Category Archives: Phil Karlson

Blu-Ray News #330: The Matt Helm Movies (1966-69).

Dean’s Martin’s Matt Helm series of James Bond spoofs, based on Donald Hamilton’s hard-boiled spy novels, is coming to Blu-Ray in the UK, thanks to Mediumrare Entertainment. The set’s called The Matt Helm Lounge, the same name Columbia called the set they released on DVD in the US.

In 1966, it seems that the only way to compete with the James Bond juggernaut was to spoof it, as these films, the Derek Flint pictures and countless one-offs show. The lone exception might be the Harry Palmer films, starting with The Ipcress File (1965). 

The Helms bear almost no resemblance to the novels, aside from Helm’s name the the book titles. (Actually, The Silencers borrows a couple things from Hamilton’s Death Of A Citizen.) Love ’em or hate ’em, the Matt Helm films are exactly what you’d expect from James Bond spoofs starring Dean Martin. While the Helm pictures were meant to make fun of the James Bond films (and cash in on the spy craze), the Bond pictures themselves would eventually adopt the tone of spoofs like these. 

The Silencers (1966)
Directed by Phil Karlson
Starring Dean Martin, Stella Stevens, Daliah Lavi, Victor Buono, Arthur O’Connell, Robert Webber, James Gregory, Nancy Kovack, Beverly Adams

Opening around the same time as Martin’s TV show, The Silencers was a huge hit. Believe it or not, at one point it was going to be a serious film, with a screenplay by Oscar Saul. It was director Phil Karlson’s idea to go for the tongue-in-cheek approach, and Saul’s script was rewritten by Herbert Baker, who was writing for The Dean Martin Show. Baker does not get credit. By the way, Baker wrote the incredible The Girl Can’t Help It (1956).

Dean Martin, Nancy Kovack and Phil Karlson.

Stella Stevens is terrific as Gail Hendricks, a bumbling agent Matt gets stuck with. She shows a real flair for comedy. It’s a shame Ms. Stevens was never recognized as the talent she was.

Dean/Matt has a tricked-out station wagon, complete with a bed and a bar, and a pistol that shoots backwards. The picture was shot by the great Burnett Guffey, a year before he’d head to Texas to shoot Bonnie And Clyde (1967). Elmer Bernstein provides a great score, that somehow mixes a little Rat Pack swing with the appropriate secret agent feel.

Murderers’ Row (1966)
Directed by Henry Levin
Starring Dean Martin, Ann-Margret, Karl Malden, Camilla Sparv, James Gregory, Beverly Adams

Oscar Saul wrote a draft or two for this one, too, and Herbert Baker rewrote that. The credits are the reverse of the last one; this time, Saul is not credited.

Murderers’ Row was supposed to be shot on location, but Dean Martin refused to go to Europe, and being that he was a co-producer, he got his way. Ann-Margret is a real firecracker, as always, and Karl Malden looks like he’s having fun. James Gregory and Beverly Adams are back from ICE HQ. The gadgets this time include a cigarette that launches a tiny missile, something that would turn up in the next Bond film, You Only Live Twice (1967).

The score this time comes from Lalo Schifrin, and it’s a good one. The group Dino, Desi & Billy (Dino is Dean Paul Martin, Dean’s son) appear in a discotheque scene.

The Ambushers (1967)

Directed by Henry Levin
Starring Dean Martin, Senta Berger, Janice Rule, James Gregory, Albert Salmi, Beverly Adams

Every series has a low point, a weak link, and in the Matt Helm movies, The Ambushers is it. Again written by Herbert Baker, it doesn’t have quite the sense of fun of the previous two. Doesn’t have much of a plot, either. As Roger Ebert put it in his review back in ’67, “Dean plays Matt Helm again, and goes to Acapulco, and drives up and down scenic highways with ravishing beauties, and occasionally gets shot at.” There’s a UFO, by the way.

This time, Hugo Montenegro composed the score. There was no soundtrack album, unfortunately. The music’s the best thing in the movie.

The Wrecking Crew (1969)
Directed by Phil Karlson
Starring Dean Martin, Elke Sommer, Sharon Tate, Nancy Kwan, Nigel Green, Tina Louise

Getting Phil Karlson back as director was a good idea, as The Wrecking Crew is easily the best in the series, except for maybe The Silencers. A new writer was brought in, William P. McGivern, who wrote the stories that became The Big Heat (1953) and Shield For Murder (1954) and the script for William Castle’s I Saw What You Did (1965). He also wrote a couple of episodes of Adam-12.

