Interview with Todd McCarthy and Richard Thompson
Every successful picture I've made has been based on fact.
What comes most naturally to Phil Karlson is making tough, violent action melodramas that almost invariably make money, so it is no wonder that most critics have never considered his career worthy of serious evaluation, the recent success of Walking Tall (1973) notwithstanding. Indeed, many, if not most, of the director's films were well received at the time of their release, but Karlson, as he himself concedes, always remained in the background.
Karlson, who looks younger than his sixty-six years, was raised in Chicago and studied at the Art Institute there before entering law school at Loyola University. He continued to pursue his law degree at Loyola University of Los Angeles, but to support himself in the early years of the Depression. he took a part-time job at Universal “washing toilets and dishes amt whatever the hell they gave me." As Karlson moved up the ladder at Universal (he was, at various times, assistant to director Stuart Walker and an editor for William Wyler and John Ford), the film business became increasingly attractive to him. Any ideas he may still have harbored about taking up law were abandoned when he sold a story to Will Rogers. Rogers tragically died before the story (about the head janitor in the White House during the Teapot Dome scandal) could be filmed, but Karlson was on his way.
Phil Karlson lives in a comfortable home in West Los Angeles, which is almost exactly midway between the M-G-M and the Twentieth Century-Fox studios. The astonishingly clear skies on the afternoon of the interview gave us a glimpse of how beautiful Los Angeles must have been when Karlson first arrived, before the invasion of the automobiles and the factories. Karlson also marveled at what he termed, "the clearest day since they invented smog," and began by explaining how he finally became a director after working up to it for more than ten years.
PHIL KARLSON: How I got my first picture to direct is one of the big miracles of all time, and how I continued directing is another miracle, because that picture was probably the worst picture ever made. I had been an assistant director on Abbott and Costello pictures and I had gone to Lou Costello at times - very gutty to do this, actually, without checking with the director, writer, or producer - and I would suggest gags to him. He would go in and tell the director this is what he wants to do, and he would do it and he would get laughs. Fade-out. I sort of left there, got mixed up at another studio, and the war came along and I was in the service. After that, he looked me up. He said, "You know, we've been trying to find you for two years now. I want you to direct a picture. I'm not going to be in it, but I'm going to give you the money to make the picture." He said, "What do you want to make?" I said I don't know. By this time I'm so flabbergasted that I had no idea what I wanted to do. But he put up the money and we decided on the crazy story A Wave, a WAC and a Marine . It was a nothing picture, but I was lucky because it was for Monogram and they didn't understand how bad it was because they had never made anything that was any good. Meanwhile, they had given me another story that I flipped over. Oh, I knew this was surefire. So I got into production as fast as I could with the second picture and the second picture was a tremendous hit. It was called G.I. Honeymoon .
There's one part of my story that is so important, because at one point, out of the blue, I was signed by Sam Goldwyn. He signed me as a director - I had never directed a thing in my life. Oh, I had, some second units as an editor, when they'd let me go out and shoot a few inserts here or there. An agent called me and said, “Sam Goldwyn wants to sign you." I said, “You must have the wrong guy." He said, “No, it's you. He’s bringing a young fella out from New York by the name of Garson Kanin and he wants to form a team because he likes your credits. He's talked to John Ford." I still thought this was a dream. But it wasn't. I went over there. He had an office a mile long and it was the last-mile walk... you walked all the way over to his desk, so by the time you got there, you didn’t know what the hell you were going to say or what was going on. He had an overstuffed chair for whoever his guests would be in the office, and you sat in it, and I swear to God, it went down... and he raised! You were way down here looking up at Sam Goldwyn. Of course, he was a god in those days, he made the greatest pictures. In fact, at the time, in 1937, Willy Wyler was shooting Dead End and Jack Ford was doing The Hurricane for Goldwyn.
Well, I couldn't believe it. They gave me an office that belonged to Darryl Zanuck, with a private projection room, and the man I was sharing the secretaries with - there were two secretaries in a large outer office—was one of the greatest composers that ever lived, Gershwin. I didn't know what the hell I was supposed to do. We signed the contract, I was told I was going to be with Kanin, hut I never even saw Kanin, we never got together. I was in the office waiting for calls to tell me what to do and I kept listening to this beautiful music and I became very friendly with the composer. One day I bumped into Kanin by accident and I introduced myself. He said, “Well, we're supposed to be working together." I said, “Has anybody talked to you?" He said no. I said, "Well, I'm going crazy in there. I've got an office that's so fabulous and I'm playing solitaire in there. They won't even give me anything to read." He said, “Well, you think you've got something. Come up to my apartment." He had an apartment in there, a dressing room, with kitchen facilities and the whole bit, and nobody's talked to him. And one day we both decided we're going to quit, and that's what'll open up their eyes and make them say, “Well look fellas, we got something for you." This is a complete pregnancy, this was nine months later that we walked in. I walked in first, and they were waiting for me, and in a minute I said, "Well look, if you haven't anything for me, I can't sit here any longer. Look, I've got to do things." Well, the vice-president took my contract out of the drawer, and he tore it up and said, “You have no more problems. You can go. You're free." Same thing happened with Gar Kanin. Some of the things that happen in our business... it's strange, but true, which is horrible.
