Shadowboxing

Throwing light on underrated action master Phil Karlson at Pacific Film Archive
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Still from Scandal Sheet

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"Explosive action" may be the stuff of soppy pullquotes, but the term takes on fresh life watching the 1950s noirs of Phil Karlson. All action movies give us men and violence, but Karlson's pictures, to a rare degree, are about men living with violence. Punches aren't redemptive, they just hurt — the one throwing them too. Take the clenched former prizefighter in 99 River Street (1953), Ernie Driscoll (played by Karlson's preferred actor, the aggressively nondescript John Payne). "I'm so burned up, I take it out on everyone I see," Driscoll mutters to his loyal friend after tossing him against a car in the white heat of rage. When he finally does have reasonable cause, his maelstrom of punches exceeds the pleasure principle of vengeance by a wide margin.

If this sounds like Scorsese territory, it's probably worth mentioning that Driscoll isn't just a broken heavyweight — he also drives a taxi. Karlson's movies are tightly-coiled enough to make the decades slip just like that: 99 River Street has enough weird transferences and reversals to make me wonder if it's not a worm-hole to David Lynch's films as well. The fabulous streaks of paranoia running through the PFA selections are Cold War to the core, but the films hurdle us so quickly and illogically towards the edge of abnegation that the reactionary myth of the vigilante isn't given time to flourish.

Karlson recouped the debt owed by Dirty Harry and The French Connection (both 1971) with his 1973 hit, Walking Tall, but the '50s films are more eloquent by far. In them, brutality is simply a fact, like cigarettes or hats. The most severe scenes are sometimes the quietest, as is the case when Eddie Rico (Richard Conte) has to wait out his brother's death after unwittingly acting as a crime syndicate's bloodhound in The Brothers Rico (1957, based on a story by Georges Simenon).

Other set-ups — nearly the entire second half of the remarkable semi-documentary The Phenix City Story (1955), cowritten by Daniel Mainwaring (1956's Invasion of the Body Snatchers), with the same basic premise as Walking Tall — hardly give us room to breathe. The film's corrupt Alabama police look the other way as local "vice peddlers" terrorize citizens, rig an election, and — remember this is 1955 — murder the children of a black man with reformist sympathies in broad daylight. The smug veneer of cordiality does nothing to disguise the constant threat of violence. To the contrary, it serves as an extra taunt, a superfluous flexing of power as enraging here as it is in Barbara Kopple's documentary, Harlan County USA (1976). A trinity of resistance fighters (one of them a lawyer freshly returned from Nuremberg, an encounter with evil that still leaves him unprepared for Phenix City) can and do fight back, but resist administering the final coup de grace. They do so in deference to due process, but we're long past a constitutional triumph, à la Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). The dark truth lurking just under The Phenix City Story's roiling surface is that the noble ideal these republicans embody may not actually exist.

TIGHT SPOT: PHIL KARLSON IN THE FIFTIES

June 5–26, $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk

(510) 642-5249, www.bampfa.berkeley.edu

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