There’s some other interesting casting. James Gregory is replaced as MacDonald by John Larch. Bruce Lee provided choreography for the martial arts scenes. And Chuck Norris appears as a henchman in a scene or two.

Bruce Lee trains Nancy Kwan and Sharon Tate train for thier fight scene.

The film’s claim to fame today is that it the last Sharon Tate released in her lifetime. She was murdered by the Manson family in August of 1969. She’s very good here as an incompetent aide to Helm similar to Stella Stevens in the first one. There were plans to make a fifth Matt Helm picture, The Ravagers, with Tate back as Miss Carlson. Some say The Ravagers was cancelled due to lackluster grosses for The Wrecking Crew, but after Sharon’s murder, Dean Martin pulled the plug on it.

I remember sitting in the back seat of the family Chevrolet and seeing this trailer for The Wrecking Crew at The Hi-Way Drive-In in Thomasville, Georgia. I was five. Funny, but I don’t remember what movie we saw, just this trailer.

Bright and breezy with great modern architecture and furniture, these films will look terrific in high definition when they arrive in April. They were originally 1.85. Not sure what the set’s region status will be, but it comes highly recommended anyway.

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Filed under 1966, 1967, 1969, Ann-Margret, Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Columbia, Dean Martin, DVD/Blu-ray News, Henry Levin, James Gregory, Phil Karlson, Senta Berger, Sharon Tate, Stella Stevens

Happy Birthday, Stella Stevens.

Stella Stevens (Estelle Eggleston)
(Born October 1, 1938)

Here’s wishing a happy birthday to Stella Stevens, an actress who was often wonderful — and always under-appreciated.

Working on a commentary for her picture Rage (1967) recently, I’ve been reminded again and again of how good she is. She’s seen here in The Silencers (1966), the first of the Matt Helm movies starring Dean Martin. She easily walks away with the movie.

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Filed under 1966, Dean Martin, Phil Karlson, Stella Stevens

One Quick Thing.

The second volume of Kit Parker’s Noir Archive series showed up yesterday. In a year filled with really great stuff coming out on Blu-Ray, this might be my favorite so far.

Four of my favorite B directors are here: William Castle, Nathan Juran, Phil Karlson and Fred F. Sears. Some of my favorite actors, too — John Agar, Robert Blake, Mari Blanchard, Timothy Carey, Richard Denning, Faith Domergue, Vince Edwards, Beverly Garland, Brian Keith, Guy Madison, Kim Novack and more.

All nine pictures look terrific — the Columbia transfers are almost flawless. Proper reviews will follow, but I can’t recommend Noir Archives Volume 2: 1954-1956 highly enough.

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Filed under 1954, 1955, 1956, Beverly Garland, Columbia, DVD/Blu-ray News, Faith Domergue, Fred F. Sears, John Agar, Kit Parker, Mari Blanchard, Nathan Juran, Phil Karlson, Richard Denning, Sam Katzman, Timothy Carey, William Castle

Blu-Rays News #242: The Secret Ways (1961).

Directed by Phil Karlson
Starring Richard Widmark, Sonja Ziemann, Howard Vernon, Senta Berger

Phil Karlson is one of my favorite directors, and it’s always good to see one of his films come to Blu-Ray (from Kino Lorber in the fall). The time, it’s The Secret Ways (1961), a pre-007 spy movie. Karlson and Widmark didn’t see eye to eye on the approach to the movie, and Widmark took over direction of the last week of the shoot. There’s plenty of the typical hard-edged vibe you get with Karlson to recommend this one. A very cool movie.

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Filed under 1961, DVD/Blu-ray News, Phil Karlson, Richard Widmark

Blu-Ray News #229: Noir Archive Volume 2: 1954-1956.

The first nine-film, three-disc volume in Kit Parker’s awesome assemblage of hi-def Film Noir hasn’t hit the street yet, and now the second’s been announced. These are coming in July, and it’s another great lineup.

Bait (1954)
Directed by Hugo Haas
Starring Cleo Moore, Hugo Haas, John Agar

Hugo Haas directs himself, Cleo Moore and John Agar in a love triangle involving a lost gold mine.

The Crooked Web (1955)
Directed by Nathan Juran
Starring Frank Lovejoy, Mari Blanchard, Richard Denning

Nathan Juran directed lots of cool stuff, but this is the only one with Mari Blanchard as a waitress. This one involves gold, too, but it’s a stash of Nazi gold. Nathan Juran did some cool stuff — from The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad (1957) to Good Day For A Hanging (1958).