TODD MCCARTHY and RICHARD THOMPSON: What were the conditions like at Monogram? Was it noticeably cheaper?
PK: Oh, of course. They had very little money. They knew what they were doing because there was a certain class of picture they were going to make and they weren't going to make anything any different. They had the Charlie Chans, the Bowery Boys, the East Side Kids, and they had the Shadows, and they had Kay Francis over there for some pictures. I made Wife Wanted  with her.
Then, of course, I got an opportunity there to make one of the first pictures, I think, in which a social statement was made on the screen. I never knew this fellow and I went to talk to him. He wasn't a star in those days, he was playing Indian parts, and that's Anthony Quinn. So I went to Tony Quinn and I talked him and his wife into playing Black Gold . I made such a strong statement that the Indian nations all picked it up. They realized what we were saying in there. The average guy that would go see a motion picture in those days went to see entertainment. We weren't making statements, we were making cops 'n' robbers and good guys and bad guys. But to look at something and see the truth, for a change, was something that was unusual in those days.
TM and RT: Who shot Black Gold? It's a good-looking film.
PK: He passed away. It was Harry Neumann. He did several things with me. He did one picture that I feel very good about, The Phenix City Story . He was an excellent cameraman. He was what we call a lab man. When you get a cameraman who's started out in the lab, not on the set, he understands development and he knows lighting, he knows what you need. He was of that breed.
Black Gold was the changing of the name from Monogram to Allied Artists because it was their first, they thought, important picture. It was the most expensive picture they had ever made, and that might have been $450,000. I made The Phenix City Story for them too, which was much later, of course. Black Gold was made in 1946.
It shows you what went on at this little company at that time. It took me a year to make Black Gold, but I made four pictures while I was making Black Gold. I wanted the seasons. I went to Churchill Downs for the Derby and had to do the races here, and I had to get some desert scenes... a lot ￼of time lapses in the picture. I made four or ve pictures while I was shooting that picture. I did Charlie Chans, I did Shadows, I did the Kay Francis picture...
TM and RT: A Gale Storm musical...
PK: A Gale Storm musical, right. All while I was doing this one picture.
TM and RT: Were you teamed up with one particular producer? Was that the way the system worked?
PK: No, no. They put me under contract. They were paying me $250 a week, and they figured, if I do enough pictures, they'll be paying me nothing, which was true. I think I did eighteen pictures one year. Well, you can't make eighteen half-hour shows in one year anymore. That's how fast we were turning them out. I'd make 'em in four days, five days, six days, seven days, and when I got a chance to do Black Gold, well, this was a career.
TM and RT: Did they have interesting ways of cutting their budgets down to the minimum?
PK: One interesting way is what I told you. You pay a director $250 a week and he makes eighteen pictures. If you break that down over eighteen pictures... say I was making $15,000 a year, they were getting a picture for nothing. They were probably putting in about $10,000 for the director when borrowing their money from the bank, so they were making money before we started. Some of those pictures cost $20,000 or $25,000.
TM and RT: What kind of outfit was Eagle-Lion?
PK: Eagle-Lion was a little higher in their standards, but Eagle-Lion is United Artists today. It's the same organization. It was Arthur Krim and Seward Benjamin and the Pickers. Those are the people that now run United Artists. Well, Eagle-Lion... that picture, The Big Cat , was a complete social statement. That was my answer to John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath .
I made a picture at Eagle-Lion... I made a discovery. Now, he's my kind of people. I don't know whether he's your kind of people or not, but I discovered Steve Allen. I'd listened to this guy on the radio, I'd go to sleep with him. He had a radio show at CBS and he was funny and entertaining to me. I decided to go down to see him and he flipped me, he really was that good, he was that quick a wit. He would walk through the audience and talk to people and come up with fine answers and very funny lines. Somebody at Eagle-Lion had thought of a feature picture that we could make in two days. We'd use all of Mack Sennett's material, and we had Bing Crosby and W. C. Fields, great talents in there. And Steve Allen was a TV M.C. In other words, he’d sit at a desk and he'd do commercials that were very funny and whatnot, and then he'd put on this show, so you'd see a W. C. Fields comedy and he'd make cracks in between. Then Crosby would come on and we had all the Keystone Kops in there. I shot it in two days. That was Steve Allen's start.
