, very nice’ . . . he followed me for three straight nights”.9

But nevertheless, it was clear that Karlson was in trouble. News of his firing got around town, and there was no place else to go but back to the minors. Forced to freelance, Karlson went after projects that meant something to him, free of studio interference. Karlson’s next project of note, Kansas City Confidential (1952) is a hard-boiled ‘caper’ film starring John Payne, Colleen Gray, Preston Foster, Neville Brand, Lee Van Cleef and Jack Elam – a maudit cast of actors if ever there was one.  The film was shot in a matter of days on a veritable shoestring for the short-lived production company Associated Players & Producers, and released through United Artists.

Phil Karlson

John Payne in Kansas City Confidential

Phil Karlson

Lee Van Cleef in Kansas City Confidential

Phil Karlson

John Payne and Neville Brand in Kansas City Confidential

Phil Karlson

Phil Karlson

Phil Karlson

A complex story of a criminal enterprise that ends in disaster, the film served as the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s breakthrough film Reservoir Dogs (1992), and as critic Gary Johnson observed is “prime Karlson. It’s brutal, hard-edged, and unflinching,”10 while Dave Kehr added that “Karlson’s filmmaking has few of the standard noir flourishes: the dark and brooding shadows, the bizarrely canted camera angles. Instead, he works through gigantic close-ups and an unusually visceral treatment of bare-knuckle violence.”11 The film attracted excellent reviews, and did solid business, leading to Karlson’s next major film, 99 River Street (1953). Once again working with actor John Payne, Karlson’s film tells the tale of Ernie Driscoll (Payne), a down and out boxer now forced to earn a meager living as a cab driver. Driscoll’s wife, Pauline (Peggie Castle), however, is fed up with whole situation, and drifts into an affair with gangster Vic Rawlins (Brad Dexter), who deals in stolen diamonds. When Vic tires of Pauline, he kills her, and tries to frame Ernie for the murder, leading to a byzantine series of double-crosses and backstabbing.

Phil Karlson

Shot by the gifted German émigré Franz Planer, who fled Hitler’s Germany but never really had the career in Hollywood he deserved, 99 River Street is even more despairing about the human condition than any of Karlson’s previous films. Produced by another small production entity, Edward Small Productions, and again released through United Artists, the film helped to consolidate Karlson’s maverick reputation, though it did little to get him back into the major studio system.

Karlson did some fast work for television on Revlon Mirror Theater and Waterfront in early 1954, and then drifted back to Columbia to helm the undistinguished western programmer They Rode West (1954), proving that Columbia still didn’t know how to properly utilise Karlson’s talents. He then bounced back with the much tougher Tight Spot (1955) for the same studio, starring Ginger Rogers as tough cookie Sherry Conley, in prison for a crime she didn’t commit, and a “grey-listed” Edward G. Robinson as attorney Lloyd Hallett, who wants her to testify against mob kingpin Benjamin Costain (an appropriately slimy Lorne Greene, in his pre-Bonanza days).

Tight Spot strikes me as one of Karlson’s more conventional, talky films, and it didn’t immediately help Karlson’s career, as he was forced to team once again with John Payne on the distinctly down-market Hell’s Island (1955), produced by the legendarily cost-conscious production team of Bill Pine and Bill Thomas, known throughout Hollywood as “the Dollar Bills” for the consummate cheapness of their numerous programmers. However, redemption of a sort arrived with 5 Against The House (1955), once again back at Columbia, but this time working on an ‘A’ level crime film.

Harry Cohn had been building up Kim Novak as a major star for studio for some time, and finally recognised that Karlson was best as a crime/thriller director. Wooing him back to the studio, Cohn cast Novak as Kaye, a nightclub singer, who becomes involved in a plot to knock over the real-life Harold’s gambling casino in Reno, Nevada. As the press book for the film noted, the film was shot almost entirely on location at the club, and as with all of the best of Karlson’s work, the resulting gritty look was a real asset to the film.

As with all casino caper films, of which this was one of the first, the plot is slight; a group of college buddies are spending an evening at Harold’s, when they overhear a guard remarking that no one can possibly rob the casino and get away with it. This starts the group planning the perfect heist, with the intent of returning the money after the robbery – just to prove that the deed can be done. But predictably, one of the group has no intention of returning the money, leading to a confrontational climax.

