Phil Karlson directed his first film in 1944, and over the course of the next few years he enjoyed moderate success in several genres, usually at poverty row studios. By the time the 1950s began, he was entering a new phase of his career, working for larger studios and dividing time between swashbucklers and film noir. His noir output during this period is exceptional, thanks in part to his collaboration with star John Payne, with whom he made several pictures.
Payne was known as a leading man in 40s musicals and westerns that made him a favorite with audiences. No longer one of Hollywood’s young pretty boys in 1950, the actor was transitioning and looking for edgier material to play. So he signed a deal to make action-adventure yarns for the Pine-Thomas production unit at Paramount, as well as a series of modestly budgeted crime dramas for independent producer Edward Small to be released through United Artists. In this column, I will look at three of the angry noir roles Payne did with Karlson (two of them for Small, and one for Pine-Thomas).
KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952)
This was the first collaboration. Payne plays a down-on-his-luck ex-con who becomes implicated in a heist that is masterminded by Preston Foster and involves Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand. The gritty drama takes several exciting twists and turns, and viewers get drawn into the predicament faced by Payne’s character. Though the action begins in Kansas City, it eventually moves to Borados, Mexico, as Payne tries to clear himself and unmask the culprits. Karlson shot the exterior scenes set in Mexico on Catalina Island. The film is bolstered by the presence of Coleen Gray as Payne’s love interest, a young woman determined to help him.
99 RIVER STREET (1953)
In the second outing, Payne is a boxer-turned-cabbie married to Peggie Castle but falling in love with Evelyn Keyes. Castle plays the unfaithful wife who has hooked up with crook Brad Dexter; and Keyes is an aspiring actress who gets Payne involved in a murder plot. The two stories gradually become intertwined, and once more we have Payne trying to clear himself of wrong-doing. This film features several standout performances from character actors in supporting roles. In addition to Dexter, we have Jay Adler playing a clever crime boss, and Frank Faylen as Payne’s boss at the local cab company. The action culminates in a tense standoff along a pier located at a dangerous address referenced in the title.
HELL’S ISLAND (1955)
The third Karlson-Payne project was a color noir shot in widescreen. This time the director and star were not working for Edward Small, but instead for Pine-Thomas at Paramount. The somewhat larger budget given this production allowed it to be made in Technicolor and VistaVision. The story has Payne in pursuit of a stolen ruby down in the Caribbean, which causes him to cross paths with an ex-girlfriend who deals in deception. Mary Murphy plays the femme fatale; and Paul Picerni is her imprisoned husband that Payne may or may not help break out of jail. Karlson’s hard-hitting direction was praised, and so were the colorful characters, and Payne’s tough performance.
In addition to the three films mentioned above, Karlson and Payne would collaborate again on television. They both worked on the Studio 57 episode ‘Deadline’ broadcast on February 26, 1956.