TM and RT: Was there even a script to that?
PK: Oh yes! He and I wrote it. We wrote it and did it like this in two days. Put the picture together.
TM and RT: That's amazing.
PK: Well, I was an editor, as you know, so it was pretty easy for me to get a lot of these things put together.
TM and RT: That's Down Memory Lane .
PK: That's what it is. Two days to make that picture.
TM and RT: Almost cinéma vérité. Strange idea. Was there much difference between the small studios like Monogram and Eagle-Lion and the B units of bigger studios like Universal and Columbia?
PK: Oh yes, sure.
TM and RT: Was it a lot nicer to work for a big studio, even if you were working on cheaper pictures?
PK: No! It was a lot nicer working for the smaller studio because there wasn't any committee to worry about. When they gave it to you, you were in charge. You did it. Nobody told you what to do. They couldn't afford all these guys to come in and discuss things - "Let’s get together, let's discuss it." You work in a big studio, there's an assistant producer, a producer, then there's an executive producer, then all the way up to the head of the studio.
TM and RT: It was my impression, though, that on the cheaper pictures of a big studio, the brass and the committees and whatnot paid more attention to their big, important productions rather than the small ones. That's not true?
PK: That is true, in the A echelon. But in the B echelon, they had the same bunch of guys right down the line. They had the guy, who thought he was the president of the company, who was the head of the B unit. Then he had his assistant right down the line. No, there was actually more freedom - of course, so fast! - in the smaller studios. Really, it was the greatest teacher in the world for me, because I could experiment with so many things doing these pictures. No matter what I did in the smaller studios, they thought it was fantastic, because nobody could make the pictures as fast as I could at that time, and get some quality into it by giving it a little screwier camera angle or something. That was only a fooler. Not that it was much better than the other guy's.
TM and RT: I have a question that asks for the mentality of the other side, the producers. Take, for example, Eagle-Lion, who seemed to have very good taste in directors. They had you, they had Anthony Mann doing very interesting films. How is it that studios or production units choose directors? How do they hire them? What's the currency? Is it success at the box office or credits?
PK: I must tell you that some of our biggest directors today have made the biggest flops, that is, of the older school, not the young ones coming up, because they haven't had a chance yet. But they go on money, box office. We're in a ball game today where that's even more important than it was in the era that we're discussing. At one time, anything went. Now, we're in another ball game altogether. Today, they look at that record. In all the pictures I've ever made, I don't think there's been but two pictures that lost money. And that's phenomenal, I must tell you!
TM and RT: Did Monogram have a financial formula, so that if they made a picture for, say, $80,000, they knew they could get the distribution that would almost guarantee their breaking even or making a profit?
PK: They had their own distribution. They were very liquid, that company. They really were well organized and they knew how much they could spend. They would have their money back before they even started because they got so much money from their exchanges. Right from the exhibitors. And that's where we're going to be again. That's where the whole ball game is coming back to. People say television is what killed our industry. This didn't kill our industry. What killed our industry was divorcement. Studios and theaters, that's what killed us. When they came in with the idea that this was a complete monopoly - the guy that's making the picture owns the theatre it's playing in and whatnot - that's when we got in trouble. We could have gone on, and this business would have prospered. Sure, this had to happen and it had to hurt, because people that were buying their TV sets when TV first came in were the people that couldn't afford to go to the theatre. They paid for the set and they had to enjoy it and they had to live with it. Of course, now we're in another ball game again. We're getting ready for pay TV and cable TV and everything else, with cassettes and whatnot, and our business is, I think, one day, again going to bloom.
TM and RT: I don't know if you saw it, but in Variety today there was a little box that told of a poll among citizens that asked how they felt about the value they get for their dollar paid. And there was a rating saying if they thought they were getting their money's worth with a car, or a refrigerator, or a TV, and the thing that was absolute last on the list was movies. They don't feel they're getting their money's worth when they go to the cinema. It was the very last thing on the whole list - the least value for your dollar.
PK: I have to agree with them. I think the prices they're charging are way out of line. I think it's more important to get people into the theatre than to keep them out by saying they're going to charge $4.00 or $3.50, or whatever it is, and your parking, and a little this and a little that. There was a time when people could wait until it got to the neighborhood theatre. Well, the neighborhood theatre isn't that cheap anymore.
TM and RT: Distribution is so spotty now that, very often, if a film doesn't succeed on first run, it doesn't ever get down to the nabes.