Phil Karlson

Phil Karlson

Based on a 1954 novel by Jack Finney, who also wrote Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1955, 5 Against The House was well received, but with numerous hands involved in the scripting – including future director Frank Tashlin – and Cohn’s interference in centering the film around the ‘sizzling’ Novak, Karlson was once again restless, and moved again to the fringes of Hollywood to create one of his undoubted masterpieces, The Phenix City Story (1955) for Allied Artists, based on the real life story of a hopelessly corrupt Alabama town in the Southern United States.

Phil Karlson

Edward Andrews in Phenix City

As the film opens, Phenix City, Alabama is a wide-open town, controlled by the smooth-talking Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews), who runs gambling, prostitution and protection rackets in the community with absolute impunity. At length, the citizens demand reform, and elect Albert Patterson (John McIntire) as Attorney General with a brief to clean up the city. But on June 18, 1954, Patterson was assassinated outside his law office, killed with three shots fired from a gun shoved in his mouth. The community rose up as one, demanding justice, which finally arrived in the form of outside intervention.

Karlson shot the film on location in Phenix City, using actual participants for some of the smaller roles, and even some of Patterson’s clothing for authenticity, to give the film a rough hewn, documentary look. He also included a one-reel prologue featuring real life newsman Clete Roberts interviewing local residents about the assassination of Patterson and its aftermath. Critical response to the film was overwhelmingly favorable, with Bosley Crowther in The New York Times writing that

scriptwriters Crane Wilbur and Dan Mainwaring and director Phil Karlson expose the raw tissue of corruption and terrorism in an American city that is steeped in vice. They catch in slashing, searching glimpses the shrewd chicanery of evil men, the callousness and baseness of their puppets and the dread and silence of local citizens. And, through a series of excellent performances, topped by that of John McIntyre as the eventually martyred crusader, they show the sinew and the bone of those who strive for decent things.12

The film became Karlson’s best known film of the era, and a reminder to the director that only by working outside the studio system could he achieve any real degree of control over his work. Allied Artists was a cheap, bottom-line company, and the film itself was shot for less than $200,000, but grossed more than $2 million (nearly $20 million today).  For Karlson, The Phenix City Story was a personal victory; as he told McCarthy and Thompson, “every successful picture I’ve made has been based on fact”.13

Phil Karlson

Phenix City was a tough film to top, but Karlson kept on working in the same noir groove with the almost equally brutal The Brothers Rico (1957), a gangland noir based on a story of the French crime writer Georges Simenon, with a script co-authored by Lewis Meltzer, Ben Perry, and the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo.

Eddie Rico (noir stalwart Richard Conte) is a retired mob bookkeeper who now owns a laundry service, but is dragged back into the underworld when one of his brothers performs a ‘hit’ for the mob, and Eddie finds that no matter how ‘respectable’ he may be now, he still can’t escape the past. Teamed once again with cinematographer Burnett Guffey, as he was on Scandal Sheet, Karlson delivers a downbeat, violent film in which blackmail, double crosses, and the inexorable influence of fate all play a hand.

This was followed by the highly successful Gunman’s Walk (1958), which at the time seemed just like another program western, shot in a mere ten days in Technicolor and CinemaScope from December 10th to 23rd in 1957. Aging Hollywood star Van Heflin plays rough-hewn Lee Hackett, an “I am the law around here” rancher who teaches his hotheaded son Ed (Tab Hunter, in perhaps his finest role) to follow in his footsteps, while younger son Davy (James Darren) is a more thoughtful type.

Gradually, Ed becomes a cold-blooded killer, while his father Lee clings to the fiction that he’s simply high-spirited, and tries to cover for Ed’s misdeeds. Eventually, Lee realises that Ed is out of control, and so father and son face off in the film’s final moments in a gunfight only one can win. Philip K. Scheuer compared the film to Shakespearean tragedy, citing “Karlson’s refusal to compromise” when faced with the script’s bleak narrative.14 Every bit as effective as Anthony Mann’s much better known Winchester ’73 (1950), Gunman’s Walk has somehow slipped through the cracks of genre history, perhaps because of the unlikely casting of Tab Hunter as Ed. Yet Hunter delivers a truly memorable performance under Karlson’s direction, and the film is more than ripe for a reappraisal.

