99 River Street (1953) Phil Karlson

In the 1950’s film director Phil Karlson put out a series of solid crime dramas including, “Scandal Sheet,” “Five Against the House,” “Tight Spot,” “The Phenix City Story” and two works with John Payne, “Kansas City Confidential” and “99 River Street.” Karlson made his way up from Poverty Row working with the Dead End Kids (Live Wires and Bowery Bombshell) and Charlie Chan (Dark Alibi) to working on “B” features for the big Hollywood studios.  In the 1960’s Karlson worked with Elvis (Kid Galahad), Glenn Ford (A Time for Killing), also a couple of Dean Martin’s Matt Helm films before hitting box office big time with the south’s version of Harry Callahan, “Walking Tall,” the story of Buford Pusser, a Southern lawman willing to break the law in order to fight injustice.

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Kansas City Confidential (1952) Phil Karlson

Phil Karlson made a string of crime films in the 1950′s that few could equal in volume and quality. One of his earliest and best is 1952′s “Kansas City Confidential,” a hard fisted noir thriller that never lets up in tension for its entire running time. Joe Rolfe (John Payne), is an ex-con, now gone straight, working as a florist delivery driver who is set up to take the fall for a $1.2 million bank robbery. The gang of four split up until the heat is off with plans to meet in Mexico where the money will be divided up. Through sheer perseverance, Rolfe pursues the robbers in order to clear his name; however,  but after the death of one of the crooks, shot by the police, he decides to muscle himself in on a share of the money.

The film is shot in a straight forward style with a grittiness and hard hitting violence, rare for its time. It also has the good fortune to have three of the 1950′s nastiest looking criminal character actors, Jack Elam, Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef in the kind of roles they do best. Heading up the gang is Preston Foster, who plays Tim Foster, an ex-cop, gone bad, contemptuous that after twenty years on the force, his pension is so small. His plan included having his three heavies wear face masks at all times when they meet obscuring their identities from one another, lessening the chances one will squeal on the other if they should get caught by the law. Pete Harris (Jack Elam) is first, a nervous slimy looking gun happy thug. Next is borderline psychotic, the  stone faced Boyd Kane (Neville Brand) and the last member is Tony Romano portrayed by the snake like Lee Van Cleef. It’s a rogue’s gallery of menacing ugliness.

The heist goes off as planned except that the cops pick up Rolfe as part of the gang. The truck used by the robbers was an exact replicate of Rolfe’s flower delivery truck and the police quickly come to the conclusion he was in on the job. He is eventually proven innocent however, not before one sadistic cop applies third degree tactics for three straight days in an effort to beat the “truth” out of him. Rolfe is enraged that he has been unknowingly used as a sap in the robbery. He sets out to find the criminals and seek revenge. He finds them in Mexico and assumes the identity of one of Pete Harris, after he is shot dead by Mexican police. With other gang members unaware Harris is dead, Rolfe manages  to works his way into the gang posing as the dead gang member. However, it becomes complicated with the arrival of the gang leader, along with a woman, Helen (Coleen Gray), with who Rolfe begins a relationship. Helen, it turns out, is the gang  leader’s daughter. 

“Kansas City Confidential” was one of the most brutal films to come out of the U.S. at the time and not surprisingly met with some censorship problems. It also met with wicked condemnation from critics including The New York Times’ Bosley Crowthers whose review consisted of nothing but complaining about the seedy characters and the violence. Crowthers also found it extremely hard to swallow that there could ever be a police officer who would be so brutally sadistic in attempting to coerce a confession out of a suspect.  “There is an obvious and sickening implication,” he writes,” that the Kansas City police are not only rough when they capture a suspect, but they exercise a wicked ‘third degree.’ There is one character in this little run-down, supposedly a plainclothes cop, who is as nasty and sadistic in behavior as the hero or any of the thugs. This, of course, does not lend a climate of hope or moral uplift to the film.”

The “one character” who is “supposedly a plainclothes cop” is no doubt a police officer. Mr. Crowthers inability to admit that this type of behavior sometimes exist is extraordinarily quaint. 

John Payne who transitioned himself, career wise, from Mr. Nice Guy on screen played a similar role the following year in “99 River Street,” and again in “Hell’s Island,” two other edgy Karlson crime films  and suitable follow ups to this film.

Phil Karlson made his way up from Poverty Row where he worked on the cheapest of  low budget fare like “The Shanghi Cobra” and “Dark Alibi,” two Charlie Chan mysteries,  and the Bowery Boys epics “Live Wires” and “Bowery Bombshell.” He was just moving into his golden age period with a series of films in the 1950′s that would cement his reputation as a fixture of classic low budget crime films. His works during this period included, “Scandal Sheet,” “99 River Street,” “Tight Spot,” “Five Against the House,” “The Phenix City Story” and  “The Brothers Rico.” He would also direct the two part TV premiere episodes, later combined and released in movie theaters, called “The Scarface Mob” from the TV show, “The Untouchables.”