PK: That's true. That's what's wrong with exhibition today. That's why we're so proud of what's happening with Walking Tall, and so proud of what happened with Billy Jack . That in spite of bad exhibition, in spite of a lot of bad advertising and bad-mouthing... in some cases, when that starts, the critics, if they've seen the picture or not, tear it apart. Critics in big cities I don't think can hurt you, because any picture that'll take off today has to be by word of mouth. You have to tell it to somebody else. But in small towns, the critic is important, believe it or not. Where there's only ten thousand, twenty thousand people, they read the paper from the ads down to everything that's in it, and it becomes important there. Here, I don't know if people are even looking at them. There's too many important things to look at than a review by somebody they don't care about.
TM and RT: I'm still extremely interested in all these decision-making processes at a place like Monogram. Were you able to see stories and say, “I want to do that one"? Did you get to pick material and develop it?
PK: It so happened with Black Gold, yes, and The Phenix City Story, yes, but when I was there, I was like a mechanic that worked on a line. “OK, is Phil finished with this picture? Well, let's give him this one to do." My biggest job was to go home and work this picture out. Forget the story end of it, because if the story was a Charlie Chan, I knew the final denouement would be in a room and we'd sit around and we'd figure out who killed Cock Robin. But as I got through that and made Black Gold, they were so impressed that the company stepped into a whole new world - Allied Artists. They got rid of the Monogram tag. Now, they wanted to know what I would like to do next. Now they had some respect for me. Up until then, I was just somebody for whom they pressed a button and said, "C’mon in and do this."
They didn't know how much good they were doing me, though, because I was experimenting with everything I was making, trying to get my little pieces of truth here and there, that I was trying to sneak in these things that they weren't ever conscious of. In fact, they were just the opposite. They were the most conservative, right-wing guys you ever could see. They had no idea what was going on as far as the actual content was concerned. Later on, with Steve Broidy, after Trem Carr had left, and we started getting the Mirisches in there, then I started making these pictures that really said something.
Every successful picture I've made has been based on fact. Sure, plenty of fiction enters into it, but the basic idea is true. The last picture that I did for Allied Artists, thirteen years ago, was Hell to Eternity , and Hell to Eternity is one of the most important pictures that I may ever make because it was the true story of the Nisei, what happened in this country. But Allied Artists, even at that point, looked at it as a great war story that you could make for a price. They had no idea what I was doing. But when the picture was so successful, they started to see things in it they had never seen before. Forget the fact that I used five thousand Japanese and five thousand Marines that we were getting for nothing. I shot it in Okinawa in japan for under $800,000. I defy any company to make that picture for $5,000,000 today.
TM and RT: How did you get the Louisiana  project?
PK: Now, on that one, strange as it may seem, I'd met him, I'd met Jim Davis. My agent at the time was handling Jim Davis, he was handling him for his songs and personal appearances. He was a governor and he wanted to be in motion pictures! After I got to know him, I said, “There's a story here and Monogram will go for it. I'll make it.” We did what you're doing. I sat down with him, not with a recorder but with a secretary, and we just talked, and she took everything down. Well, his story was amazing. This guy had really come from the backwoods. He became a sheriff, then he became a mayor, then he became a law and order man and fought the Long regime. I said, "That's fantastic. I'll do this picture. And I'll do the story just that way." I had guys come in to him, without mentioning their names, offering him a hundred thousand dollar bribe to do this and do that. We made the picture and it reelected him governor of the state, he became so popular. Now, I've elected two governors of states. I elected a governor of Alabama that I thought might turn out to be a wonderful guy... not Wallace! ... but a man who was actually an attorney at the Nuremberg trials. Well, I thought, this man I've got to like. When I first met him, his father, who was the attorney general, was assassinated. He was the next governor of the state, right after that picture came out.
TM and RT: Like a lot of the directors that came out of that period, you strike one as being an excellent composer. That must be due to your art institute background. Did you think about that when you set a shot up?
PK: Always, always. I'll tell you one of the most fantastic stories that I don't tell, but this is in keeping with what you're talking about. In 1950 or 51 I was in Paris shooting sort of a second unit, although we had some of the people there. It was a picture that I was later fired on and I came back to the States. I'm shooting at night in Montmartre and I'd seen these paintings - there's sort of a set Montmartre painting with the Sacre Coeur in the background - and I want to avoid all this. I'm setting up in different spots and I'm shooting all night. We started shooting almost at midnight... people are going to sleep, so we could stage what we want, and we had cooperation. I had three cameras. I had two French camera crews and one American. I didn't pay too much attention to the French camera crews, because I knew my key angle was always the American crew where I could communicate better and get exactly what I wanted. Then we'd sort of half-tell them, “Now you get this and you get this." The first night, I wanted to check all three cameras and, as I got to the third camera, this elderly guy was looking through the camera. I never got a chance to look in the camera because he was always there.