Phil Karlson

Next up was a return to the Chicago of his youth, as producer Desi Arnaz tapped Karlson to direct the two-part pilot for the Roaring 20s television crime series The Untouchables (1959), starring Robert Stack as true-life crime fighter Elliot Ness, the leader of a gang of incorruptible lawmen dedicated to bringing down the empire of crime boss Al Capone. Originally shown as a two-part segment of Desilu Playhouse, the two-part pilot was subsequently released to theaters as The Scarface Mob, and starred Neville Brand as Capone. As Karlson remembered,

I’ll never forget when Desi Arnaz, who had seen The Phenix City Story . . . sent for me and gave me this thing to do that all those awards on the wall are for, The Untouchables . . . another true story. And I wouldn’t do it, I said, because, “You’ll never make it the way I want to make it because it’s going to be made for TV and they won’t allow this on TV.” He said, “I’ll get it on TV if you make it the way you did The Phenix City Story. You give me the realism.” Now, this was a result of Kansas City Confidential, 99 River Street, The Brothers Rico, and all these pictures that I’d made in that era. And I did it, because he agreed to give me carte blanche.15

Phil Karlson

The Scarface Mob

Phil Karlson

The Scarface Mob

The result was a smash hit series which eventually made millions of dollars for Desilu Productions, but as Karlson noted, he didn’t get anything more than a straight salary for directing the pilot which set up the entire tone for the series. (Today, of course, if a director helms the pilot for a series, she or he gets residuals on the entire run of the show, but Karlson wasn’t that lucky).

But Karlson’s career was about to take a steep turn towards much more conventional work, perhaps because he was tired of fighting the system, and wanted to make one last try at mainstream success. Thus, such later Karlson films as The Young Doctors (1961), the Elvis Presley vehicle Kid Galahad (1962), uncredited work on Ride The Wild Surf (co-directed by Don Taylor, 1964), and especially two truly embarrassing, yet highly successful spy spoofs starring Dean Martin as boozing, womanizing secret agent Matt Helm – The Silencers (1966) and The Wrecking Crew (1968) – are difficult to watch in light of the quality of his earlier work.

Phil Karlson

Phil Karlson and Dean Martin on the set of The Silencers

Phil Karlson

Charles Bronson, Robert Emhardt and Elvis Presley in Kid Galahad

By the time Daniel Mann scored a surprise hit with the film Willard (1971), about a shy young man (Bruce Davison) who trains an army of rats to slaughter his enemies (including his boss, Al Martin, played by Ernest Borgnine at his most reprehensible), Karlson was considered little more than a competent director who could bring in a film on time and under budget. Because of this, Karlson drew the assignment of directing the film’s sequel, Ben (1972), featuring an Academy Award nominated title song sung by none other than Michael Jackson. But as with all his other work, Karlson profited little from Ben, and so he decided on one last major effort to return to his roots, and simultaneously own a piece of the film himself.

Phil Karlson

The result was Walking Tall (1973), which was a smash success – far and away the greatest financial success of his career. Financed by Bing Crosby Productions, the film was shot for a mere $500,000 and grossed more than $23,000,000 (more than $125,000,000 today). As many people have noted, the film is a remake – or at least a riff on – The Phenix City Story, and as with that film, is based on the true-life story of ex-wrestler Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker), who was severely beaten up in a gambling house called The Lucky Spot after catching the proprietors cheating him during a crap game. Pusser complains to the local law, but they refuse to help him, so Pusser takes the law into his own hand, and wielding a huge wooden club, lies in wait for his attackers, and clubs them nearly to death.