Karlson’s later work would vary in quality ranging from the soap opera like “The Young Doctors” with an eclectic cast that included Dick Clark and Aline McMahon, an Elvis Presley remake of “Kid Galahad,” two Matt Helm films,  “The Silencers” and “The Wrecking Crew” featuring Dean Martin, the odd ball creepy horror fest about a young boy and his pet rat, “Ben” (sequel to Willard) and the red neck law and order anthem of the 1970′s, “Walking Tall.”

A Miracle Happened on 34th Street and 5th Avenue

 

Apparently back in 1947 Hollywood thought it was a good idea to release Christmas films in the middle of the year instead of the holiday season. In June of that year, two films were released within a week of each other. Both placed ads in the New York Times weeks before they opened as if it were a preliminary for the main bout.  Who will grab the public’s imagination and more importantly their dollars? The two contenders were the now almost forgotten “It Happened on 5th Avenue” and a film that would become a perennial holiday classic, “Miracle on 34th Street.”

While the stories are different, the two films do have some similarities. Both take place in New York during the holiday season, both feature kindly cherubic older men and both spread philosophies, though very different, on the goodness of man. Continue reading

Slightly Scarlet (1956) Allan Dwan

“Slightly Scarlet” is one of a few color noirs from the 1950’s (Niagara, Leave Her to Heaven and A Kiss Before Dying to name a few others). A flamboyant Technicolor crime film loosely based on James M. Cain‘s novel, “Love’s Lovely Counterfeit,” the film stars bow-tied John Payne, and two succulent looking redheads, Arlene Dahl and Rhonda Fleming.

Publicist Ben Grace (Payne) is a stooge for local underworld kingpin Solly Casper (Ted de Corsia). With an election coming up, Casper wants Grace to dig up some dirt on the anti-crime fighting mayoral candidate Frank Jansen (Kent Taylor). It turns out the weak link in Jansen’s armor is his beautiful secretary June’s (Rhonda Fleming) ex-con sister Dorothy (Arlene Dahl) who has just been released from prison. Dorothy is beautiful, sexually promiscuous and a kleptomaniac. Ben however falls for June and double-crosses his boss. Casper decides to go after the crime fighting newspaper publisher Norman Marlowe instead, killing him. With pressure mounting from the police, Casper leaves town. Ben, a guy who seems to work both sides of the law, steps in to take over the rackets. He also ends up in the middle of a sexual fantasy with the two sisters hungering for him. It all comes crashing down in a dramatic conclusion when Casper returns to town with a vengeance coming after Ben as he previously promised. 

Shot in lavish widescreen Technicolor, evocative of Douglas Sirk’s melodramas of the same period (Written on the Wind),  the visuals though drenched in rich color are filled with dark shadows and actors with half-lit faces suggestive of the bleak black and white atmosphere relished in classic noir settings. This is all attributable to cinematographer John Alton who remarkably shot this lush color film as if he were using black and white film stock. Alton, a veteran of B noir classics like “Raw Deal”, “T-Men”, “Border Incident”, all directed by Anthony Mann,  and “The Big Combo” was one of the most original and flamboyant DP’s working during this period.

    Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl create their own style of heat, as the good sister (June) and bad sister (Dorothy), though one has to wonder how does June, a secretary afford a luxurious home and a maid too. Is she providing more than secretarial services to her rich boss Jansen?  Both women are dressed in the tightest clothes imaginable accentuating their assets to the fullest degree allowable by cinematic law. Dahl has the showier role as the kleptomaniac and seductive younger needy sister. She is at times a combination of frightened, vulnerable, flirtatious and deceitful. Fleming is continually trying to protect her sister and her own desires, which seem to bounce back and forth between Ben and the kind-hearted Jansen. With their flaming red hair, the two ladies are convincingly believable as sisters.  John Payne, as Ben Grace has the most ambiguous role in the film. His character seems to be all over the map, nice guy, criminal, double crosser. You never know for sure what he is going to do. Payne was in the middle of a second phase in his career. His first began in the 1940’s when he made a series of musicals (Tin Pan Alley, Hello, Frisco Hello) for 20th Century Fox. Later on, he re-energized and changed his image with a series of crime films (99 River Street, Kansas City Confidential) and westerns (Silver Lode, Santa Fe Passage). “Slightly Scarlet” also has one of the great character actors of the 1940’s and 1950’s, Ted de Corsia as mob leader Solly Casper (what a great name!). Brooklyn born De Corsia will be familiar to many for his roles in such films as “The Lady From Shanghai,,” “The Big Combo,” “Naked City,” “The Enforcer” and “The  Killing” (he is the cop who needs to pay off his wife’s medical bills).

    Director Allan Dwan was seventy years old when he made this work and he would go on to make five more films before retiring in 1961. His first film was way back in 1911! In between, he made more than 400 films.  The eternally constipated New York Times critic, Bosley Crowther once again proved his faulty judgment by trashing this film, calling Dahl’s performance laughable and the film “an exhausting lot of twaddle.”  While the film is not in the same class as Cain’s previously adapted to the screen works such as “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, “Mildred Pierce” and the remarkable “Double Indemnity”, this is an entertaining, if not quite a classic piece of work.