Now this happened three straight nights. The third night, I got mad and I turned to my assistant and said, “I want you to go over and tell that... that cameraman that when I come over, if he'd just give me the courtesy of backing off, so I can look through and see what he's getting." He said, "That's not a cameraman. That's Pablo Picasso." And I said, "That's Picasso?!" And I went over there and practically got on my knees. Started talking to him. I said, "Do you like that?" and he said, "Very nice, very nice!" And he followed me for three straight nights. Pablo Picasso. I kept asking him, "Do you like this? Are you happy with this?" We became very close friends. He entertained me and, oh, it was beautiful.
TM and RT: A curious aspect of that period in the late 1940s and early 1950s is that there was a whole cycle of films then, some comedies, but mainly serious versions, based on Arabian Nights’ fantasies. This genre just seemed to come out of nowhere. The Western's been with us fifty years or so, but just in those eight or ten years Universal cranked out a lot of them. What prompted that?
PK: It's hard to explain that. I must tell you I made some of those too. I don't know why, but all of a sudden, I think they were trying to recapture something that we lost right after the war. That is, to go into a sort of fantasy-type entertainment. You know, the real hero up there, and he can fight anybody and do everything. I think using period for that might have been the thinking and the solution. It was pretty hard, I must tell you, to make some of that junk. That was a real tough period, actually. I got very lucky about that time because I made quite a few melodramas that had a little guts to them, and had something to say. I pulled out of there. I was lucky, actually.
TM and RT: For my money, the group of your films that interests me most is the group of crime melodramas you did in the fifties. Do you see those as a set? How did you come to deal with those themes and images over and over again, so consistently?
PK: I was born in Chicago, and I was raised in Chicago, and I went through the days of the killings and whatnot in Chicago. I remember getting twenty-five cents to stand on a comer, and if the cop was on this side of the street, to whistle real loud, and if he was on that side of the street, just to whistle softly. I was keeping a brewery going by a little whistle. So, I sort of saw all that. When I got a little older, in high school, I actually came out of a theatre, and the man in front of me was gunned down—a car pulled up alongside and gunned him down. They put five bullets in this man and he lived. His name was David Miller and he had a restaurant on the West Side of Chicago, and his brother was a lieutenant of detectives on the police force. The result of this, and I was old enough now to understand what was going on, was the killing of a great mobster by the name of Dion O’Banion.
I'll never forget when Desi Arnaz, who had seen The Phenix City Story - they'd rerun it for him - incidentally, he was the brains of the Desilu Studio, it wasn't Lucille Ball. He was actually the man who called the turns, made the decisions and was the real brain. Of course, everybody thinks it was Lucy because Lucy's such a great comedienne. Anyway, he sent for me and gave me this thing to do that all those awards on the wall are for, The Untouchables.
TM and RT: Another true story…
PK: Another true story. And I wouldn't do it, I said, because, "You'll never make it the way I want to make it because it's going to be made for TV and they won't allow this on TV." He said, "I'll get it on TV if you make it the way you did The Phenix City Story. You give me the realism." Now, this was a result of Kansas City Confidential , 99 River Street , The Brothers Rico , and all these pictures that I'd made in that era. And I did it, because he agreed to give me carte blanche. What I did was not only make a fortune for him hut make a multimillionaire out of Quinn Martin, who had very little to do with it.
TM and RT: It started him on a long line of successes, and he's still working.
PK: Oh, how successful he is! And I wouldn't do TV. That wasn't my bag. I was a motion-picture director and it's sort of a comedown to do TV. At that time, I was doing so many pictures. I did a picture I like so much called Key Witness  that took a while to catch on because they didn't realize... by the time it ran in New York, I was doing The Young Doctors  in New York, and Key Witness was the highest acclaimed picture in New York, because Key Witness was happening on the street at that time. This was thirteen years ago. They were mugging 'em in Central Park then. Now they're mugging 'em on Broadway. That's what that story was all about. People would not get involved.
TM and RT: In the world that you present in your films, especially in the crime films and in Walking Tall, you have the sense of an organized evil that is so big that for an individual to go up against it is almost incredible. This seems to recur in a number of your films. Is this something you believe in?
PK: No, I believe that you've got to speak up. It's unfortunate that I have to show it with a person. I would love to see a community get up. This goes back to Carl Foreman's and Freddie Zinnemann's High Noon , where the entire community walked away from the guy. They did the same thing with Buford Pusser, they walked away from him. Once they elected him sheriff and they saw what he was doing, nobody wanted to back him up. Everybody stayed away from him. It's too bad. One of the most important things he did was appoint the first black deputy sheriff. The first one in the South. That man was murdered. I didn't show that. I didn't want to show that.