Phil Karlson

Gene Evans and Joe Don Baker in Walking Tall

Phil Karlson

Joe Don Baker in Walking Tall

Put on trial, Pusser dramatically defends himself, and ripping off his shirt to show the scars left by his initial beating, tells the jury that “if you let them do this to me and get away with it, then you’re giving them the eternal right to do the same damn thing to any one of you!” The jury finds Pusser not guilty, and he runs for Sheriff, wins, and begins a cleanup campaign notable for its violence. Eventually, his enemies fight back, killing his wife Pauline (Elizabeth Hartman) and putting Pusser into the hospital once more. Prematurely checking out of the emergency room to attend his wife’s funeral, Pusser rams his car into the Lucky Spot, killing two of his attackers. Seeing this, the townspeople drag gambling equipment out of the Lucky Spot and set it on fire in the parking lot.

It would be nice to say that the film is artistically successful, but it really isn’t – it’s a revenge fantasy that looks both cheap and opportunistic, playing up to the worst instincts of mob violence. It doesn’t even hew to the real facts of the Buford Pusser story, though it is ‘inspired’ by real events. Shot by veteran Jack Marta in a simple, stripped down style with minimal subtlety, and slammed together by prolific television editor Harry Gerstad, Walking Tall is a long way from the nuanced brutality of Phenix City Story, Brothers Rico or Scandal Sheet. But it was so successful financially that it spawned two immediate theatrical sequels, neither directed by Karlson, as well as a television movie, a television series, and a 2004 remake with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, which in turn led to two more direct-to-DVD sequels.

Needless to say, Karlson was proud of Walking Tall, most of all because it was a gamble that worked, and made him financially secure for the rest of his life, while generating a wave of adoring publicity that finally shed some light on his earlier, more effective films. But it remains deeply problematic that of all of Karlson’s work, Walking Tall remains the film he is best known for today, while much of his earlier work is no longer readily available. For example, Scandal Sheet was finally released on DVD in 2009, but as part of The Samuel Fuller Collection, a seven-disc set devoted to Fuller’s work. Gunman’s Walk has never been released on DVD in the United States, and many of his early films circulate in cheap, unrestored versions that do little justice to the original film.

Phil Karlson

John Derek in Scandal Sheet

In the end, Phil Karlson emerges as a violent American original, born and brought up in Chicago, used to violence as a way of life, someone who was forced to make a great many films that he didn’t believe in, just so that he could finally get a free hand with the minor studios to make the films that he did. He knew that the films he wanted to make were not ones that studios wanted him to make, and before he gave in with the Matt Helm series, and essentially gave up, he stuck to that premise. Even Walking Tall follows this model; it was an independent film, released through a marginal distribution company, but it struck a note with audiences that Karlson well knew; that only violence helps where violence rules.

In Karlson’s best films, a truly bleak vision of American society is readily apparent; a world where everything is for sale, where no one can be trusted, where all authority is corrupt, and honest men and women have no one to turn to but themselves if they want any measure of justice. For Karlson, everything comes with a price – in blood, death, and betrayal. That’s the America that Karlson sketched out for us in the 1950s, and it’s more than relevant today. In his finest work, Karlson seems to be saying “don’t you believe what they tell you. Authority figures only look out for themselves. There are no easy answers. You won’t get what you deserve, and you won’t even get what you fight for. You’ll get what you can take, and that’s got to be enough.”

The author wishes to thank Richard Graham for his invaluable research assistance on this article.

Filmography (Feature Films)

A Wave, a WAC and a Marine (as Phil Karlstein) (1944)
There Goes Kelly (as Phil Karlstein) (1945)
G.I. Honeymoon (as Phil Karlstein)
The Shanghai Cobra (1945)
Live Wires (1946)
Swing Parade of 1946 (1946)
Dark Alibi (1946)
Behind the Mask (1946)
Bowery Bombshell (1946)
The Missing Lady (1946)
Wife Wanted (1946)
Kilroy Was Here (1947)
Black Gold (1947)
Louisiana (1947)
Rocky (1948)
Adventures in Silverado (1948)
Thunderhoof (1948)
Ladies of the Chorus (1948)
The Big Cat (1949)
Down Memory Lane (1949)
The Iroquois Trail (1950)
Lorna Doone (1951)
The Texas Rangers (1951)
Mask of the Avenger (1951)
Scandal Sheet (1952)
The Brigand (1952)
Assignment: Paris (uncredited) (1952)
Kansas City Confidential (1952)
99 River Street (1953)
They Rode West (1954)
Tight Spot (1955)
Hell’s Island (1955)
5 Against the House (1955)
The Phenix City Story (1955)
The Brothers Rico (1957)
Gunman’s Walk (1958)
The Scarface Mob (TV Movie) (1959)
Hell to Eternity (1960)
Key Witness (1960)
The Secret Ways (1961)
The Young Doctors (1961)
Kid Galahad (1962)
Rampage (1963)
Ride the Wild Surf (uncredited) (1964)
The Silencers (1966)
A Time for Killing (1967)
Alexander the Great (TV Movie) (1968)
The Wrecking Crew (1968)
Hornets’ Nest (1970)
Ben (1972)
Walking Tall (1973)
Framed (1975)

