One of the greatest ellipses in film history comes at the beginning of 99 River Street (Phil Karlson 1953). The film opens in a boxing ring, where two fighters are in the middle of a match. Suddenly the scene becomes slow-motion and a voice-over appears and then the camera pulls back to reveal a TV set on which the fight is shown, and then a man appears, sitting in front of the TV. The man is one of the fighters, now watching a re-run of the fight. A fight in which he lost, and after which he had to give up his career as a boxer. Now he drives a taxi cab. He is not a happy man, with a violent undercurrent, but on the whole decent, and when a woman asks for help he steps in. A steady maelstrom of threats, deaths and violence follows.

99 River Street is not only one of Karlson's finest films, but one of the finest films of the 1950s. Unseen by most, it is an example of the richness of American cinema during the studio era, in which any conceivable film could be made, on any kind of budget, from a number of political perspectives from borderline fascist to borderline communist, and anything in between. And for every famous, glamourous, expensive MGM production with a number of movie stars (the kind of film which for most people symbolises Hollywood) there is its antidote in the cheap, unknown, seedy, independent production, of which 99 River Street is a prime example. One is not better than the other, true artists such as George Cukor[1] and Vincente Minnelli did their best films for MGM, famous and expensive with a number of movie stars yet personal and unique, and likewise great films were made at the other end. Each side should be treated with equal respect.

There is much talk about the various studios in Hollywood having their own unique look, that the studio was the auteur. While it is true that a Paramount film might differ from Warner Bros. which might differ from Universal which might differ from MGM, it is also true that a film by Fritz Lang made for MGM is different from the films Fred Zinnemann made for MGM, and their films are very different from the films Cukor and Minnelli made there, in style, sentiment, temperament, just as the films of Cukor and Minnelli are very different from one another. This is because different directors have different tastes, concerns, themes and temperaments, and consequently the films of one are different from the films made by another. So it also is by those filmmakers who work further down the budget scale.

Peter Wollen once claimed, in Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, that Howard Hawks was the test case for the auteur theory[2] but that is a debatable point. On the one hand, are not all directors test cases? On the other, Hawks worked with considerable freedom, not being contracted to a specific studio and often being his own producer (like many of the big Hollywood directors). The Hawksian imprint is also rather obvious. With somebody like Karlson it is different, and more difficult. What I will say below of Karlson's films is true, but not for all of them. Some are more Karlsonian than others. A lot of his films were made with little thought or interest, especially in the 1940s, but every now and then he would make something that mattered to him, and in the 1950s most of the films he made were such films.

The best of his films are of a distinctly visceral, tactile kind. The physical impact of them, how the energy and tension of the images, how the violence directed towards the bodies of his characters, the pain inflicted upon them, how it pierces its way through the screen and onto the spectator, is remarkable, bordering on unique. He is comparable to Sam Fuller, but Karlson is more rough and less anarchic than Fuller (who wrote the script for Scandal Sheet, directed by Karlson in 1952). Another comparison is Robert Aldrich, but Aldrich is more elaborate and expensive. The best of Karlson's films have an urgency, a sense of violent desperation, and there is also a muckraking aspect to them. He wants to tell the truth, as he sees it, about the underworld, show the blood and the scars that covers the bodies of the downtrodden and the forgotten. The most explosive example is The Phenix City Story (1955), about a small town taken over by mobsters and based on a real incident, with Karlson filming on location, locals appearing as themselves and some actors wearing the same clothes as worn by those whom they are portraying. Kansas City Confidential (1952) is about the aftermaths of an armour car robbery (it is the kind of film where a suspect is taken into custody, is beaten up by the police for a couple of days, and then released with a ”Sorry, we got the wrong guy.”). Tight Spot (1955) is about a woman, played by Ginger Rogers, asked to testify against a mobster. The Brothers Rico (1957), based on a novel by Georges Simenon, is also about the mob, and The Scarface Mob (1959) is a fine TV-film about federal agent Eliot Ness’s campaign against Al Capone in the Chicago in which Karlson grow up. (It was partly based on Ness’s own book, written with Oscar Fraley, about his time in Chicago, and also the inspiration for Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), which was the name of Ness’s book.)

