Modern Gothic vehemence… a chilling documentary exactness and an exciting shot-scattering belligerence.
That’s Manny Farber in his essay “Underground Movies,” describing some tendencies found within Phil Karlson’s filmography. I think I’ll add abrasiveness and angularity to his pool of nouns as well. Each one of them is immediately apparent in The Phenix City Story (1955), which may be Karlson’s magnum opus and which is also the subject of my most recent column over at Movie Mezzanine. I’m especially fond of that “modern Gothic vehemence”: Karlson’s movies are forceful, like a boxer’s glove coming toward your face in 3D, the full power of a heavyweight artist behind them. (They’re kin to the films of Samuel Fuller, whose own novel The Dark Page was actually filmed by Karlson as the 1952 newspaper noir Scandal Sheet.)
In addition to The Phenix City Story, I recently watched Karlson’s 5 Against the House (also 1955) which is thankfully much milder. No child murders or bloody mass beatings here; just four college buddies goofing around, two of whom served together in the Korean War, and one of whom was psychologically damaged by the experience. As a prank, the friends plot a brilliant heist on a Reno casino, intending to return the money later—but Brick (Brian Keith) is slipping into psychosis due to his post-traumatic stress, and he has other plans. 5 Against the House starts out as a lightweight comedy of Eisenhower-era male bonding, which makes its descent into mental illness and very real noir danger that much more gripping. Brick’s a reluctant villain, and his friends are reluctant heroes; no one thinks they’re in a crime thriller. The normal turns into the abnormal so quickly that you hardly notice at first.
This, I think, speaks to one of Karlson’s greatest directorial strengths: he seems to coax brutality out of the everyday. His are blue-collar movies; sloppy, smudged, fashioning a world you can imagine living in before he blows it all to hell. John Payne’s ex-prizefighter in 99 River Street (1953), for example, has real relationships that he needs to balance with the bitterness seething inside him. The residents of Phenix City have homes and families they don’t want to endanger. Maybe this is the “chilling documentary exactness” Farber spoke of. His movies reek of tabloid sensationalism, but that never keeps them from being uncomfortably plausible. They’re like a full-page spread of crime scene photos snapped right in your own backyard.