The Night Holds Terror (1955)
Directed by Andrew Stone
Starring Jack Kelly, Hildy Parks, Vince Edwards, John Cassavetes, David Cross, Jonathan Hale

Sort of a combination of The Hitch-Hiker and The Desperate Hours, with John Cassavetes one of the crooks.

Footsteps In The Fog (1955)
Directed by Arthur Lubin
Starring Stewart Granger, Jean Simmons, Bill Travers, Ronald Squire

The only picture in the set in color, this one has Stewart Granger as a killer who chooses the wrong victim, literally.

Cell_2455_Death_Row LC

Cell 2455, Death Row (1955)
Directed by Fred F. Sears
Starring William Campbell, Marian Carr, Kathryn Grant, Harvey Stephens, Vince Edwards

Based on the true story by Caryl Chessman. Director Fred F. Sears is a real favorite of mine.

5 Against The House (1955)
Directed by Phil Karlson
Starring Kim Novack, Alvy Moore, William Conrad, Kerwin Mathews

A team of Army buddies snag a camper trailer and head to Reno to rob the casinos. Phil Karlson keeps things tough and tight. Terrific movie.

New Orleans Uncensored (1955)
Directed by William Castle
Starring Arthur Franz, Beverly Garland, Helene Stanton, Mike Mazurki

William Castle working for Sam Katzman. Beverly Garland. Black and white widescreen. Why haven’t you pre-ordered one already?

Spin A Dark Web (1955)
Directed by Vernon Sewell
Starring Faith Domergue, Lee Patterson, Rona Anderson, Martin Benson

A boxer gets sucked into the London mob, with a little help from Faith Domergue. Vernon Sewell directed lots of B movies in the UK, and this is a cool one.

Rumble On The Docks (1956)
Directed by Fred F. Sears
Starring James Darren, Laurie Carrol, Michael Granger, Robert Blake, Timothy Carey

Fred F. Sears, Robert Blake and Timothy Carey all working on a Sam Katzman movie — and the results are every bit as wonderful as you might be imagining.

To have these nine pictures, in their original aspect ration and high definition, is a real treat. I can’t wait.

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Filed under 1954, 1955, 1956, Beverly Garland, DVD/Blu-ray News, Faith Domergue, Fred F. Sears, John Agar, Kit Parker, Mari Blanchard, Mill Creek, Nathan Juran, Phil Karlson, Richard Denning, Timothy Carey, William Castle

DVD/Blu-Ray News #106: Willard (1971) And Ben (1972).

willard-and-ben-os

Scream Factory has announced the upcoming releases of Daniel Mann’s Willard (1971) and Phil Karlson’s Ben (1972) this May. Willard, a story of a young man and the rats that have infested his rundown home, was a big creepy hit. The sequel, Ben,  has the benefit of Phil Karlson in the director’s chair (and a song by Michael Jackson that I hate). Both films are effective.

I’m surprised it’s taken this long to get these pictures out there, and I’m sure Scream Factory will do a terrific job with them.

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Filed under 1971, 1972, DVD/Blu-ray News, Ernest Borgnine, Phil Karlson, Shout/Scream Factory

Blu-Ray News #79: Framed (1975).

s-l1600-3

Directed by Phil Karlson
Starring Joe Don Baker, Conny Van Dyke, Gabriel Dell, John Marley, Brock Peters, John Larch, Paul Mantee, Walter Brooke

Phil Karlson

Kino Lorber has announced that early next year, they’ll release Phil Karlson’s Framed (1975) on Blu-Ray. (Legend Films released it on DVD a few years ago.)

Karlson’s last picture, Framed is a revenge story not unlike his Walking Tall (1973), which also starred Joe Don Baker. That film was a runaway hit — it cost $500,000 and grossed $23 million in the US alone — and Karlson made a fortune off of it. If anything, Framed is even more brutal and violent than Walking Tall, which is really saying something.

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Filed under 1975, DVD/Blu-ray News, Joe Don Baker, Kino Lorber, Paramount, Phil Karlson

The Allied Artists Blogathon: Hell To Eternity (1960) By Guest Blogger Blake Lucas.

