Film Noir is often defined as an European import. The offspring of Teutonic refugees and the result of the influence of German expressionism on the American film industry. Yet the genre, style, state of mind -whatever it may be, also has room for a figure as homegrown as the director Phil Karlson. He was born in 1908 and raised in prohibition era Chicago, amid the city’s bootlegging wars. Experiences such as keeping watch for a brewery and the sight of man being gunned down right in front of him were chief childhood memories and the unsentimental roots for what would eventually be an adult mind often preoccupied with the blood-soaked workings of corruption and the violence that both makes and breaks society.
Eventually he came to Hollywood where he worked for nigh on fifteen years as a prop man and then assistant director while occasionally moonlighting as a gag man. His turn as a director came relatively late and when it did he smouldered, rather than burned, through a slew of 40s B-Pictures, from standard crime flicks to Charlie Chan vehicles. The production of which were hampered by the low rent ethos of outfits like Monogram Pictures -who demanded extreme prolificacy under penny pinching conditions- and the odd dalliance with disinterested Major studios. Yet he persevered and managed to rack up enough success to take advantage of the greater freedom offered by independents like United Artist, under which his by then formidable craftmanship and keen film sense manifested a range of hard-nosed crime melodramas -one of the most brilliant being 1952’s Kansas City Confidential.
It starts with a wall of text. An informational declaring that what we about to see are the dramatized ‘hidden files’ of a notorious case. A bank robbery, orchestrated by ‘The Big Guy’ (Preston Foster), a cool-blood figure figure who bands together a trio of career criminals – known to him and to us but anonymous, by the way of masks, to each other. They pull it off, but in the process semi-purposefully make a patsy out of Joe (John Payne), a war veteran and a former engineering student whose future was curtailed by a gambling-related conviction. It was a pall he was trying to work his way out from under by getting by as a delivery driver for a florist. Until the cops mistake his van for the getaway car. The charges are dropped but it doesn’t matter. He has reached his nadir, for he is not only humiliated and out of work but blacklisted all around town. With nothing left to lose, he gives chase. Travelling down to Mexico, to a sleepy, gin-fuelled resort where the robbers have decamped to await the payoff, in a bid to clear his name. It sounds like justice he’s after… Or is it revenge? Personal gain? Karlson’s ‘heroes’ are often motivated by some combination of the three when beaten down, only to hit back against a corruption that is systematised and therefore so ubiquitous that the lone or few honest men and women that perforate his work are forced to operate under the rules generated by the tyranny they’re out to topple.
This handicap is represented startlingly in the film’s depiction of the police. One of the authorities that the Hays Code demanded fealty towards and that Joe must appeal to in order to guarantee his innocence. In regard to the former, it is not as if classical Hollywood was a litany of ‘good cops’. There was always wriggle room and it was taken advantage of but, on this account, Karlson offers up an unusually realistic depiction of cops as, at best, ineffectual, and at worse, brutish and venal. It is evident the minute Joe is arrested and plopped down in an interrogation room. Shot in close-up with a low angle that would suggest dominance if it wasn’t dispelled by his sorry state and the figures that loom over him. They encircle Joe like a clan of sluggish and sarcastic hyenas. Jabbing at him with strikes and threats that escalate into a remarkable sequence which showcases that in addition to Karlson’s knack for directing unceremoniously brutal violence, he also knows when to effectively imply. For he elides the ‘interrogation’ and shows only Joe being escorted to and from his cell. His duress apparent in a close-up on his awkward gait, the way his shoes briefly drag on the concrete and then a shot of Joe clutching his gut just before he flops down onto his bunk.
The purveyor of Joe’s torture is the head detective, Mr. Martin (Carleton Young) who denies his involvement through distance -he’s off-screen for the duration of the torture. and in his mild-mannered demeanour, which comes off faintly as a more tempered version of the ‘The Big Guy’. A connection that becomes explicit when just short of the midpoint the latter is revealed to be one Tim Foster. A retired police captain who utilizes his insider knowledge and privilege to steal and avoid suspicion. Swapping out a fedora, a long dark coat, a calculating and threatening demeanour and the masks – each one a square piece of cloth that is disturbingly blank save for a pair of razor thin eyeholes and a slit for the mouth- for the accoutrement of a more upstanding playact; the conservative affability and slightly rumpled bucket hat of a vacationing man of means who while south of the border for a bit of fishing just happens to find himself in the company of criminals whom he puppeteers in a fashion akin to the deceptively placating ‘good cop’.
This game of duplicity is not exclusive to Foster. Joe proves that he too is a dab hand at shifting his identity when he assumes the name of one of the gang in order to trojan horse his way into their hideout. In his subsequent attempts to outmanoeuvre the boss and his proximity to owning a share or all of the cash, he raises and sustains the aforementioned conundrum. The survivability of his conscience in a world that has a reformed gambler gambling again and the railroaded pretending -and so effectively becoming- the criminal he denied being. The inspiration for all this duplicity -outside of it being hardcoded into the subject matter- could have possibly been drawn from the well of Karlson’s childhood and a personal interest in musical theatre -being a ‘song and dance man’ was an early aspiration. Wherever it came from it is powerful enough that the donning of identities appears more than once in his career. For example, just a year later, in 1953’s 99 River Street, which also stars John Payne, this time as a washed up boxer framed for his wife’s murder. He has a sidekick in Evelyn Keyes, playing a stage actor who at one point attempts to seduce the real murderer with an overblown rendition of a femme fatale. It comes across a pastiche in part because of the usual dearth of typical Noir signifiers in Karlson’s work.
In Kansas City Confidential, there are no (or next to no) Dutch angles, the architecture is more or less stable, and I counted only one exaggerated silhouette. It’s conjured quite early on and evaporates after a few seconds. Which is not to say that Karlson’s visual sense is simple. It just that it often appears so while being furtively stylised, with a penchant for close-ups that track or cut in during a moment of bug-eyed agony. Often the aftermath or else the prelude to scenes of back breaking violence such as a two on one brawl shot with a handheld that bob and weaves in and under the participants. In other scenes as well, it is the detail -both visual and aural- that really makes it hurt. The tugged and torn clothes, bruised and blood smeared faces, the thud as bodies ragdoll and drop like a sack of potatoes, and in perhaps the most disturbing moment, an extreme close-up of the film’s first fatality during his final moments. As his life leaks out his voice is turned staccato by the lead in his belly and a mouthful of blood which appears like a pitch-black reservoir threatening, with every syllable, to overflow. An image symptomatic of a film and a filmmaker dedicated to dredging up a world that is choking on the violence that shapes it.