Select Bibliography

Mark Bergman. “The Phenix City Story: ‘This Will Happen to Your Kids, Too,’” Kings of the Bs; Working Within the Hollywood System, eds. Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1975), pp. 197-202.

Peter Biskind, “Vigilantes, Power and Domesticity: Images of the 50’s in Walking Tall,” Journal of Popular Film 3.3 (1974): pp. 219-229.

Steve Boisson, “Phil Karlson: No Hold Barred,” Filmfax 110 (April/June 2006): pp. 106-109.

Hubert Cohen, “’Men Have Tears in Them’: The Other Cowboy Hero,” Journal of American Culture 21.4 (Winter, 1998): pp. 57-78.

Bosley Crowther, “Top Films of 1955: Critic Has Difficulty Sifting Top Screen Achievements of the Year,” The New York Times December 25, 1955: p. X3.

Bosley Crowther, “Small But Potent: The Phenix City Story An Exciting Film,” The New York Times September 11, 1955: p. X1.

Bosley Crowther, “Screen: Sin in the South,” The New York Times 3 September 1955: p. 9.

Bosley Crowther, “Kansas City Confidential, Starring John Payne and Colleen Gray, is Presented at The Globe,” The New York Times 29 November 1952: p. 11.

Bernard F. Dick, The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row: Harry Cohn  of Columbia Pictures (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993)

Charles Higham, “A Mild and Modest Man and His Very Violent Movie,” The New York Times 12 May 1974: p. 13.

Orval Hopkins, “As A Newspaper Tale, This One’s A Good Suspense Film,” The Washington Post 27 June 1952: p. 34.

Gary Johnson, “Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential,” Images Journal (2002) http://imagesjournal.com/2002/reviews/kcconfidential/

Dave Kehr, “New DVDs: Four Films Noirs, The New York Times 10 July 2007 http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/10/movies/homevideo/10dvd.html

Todd McCarthy and Richard Thompson. “Phil Karlson: Interview, November 19, 1973” Kings of the Bs; Working Within the Hollywood System, eds. Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1975), pp. 327-345. Rpt. Cine Resort, Oct. 7 2014 http://cine-resort.blogspot.com/2014/10/phil-karlson.html

Scott O’Brien, “Kay Francis at Monogram,” Filmfax 110 (April/June 2006): pp. 110- 111, pp. 128-129.

Edwin Schallert, “Phenix City Hits Hard With Violence, Cruelty,” The Los Angeles Times 27 October 1955: p. A6.

Philip K. Scheuer, “Heflin and Hunter Winners in Walk: New Western Ranks With Best,” The Los Angeles Times 24 July 1958: p. A5.

Philip K. Scheuer, “Father-Son Conflict Gives Gunman’s Walk Stature,” The Los Angeles Times 15 June 1958: p. E1.

Philip K. Scheuer, “Reno Club Heist Hinges on Trick Gimmick Use,” The Los Angeles Times 9 June 1955: p. A9.

Philip K. Scheuer, “Facts Shout For Themselves in The Phenix City Story,” The Los Angeles Times 23 October 1955: p. D2.

Philip K. Scheuer, “Taut Crime Story Told on Screens,” The Los Angeles Times 15 January 1953: p. B6.

Noel Simsolo, “Fuller Without A Script,” Samuel Fuller: Interviews, ed. Gerald Peary, (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012): pp. 85-91. Originally appeared in La Revue du Cinéma 375 (September 1982): pp. 56-62.