TM and RT: Most films like this deal with the idea of individualism. Ford tried to get away from that in Wagonmaster . Remember that Western where he tried to make the whole community the hero, and involve it in a positive action?
PK: Yes, but it's almost impossible. We've tried it so many times. I think that's the only reason that John Wayne has gone on indefinitely is because he's against the world.
TM and RT: And he's big enough to make you believe it.
PK: I tried to show it in Walking Tall, in a small community. I didn't want to say this is a man that will take on Nixon next week, because he isn't and he couldn't.
TM and RT: Too honest.
PK: Yeah! That's the way I feel, too.
TM and RT: I'm very curious about your relationship with cameramen. Not just Harry Neumann, but people like Franz Planer, with the kind of textures you got in 99 River Street.
PK: Oh yeah, Franz Planer and, of course, Bernie Guffey, with whom I made many pictures. We had a great simpatico. I must tell you, I direct with very little improvisation. Well, I do use improvisation because you must improvise at different times to get what you're really looking for, because the written word can't always be told just the way we put it down. I must do the picture twice in my mind, I mean from start to finish. Just the way I see it, the entire motion picture. When I start shooting the picture, I still have this overall picture in my mind. It's very important to work that way, for me. I've tried, in lectures at USC and UCLA, to try to give our future young directors this kind of thinking, because you never shoot a picture in continuity. I may be doing the last sequence the first week on account of time and actors and whatnot - mostIy money. If you have this overall picture in mind, you're not going to go wrong, and you're not going to be out of key by jumping out of continuity. Now, once I start shooting, I want to make it better than what I had in mind, because I had some wonderful tricks in mind, I had an overall idea of what the picture should look like, but now I've got to improve on it. And I must tell you, I never have. I've never been satisfied with anything I've made, but I try to improve on what I've already pictured.
When I do color, I think in terms of black and white, I don't think in terms of color. If I'm going to do a crime story like Walking Tall, we know that blood’s going to be awfully red and it's going to be pretty disgusting when they see it. Well, you try to get that toned down, but it's impossible. When it gets through Technicolor, it comes out redder than it was on the set. My communication with cameramen has always been great, because we actually have the same goal. I want the cameraman to become a very important part of the picture, like I want the entire crew to be. It takes every one of those guys to make any of these pictures. I may be the best general in the world, but without all the privates, I'm in trouble. This I found out a long time ago when I had to make 'em in four or five days. If I had one guy that had to go to the bathroom, I was in trouble.
TM and RT: One of the things that sticks with me from those crime pictures are a lot of wonderful images and a lot of weird storytelling gimmicks. Things like John Payne watching his defeat on television at the beginning of 99 River Street. Is that the kind of thing you came up with?
PK: Yes, that would be my contribution to scripts. In fact, I must work on the script with the writer. It's impossible for me to do a picture unless I work with the writer. I think all directors should do that; there must be a meeting of the minds. It's too bad when you have a falling apart, like it happens every once and awhile, and a picture is botched up because the director had a completely different theory on what the writer was trying to say. When that happens. you have a bad picture.
TM and RT: Do you like to work with the writer at the time, rather than take the finished script and revise it the way you want it?
PK: I like to do both. Sometimes, the script is sent to you, and you go in and have a meeting on the script, for example, and I would lay my cards on the table. It becomes a complete rewrite the minute I open up my mouth. I try to break down all the pictures I make in three acts, and if you change something in the first act, that affects the other two acts and you're out of business.
TM and RT: How did you arrive at the three-act notion? ls that just for dramatic flow?
PK: No. I always feel we have weak second acts. That's the weakest part of any story. Your first act is developing characterization; you get to know the people and you either get to like them or dislike them. In the second act you've got to put them to work, and they've got to do something now. But if you've changed something in that first act, that second act isn't going to work at all, unless you really are with these people. In every picture I've ever done, you'll find that setup and that style. And I have a stylized way of shooting that you're not conscious of. I have what I call a “high and low" setup, and this is the way I put it on the screen all the time. I have directors in France that have copied every shot I've made, in pictures that they shouldn't have. They've written to me and said, "We run The Brothers Rico before we write our story." They copy it shot for shot and it means nothing to their story. It meant something to The Brothers Rico.
TM and RT: You were talking about violence before, and I must say that I think your films of the fifties were at least as violent, if not more violent, as most other films being made at that time. Do you think this was true, and was this noted at the time?
PK: It wasn't noted at the time, because most of them were in black and white. See, in black and white you're not conscious of blood.
TM and RT: I don't mean gore, necessarily.
