99 River Street (Karlson, 1953)

An intricate web of deceptions and delusions, Phil Karlson’s 99 River Street epitomizes Noir seediness, gazing an unflinching eye at the overlapping darkness of greed and grime. From the punishing opening boxing match to the brutal last stand finale aboard a frigate, Karlson constructs a gritty timeline of pummeling knockdowns, trading jabs between those who usually take the punches and those gleefully dishing them out.

The film becomes a sinking sandbox of personal desperation, each character attempting to regain the lost power of their desires/expectations, only to be foiled time and again by that devil, chance. Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) lost his shot at becoming the Heavyweight champion of the world, and is now relegated to driving a cab and trying to support his demanding gold-digger wife. Karlson jettison’s Driscoll into a labyrinth of collective uncertainty, seamlessly linking him to diverse story-lines involving a jewel heist, a Broadway play, and multiple murders. But each snakes back to the street, and Karlson pits his characters against exteriors oozing with menace, as if the structures themselves are luring the characters to their demise.

99 River Street exists within a singular Noir universe, where the outside world passes by without much interference, making the characters’ entrapped situations all the more dire. Ernie’s rage consistently complicates his heroic acts – at one point he’s ready to beat his cheating wife to death. But Noir has always been about shades of evil, and Ernie’s occasional outbursts against the innocent pales in comparison to the brutal violence perpetrated by the greedy criminal underbelly.

Karlson understands how to orchestrate potent violence, both offscreen and on, and like his masterful The Phenix City Story, 99 River Street interconnects devilish betrayals with justified retributions. The power struggles in these films are always shifting, molding into the dangerous environment on display. But 99 River Street makes it personal, challenging the essence of the American dream by subverting its very value. Ernie pulls himself up by his bootstraps, only to find his hard work diabolically undermined by circumstance.

The Phenix City Story (Karlson, 1955)

Phil Karlson’s striking expose on the corruption and gangsterdom plaguing Phenix City, Alabama in the early 1950’s burns with immediacy, juxtaposing real life accounts of the turmoil against a brutal, politically charged reenactment. The social conflict brimming at the heart of Phenix City stems from the apathy/fear of the townspeople who’ve gradually allowed a local criminal syndicate to grow in power. For Karlson, the devil is in the details of landscape and region.

For all its dramatic flare, The Phenix City Story brilliantly realizes the small human moments of compromise empowering and emboldening this collective evil – a passerby looking the other way, a wife pushing her husband to ignore the conflict, or an influential lawyer towing the political line. Karlson surrounds his lead characters with brooding menace, and initially these good people seem content to ignore the growing problem. But the escalation of violence, from intimidation, to beatings, to murder, roots these themes within a horrific physical context, where the consequences of inaction transcend race and class.

The Phenix City Story reminds of the best American films by Fritz Lang and Sam Fuller, where collective weaknesses and failures produce social blight and political malfeasance. For these directors, the common man holds all the power, but only if they wield it rightfully and justly. Mob violence and vigilantism equate to more of the same, an unacceptable solution when facing generations of inertia.

Framed (Karlson, 1974)

Framed mixes the violent angst of 1970’s American cinema with old school Noir seediness in a diabolical revenge story from genre giant Phil Karlson. In this Southern tale of sadism and brutality, Joe Don Baker’s gambler/bar owner shifts from fall guy to merciless hound after a long prison stint, returning to the society that failed him with writhing intensity and impatience. The entire film feels like one long, sweaty foray into a bloody domino effect created by corrupt institutions covering up their slimy exploits, and the end result isn’t pretty. During its almost comedic final moments, Framed comes close to glorifying it’s violent heroes through a mix of smarmy charm and grotesque casualness, as if getting your ear blown off or being eaten by a dog is just a part of everyday life.