Kevin Thomas, “Walking Tall Director Karlson Standing Tall After Four Decades,” The Los Angeles Times 30 April 1974: C1, C12.

John Wakeman, “Karlson, Phil (Philip N. Karlstein),” World Film Directors, Volume One, 1890-1945, ed. John Wakeman (New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1987), pp. 515-520.


  1. Mark Bergman. “The Phenix City Story: ‘This Will Happen to Your Kids, Too,’” Kings of the Bs; Working Within the Hollywood System, Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn, eds. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1975: 197-202.
  2. Todd McCarthy and Richard Thompson. “Phil Karlson: Interview, November 19, 1973” Kings of the Bs; Working Within the Hollywood System, eds. Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1975), 337.
  3. John Wakeman, “Karlson, Phil (Philip N. Karlstein),” World Film Directors, Volume One, 1890-1945, ed. John Wakeman (New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1987), p. 516.
  4. McCarthy and Thompson, 328.
  5. McCarthy and Thompson, p. 328.
  6. McCarthy and Thompson, p. 330.
  7. Noel Simsolo, “Fuller Without A Script,” Samuel Fuller: Interviews, Gerald Peary, ed.Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012: 85-91. Originally appeared in La Revue du Cinéma 375 (September 1982): 86.
  8. Bernard F. Dick, The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row: Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 8.
  9. McCarthy and Thompson, p. 336.
  10. Gary Johnson, “Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential,” Images Journal (2002) http://imagesjournal.com/2002/reviews/kcconfidential/
  11. Dave Kehr, “New DVDs: Four Films Noirs, The New York Times July 10, 2007 http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/10/movies/homevideo/10dvd.html
  12. Bosley Crowther, “Screen: Sin in the South,” The New York Times September 3, 1955: 9.
  13. McCarthy and Thompson, p. 237.
  14. Philip K. Scheuer, “Father-Son Conflict Gives Gunman’s Walk Stature,” The Los Angeles Times June 15, 1958: E1.
  15. McCarthy and Thompson, pp.337-338.

About The Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor Emeritus of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture for Rutgers University Press, which has to date published more than twenty volumes on various cultural topics. He is the author of more than thirty books on film history, theory, and criticism, as well as more than 100 articles in various academic journals. He is also an active experimental filmmaker, whose works are in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art. His recent video work is collected in the UCLA Film and Television Archive. He has also taught at The New School, Rutgers University, and the University of Amsterdam. His recent books include Synthetic Cinema: The 21st Century Movie Machine (2019), The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond (2017), Black & White Cinema: A Short History (2015); Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access (2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster); and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (2009). Dixon’s second, expanded edition of his classic book A History of Horror (2010) was published in 2023. Dixon's book A Short History of Film (2008, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) was reprinted six times through 2012. A second, revised edition was published in 2013; a third, revised edition was published in 2018; and a fourth revised edition with a great deal of new material will be published in early 2025. The book is a required text in universities throughout the world. As an experimental filmmaker, his works have been screened at The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Anthology Film Archives, Filmhuis Cavia (Amsterdam), Studio 44 (Stockholm), La lumière collective (Montréal), The BWA Katowice Museum (Poland), The Microscope Gallery, The National Film Theatre (UK), The Jewish Museum, The Millennium Film Workshop, The San Francisco Cinématheque, LA Filmforum (Los Angeles), The New Arts Lab, The Exploding Cinema (London), The Collective for Living Cinema, The Kitchen, The Filmmakers Cinématheque, Film Forum, The Amos Eno Gallery, Sla 307 Art Space, The Gallery of Modern Art, The Rice Museum, The Oberhausen Film Festival, Undercurrent, Experimental Response Cinema and other venues. In addition, Dixon’s films have been screened at numerous film festivals throughout the world, including presentations in London, New York, Toronto, Paris, Berlin, Monterrey (Mexico), Urbino (Italy), Tehran (Iran), Naples (Italy), Athens (Greece), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rybinski (Russia), Palermo (Italy), Madrid (Spain), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Australia, Qatar, Amsterdam, Vienna, Moscow, Milan, Switzerland, Croatia, Stockholm (Sweden), Havana (Cuba) and elsewhere.

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