These notes accompany screenings of Phil Karlson’s The Brothers Rico on January 9, 10, and 11 in Theater 2.
Phil Karlson (1908–1985) struggled against what Andrew Sarris called “cosmopolitan genre prejudices.” Even for many of us who defiantly affirmed that the movies are an art form, it may have been difficult to make the leap to acclaiming what Wikipedia labels “tough, gritty, realistic, and violent crime thrillers.” Even for a museum that currently enshrines the nightmarish portrait of someone screaming and recently extolled the proletarian virtues of a garage sale, Karlson’s ofttimes unpleasant vision and flatly naturalistic view of reality may be too obscure in its artistry to be an easy sell. Other noir directors— Welles, Lang, Aldrich, Siodmak, Tourneur, Siegel—all strived toward a visual universe that was their own. With some exceptions, this was not true of Karlson. However, critic Jake Hinkson gives him credit for possibly being “the toughest director in film noir” in a competition “to see who could inject the most head-thumping into an 80-minute potboiler.”
The case for Karlson is not helped by his humble beginnings. High art does not readily come to mind when one thinks of Charlie Chan, The Shadow, the Bowery Boys, or other denizens of “Poverty Row” studios. (We dare not even think of some of the schlock he worked on as an assistant or second unit director, from Abbott and Costello on down.) It took Karlson eight years from his directorial debut in 1946 to make such creditable films as Scandal Sheet and Kansas City Confidential, the latter based on a novel by none other than Sam Fuller. Karlson’s stature grew in the mid-1950s with 99 River Street and The Phenix City Story, and several other films and lots of television work sandwiched between them.
Then he made The Brothers Rico, which Sarris considers the director’s best film. The film is less bleak than Georges Simenon’s novella, in spite of the contribution of the renegade writer Dalton Trumbo, and in some ways the film suffers from a kind of visual flatness endemic to the Eisenhower era, when many directors found a haven in the lesser ambitions of television, and Americans saw, as Dennis Schwartz puts it, “the law as above suspicion.” True, crime was being increasingly recognized as a bland white-collar enterprise, and even Italian gangsters aspired to bourgeois respectability, a manifestation culminating in Francis Coppola’s Godfather saga. (One critic sees Eddie Rico as “the quintessential Eisenhower-era hero: the informant a hard-working business man, a family man.”) Long gone were the days when earlier Ricos, Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar and Paul Muni’s Scarface, could play out-and-out “greaseballs,” transcending these actors’ Eastern European origins. (For better or worse, this early-1930s era is now being echoed in TV’s Boardwalk Empire in its tireless search for entertaining blood, guts, and graphic sex—preferably all in the same scene—and in which no ethnic groups, even “WASPS,” are spared disdain and stereotyping. I must say I find it all engrossing fun, but maybe you have to grow up in New Jersey, with periodic visits to Atlantic City and distant relatives involved in bootlegging, to fully appreciate it.) Rico’s visual flatness is a little surprising since cinematographer Burnett Guffey was renowned for his film noir work for Nicholas Ray, Fritz Lang, Max Ophuls, and others; one of his last films was Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. Martin Scorsese later opined that the flatness reflected “a sense of unease evident in the zeitgeist of the late ’50s in America—things are not as they appear. Legit has a rotten underbelly, and hoods look legit.”
Except for a late-career comeback with Walking Tall (1975), Karlson, now able to claim large budgets, seemed to lose some of his edge. For example, his Hell to Eternity (1960) oscillates between being a strikingly beautiful widescreen war film, a social drama with a plea for tolerance, a psychological study, and a tasteless sexual sequence that is all tease in an early 1960s convention. These sections seem unduly isolated from one another. The film stars Jeffrey Hunter (sandwiched between playing John Wayne’s “half-breed” cohort in John Ford’s The Searchers and Jesus in Nick Ray’s King of Kings). It also features the great Sessue Hayakawa, as part of his post–The Bridge on the River Kwai victory lap. Karlson would soon stoop to guiding the likes of Elvis Presley and Dean Martin; he’s almost a case-history on the complications of remaining a genuine artist if one achieves a certain commercial success in the movie business.