But they are not all crime films. Black Gold (1948) is set in 1920s Texas and about a Native American farmer who breeds horses and who becomes friends with a Chinese American boy, united by the fact that their fathers were both killed by white men. They Rode West (1954) is about the conflict between a doctor assigned to the cavalry and his commanding officer when the doctor wants to treat Native Americans sick with malaria. They are sick because they have been forced to move from their (malaria-free) land to an unsafe part of the country. It was co-written by Frank S. Nugent, otherwise known for his close collaboration with John Ford. Nugent also wrote, for Karlson, the western Gunman’s Walk (1958).

In the 1960s, as in the 1940s, Karlson’s films are of a more varied kind, but unlike the 1940s, they now have big budgets and glamorous stars, including Elvis Presley in Kid Galahad (1962) and Dean Martin in The Silencers (1966) and The Wrecking Crew (1968), the two films Karlson made in the James Bond-inspired Matt Helm series. His most successful film, financially, was his penultimate one, Walking Tall (1973), with is «suggested by certain events» concerning a sheriff, Buford Pusser, who is standing up against criminals and corruption in a small town. Judging by his earlier films, Karlson often feels progressive, but even though Walking Tall follows in the footstep of, primarily, The Phenix City Story, it is different. The times have changed and the film has an unsavoury atmosphere, with justice frequently served at the end of a large stick. It has been accused of being fascist although, of course, standing up against crime and corruption is not necessarily a fascist thing to do, and the racial politics in the film are interesting. Pusser’s best friend, Obra Eaker, is a black man, and when Pusser gets elected sheriff he appoints Eaker as his deputy, something which only adds to the hostilities between the local thugs and Pusser.[3] In the earlier The Phenix City Story race also plays an important part, in a progressive and interesting way.

Over the years Karlson worked with many producers, scriptwriters and cinematographers, as well as other collaborators. He did not always call the shots, but whenever he could he tried to put something of himself into the films, and, as he said, put some truth into them.[4] How successful he was at doing this varied from film to film, and from decade to decade, and the films he made in the 1950s towers over the rest of them. He made around 50 films, and several TV productions, and as V.F. Perkins has pointed out, «[t]he director’s authority is a matter not of total creation but of sufficient control.»[5] On how many of these films Karlson had sufficient control, or even cared, is hard to say. But the exact number is not that important, there are enough films where it is possible to say that he did care and he did make them his own.

There is also another dimension to auteurism. Michel Foucault once asked rhetorically «What matter who’s speaking?»[6] and while he did not think it mattered it actually does. If it did not matter there would not, for example, be a problem that so few women have been allowed to make films, or that immigrants rarely make films either. If you have a voice, and is listened to, like a prestigious French academic like Foucault, it might not matter who is speaking, but if you have never been given a voice it might matter a great deal. Filmmakers like Phil Karlson, with their radical streak, tell stories others will not, and the unsettling low budget films he made in the 1950s could be called a kind of minor cinema,[7] together with the films of likeminded directors such as George Sherman, Ida Lupino, Joseph H. Lewis[8] and Edgar J. Ulmer. Karlson is different in that he eventually got to make big blockbusters, unlike the others, but for a while he was one of them.

It might be too much to call Karlson an auteur; maybe he was just a director for whom the 1950s was exceptionally lucky. The challenge is to see whether the whole of his oeuvre become something larger than each individual film. Such is the case with the films of Bergman or Ford or Kurosawa, and others, their individual films work on their own, but when seen together they take on an added meaning and force. The artist behind them shines through and unites them. For the person watching the individual film it might not be apparent and it might not matter, but it is there for those who have taken an interest in the whole body of work. Karlson is not comparable to such filmmakers, but he is a subject for further research. There is still a book to be written about Karlson’s career as a whole.



Fredrik Gustafsson



[1] Fredrik Gustafsson, “The Career of George Cukor: A Love Letter to the Art of Acting”, La Furia Umana, paper #2, 2013, pp.35-35.

[2] Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, Secker & Warburg / London 1969, p. 80.

[3] Pauline Kael has written a fine analysis of the film to be found in the collection Reeling, Little Brown / Boston 1976.

[4] Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn (edited by), Kings of the Bs, Dutton / New York 1975, pp. 327-345.

[5] V.F. Perkins, Film as Film, Da Capo Press / New York 1993, p. 184.

[6] Michel Foucault, “What is an Author” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, Basil Blackwell / Oxford, 1977 p. 290.

[7] Gilles Deleuze talks about minor cinema in the second of his Cinema books (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1995), although with special reference to non-Western filmmaking.

[8] Fredrik Gustafsson, “On Pain and Anger in the Films of Joseph H. Lewis”, La Furia Umana, Paper #1, 2013, pp.126-129.