PK: I don't mean gore either, but gore is what they say is violent. When Sam Peckinpah shoots somebody and all the blood splurts out, they say that's violent. See, I'm not a Peckinpah fan. I think he did some damn nice things, before he became violent. Violence for just violence's sake, to me, on the screen is probably the most horrendous thing you can do. But, I think, when it belongs, you should show it and you shouldn't pussyfoot around it. You should put it on there the way it happened. When people are shot, they bleed.
TM and RT: I prize, even more than shooting and bleeding, the kind of violence that brings home the point of how rough and how disorganized violence is, and how much destructive energy is loosed. Like in the fight between John Payne and Jack Lambert in 99 River Street in that little apartment. You really got a notion of how destructive two people can be.
PK: That's true. That picture, I must tell you, at the time, caused as much comment as any picture that had ever been made, on account of scenes like the one you're discussing, and a few other scenes. I can get violence without anybody touching anybody. I can set up three men in this room waiting for a man to walk in and go to a girl on the corner someplace, and you know that this man is dead.
TM and RT: You can feel the energy...
PK: I'm so sorry I couldn't talk Eddie Small into it, but I wanted to use slow motion. Only in killing scenes, where somebody's being shot or beaten up. I wanted to use that feeling at that time, but he didn't want me to do it. He said, "People won't believe in you." I said, "We need to give them a first, something different." He said, "You know why I like you, Phil, and why you'll always work for me? You believe in a close-up." Any picture I've ever made, you run it on this box and you'll think it was made for TV.
TM and RT: What kind of guy is Small? He produced a lot of good films.
PK: Oh yeah. I did eight pictures for him. Oh, he's a fantastic guy, actually more astute than most people ever gave him credit for. Probably, in his field - and he made some very good films - the most successful producer in our entire industry. Financially, no doubt about it. This man is a multi- multimillionaire.
TM and RT: But he wouldn't even let you do a test of the slow motion, just to see how it looked?
PK: Oh, he knew what slow motion was. But, you see, slow motion, to him, belonged in a Pete Smith comedy, it didn't belong in a feature film. For him, why waste the time to do all this?
TM and RT: A scene in Kansas City Confidential that sticks out in my mind as being unusual for the period - now, of course, we have all these pictures about cops and we all know that cops are just hoods with badges - but the scene that brings home the point about the cops holding him illegally overnight, beating him up, and so on…
PK: Exactly. I'll tell you, this was so far ahead of itself that I say these pictures have been copied and recopied so many times. Unfortunately, Phil Karlson never got the credit for it because I've never been a publicity hound. I come from the school where what we want to be judged by is up on the screen, not by how well I know so-and-so or so-and-so. I grew up at Columbia when I started making the important films and I worked with Harry Cohn. There was no tougher man in the whole world, and I had the pleasure of seeing this man sit in a projection room, with Freddie Kohlmar and myself, crying at Gunman's Walk . At the end of that picture, he was literally crying. Harry Cohn crying! Freddie Kohlmar got up; he was so embarrassed he walked out. Got outta there real fast. Then I started to get out and he stopped me, Harry Cohn, and he said, "Wait a minute." He now bawled out the projectionist for turning the lights on, because nobody turns any lights on unless he gives the order, presses the button. He was so moved by that picture because he had two sons and this was a story about a father and two sons. He identified completely with that motion picture and he said to me, "You're going to be the biggest director in this business and I'm going to make sure you are." Wouldn't you know, that's the last picture he was ever associated with. He went to Phoenix, Arizona, and died.
TM and RT: You can't win. So I guess you'd call him tough, but you respected him and, dare I say, liked him?
PK: No, I must tell you, it was only in the last year that I got to know him. It took nineteen years before I got to know the man. I did things that should have been in Thomas’ book.* I told them to Thomas, but Thomas didn't want to write that side of him for some reason.
* Bob Thomas, King Cohn: The Life and Times of Harry Cohn (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1967).
TM and RT: Another amazing scene is the end of Five Against the House  - the elevator scene. Was that another invention of yours?
PK: Yes it was. You know who wrote that script, Stirling Silliphant. Stirling and I went down to Reno... we didn't have a sequence like that, we didn't know how the hell to finish it, and getting the Harold's Club and everything was a problem. I saw this thing, and that's the first time I'd ever seen cars parked like that. And I thought, oh my Cod, this is a natural. This is a natural! I don't know whether you know Stirling or not, but if you give him an idea, he can walk out of the room and finish it in five minutes and bring it in to you. He's the most prolific writer I've ever worked with.
TM and RT: He also co-produced that, didn't he?
PK: Yeah. That was Stirling's first picture. Of course, he was on cloud nine - just the idea that it was being made. But he was so good, oh God! I needed certain things at certain times, and I knew I was coming up to it. All I'd have to do was call him on the phone... he'd be in a hotel. He said, "I'll have it there." I said, "I won't get to it for three hours." He said, "I'll have it for you in twenty minutes. I think it's great." And he did. He and I should have teamed up quite a few times, but he got so involved with TV, and he was so successful in it.
TM and RT: John Payne is an actor that kind of fascinates me in all those films of the 1950s. He's almost like the John Wayne of those smaller crime films. He made a lot of them with you, I know.
PK: I must tell you, this is a fellow that I literally fell in love with. This is a great human being. He's nobody's fool, to start with. He's got a wonderful creative mind himself. Kansas City Confidential was written in here with he and I loaded with a bottle of Scotch. We wrote the entire script and then we turned it over to a writer to put it in screenplay form. I did three pictures with him, and all three we did the same way. I did 99 River Street and Hell's Island  with him. With Hell's Island, we took The Maltese Falcon  and we did... The Maltese Falcon! In our own way.
TM and RT: It's funny, but no one seems to have seen Hell's Island. I saw it years ago on TV, but it's the one that doesn't get mentioned as much as the other titles. Good film.
PK: That's too bad, because it was a good film; but I have a lot of films like that. I've never understood why they didn't get the recognition they should have. I don't understand why.
TM and RT: There are some obvious similarities between The Phenix City Story and Walking Tall…
PK: There definitely are, because it's practically the same kind of a story.
TM and RT: Given those similarities, were there any differences that you picked up on, or a different way that you approached somewhat the same material?
PK: Well, of course. I'm sure you saw what I did with the black man in Walking Tall. I tried to show, to the rest of the rednecks in the South, that it's possible for a redneck to have a change of heart and admit he's wrong. That I knew I did very well and I was very proud of the way this guy comes back to him after the black man has told us, "Come around to my house tomorrow and see the bonfire." And when Joe Don Baker, the last thing, says, "Jesus, what a disappointment. There won't be a bonfire!”
TM and RT: How did you get into the project with Richard Widmark, The Secret Ways ? He produced that, didn't he?
PK: Yeah. Well, he saw The Phenix City Story. He wanted to try to get realism in it and, would you believe it, I told him I wanted to do it as a James Bond. But he hadn't heard of James Bond. I said, "If we do this tongue in cheek, we'll be the first ones." He said, "No, I don't want to do it that way." We had a big fight and I never finished the picture. The last week I left on account of that. I said we had to finish it that way, that I wanted to go all out with a bigger-than-life idea. Fade out. Fade in. He's at Columbia doing a picture and I've done The Silencers  now, and The Silencers is one of the biggest hits Columbia's had. Do you know he tried to get me to do three pictures with him after that? After he saw what I tried to tell him to do seven years earlier in a picture. Now, he realized we'd have had, maybe, the first picture that would have taken him out of the role of the guy who kicks the old lady down the steps.
TM and RT: How would you define a B movie?
PK: Well, I think a B movie was an action movie, and an A movie was a characterization of people. That's about the biggest difference we have. You never get to know anybody in a B movie. That's why I tell you I broke everything down in acts. First act, I want to develop characterization, so you get to know the people, then go on with the story. It's a slow way of telling a story, but it's the only honest way to tell it, unless you happen to have that great writing we're talking about where a character can develop in front of your eyes as you go along. Well, that's great writing. That doesn't happen very often.
TM and RT: So you think a B movie would be defined more in terms of content and story than budget or other limitations?
PK: Oh yeah. A B movie is a plot story. It's not a story of people. There's a plot involved. An A story is a story about people. I don't think we've ever made an important story, except about people. No important pictures have ever been made on plots. You know, a The Day of the Jackal  will come along where you've got something going, a plot picture with great entertainment and great interest. Now, that can happen and that can work, but that's the unusual. I know I'd have given anything to do Deliverance , and I wouldn't have done it the way it was made. I think concepts are very important and everybody sees something a little different.
Our friend Shakespeare had the right idea; if the story isn't there, it isn't there. And a director, to me, isn't a director unless he can help a story. I don't care how good it is, he must make it better. When they tell you, "Here's a great script” - I haven't read a great script yet. Maybe other fellows have, I don't know. I've talked this over with Bobby Wise and Freddie Zinnemann and Mark Robson, and we're all very close friends and we all came up together in this business, and none of us has had the great script. The closest thing to a great script... it was a toss of the coin whether I would do it, or Mark, and Mark did it. That was Champion , that was the closest thing. Actually so well written. Carl Foreman did a fantastic job on it. That was so many years ago, that kind of story wouldn't mean anything today.
Really, I've never read a great script. I've read some great ideas. But you need more than an idea to do a picture.
in Kings of the Bs, de Todd McCarthy e Charles Flynn, 1975.