Hell To Eternity LC2Directed by Phil Karlson
Produced by Irving H. Levin
Screenplay by Ted Sherdeman and Walter Roeber Schmidt
Story by Gil Doud
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Art Direction: David Milton
Set Decoration: Joseph Kish
Music: Leith Stevens
Sound: John H. Bury, Jr. and Ralph Butler
Sound editing: Charles Schelling
Film Editing: Ray V. Livingston and George White

Cast: Jeffrey Hunter (Guy Gabaldon), David Janssen (Sgt. Bill Hazen), Vic Damone (Cpl. Pete Lewis), Patricia Owens (Sheila Lincoln), Richard Eyer (Guy as a boy), John Larch (Capt. Schwabe), Bill Williams (Leonard), Michi Kobi (Sono), George Shibata (Kaz Une), Reiko Sato (Famika), Bob Okazai (Papa Une), George Takei (George Une), George Matsui (George as a boy), Miiko Taka (Ester), Tsuro Aoki (Mother Une), Sessue Hayakawa (Gen. Matsui)

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A serious and expansive biographical film about World War II hero Guy Gabaldon, this could rightly be considered among Allied Artists’ more prestigious movies were it better known than it is. At the same time, it surely benefitted from being made out of the major studios by non-prestigious AA, as well as from the company’s trust in director Phil Karlson, an important figure in its history. It is not only that the film is so effectively uncompromised, while at the same time mature — in its handling of both violence and sexuality as well as challenging social/historical realities — but, even more significantly that Karlson, working from a screenplay by Ted Sherdeman and Walter Roeber Schmidt, takes the opportunity given by the episodic nature of a biographical subject to draw the cinematic arc more from within the central character than from its narrative events.

So, the movie may be a little difficult to grasp in terms of coming to dramatic points in the ways one expects, though they are there throughout, and if one is just looking for those things it may seem attenuated. From the beginning, the focus is on conflict of cultural identity for Guy, which the War intensifies. Guy is introduced as a boy (Richard Eyer) effectively orphaned in the opening sequences but adopted by the Japanese-American family of his friend George Une (George Matsui; George Takei as an adult) after George’s older brother Kaz (George Shibaro) takes him in hand. Guy (Jeffrey Hunter as an adult) takes his new identity as part of this Nisei family to heart and especially his adopted mother (Tsuro Aoki), who sets the tone for the family’s positive values, stoical when, after Pearl Harbor and the advent of war, the family is relocated to a Japanese-American internment camp (though the brothers are later able to enlist). Bitter and conflicted, Guy is encouraged to take a positive attitude by Mother Une and joins the Marines as an interpreter. With his friends Hazen (David Janssen) and Lewis (Vic Damone), he enjoys a wild night in Honolulu with two free-living Japanese-American women (Michi Kobe and Reiko Sato) and a more reserved white magazine writer from the States (Patricia Owens). After this the second of the movie’s two hours follows the Marines on Saipan, where Guy loses both of those friends and responds to the enemy Japanese in several different ways—drawing them out of caves and coldly executing them after the killing of Hazen, but earlier being caring and protective when he can be (especially in a beautifully realized scene with a young Japanese girl) and later negotiating a surrender of troops with a reticent general (Sessue Hayakawa); the general commits hara-kiri but not before being persuaded by Guy’s eloquence that there is no purpose in his command following him, and so Guy ends up saving far more lives than he has taken, and it’s this for which he is now celebrated as a hero.

HTE 1

The cross-cultural journey of Guy, as much spiritual as external, and his complex relationship to race and racism, hold the film together more than any individual thing that happens. He is seen in relation to Japanese brothers and sisters (real and metaphorical) as well as in relation to important Caucasian characters throughout the movie, from a first boyhood fight on to interaction with the Japanese general and by way of the Honolulu party with the three women. And though the movie ends in a positive moment, with the peaceful taking of all those prisoners on Saipan, it’s not felt his identity conflict is ever fully resolved. But it does not need to be, and that is the movie’s great strength. Instead of taking the character from one definitive point to another, it appreciates that a life may always be made up of and defined by many elements—cultural, social and historical as well as personal—and that an individual may find ways to live with these, hopefully positive though they not always be so, in different ways at different times. As a realized artistic creation based on a real person, Guy believably carries this idea, making the movie individual as well as believable and thoughtful.

HTE 3

As Phil Karlson is rightly celebrated for earlier genre movies, especially his crime films that are usually experienced as taut and concise, one might on first reflection not expect this kind of treatment from him. But it can be dangerous to type a director too much, even if it’s meant in a positive way, and the evidence is plainly there, and not only in this film, that his artistic impulses always cut in a number of directions, depending on the opportunities. He evidently cared a lot about this project, and not only because of strong social convictions (cinematic references to Japanese-American internment camps, one of the dark pages in American history, are easy to find in later movies but at this point in time, Hell To Eternity had to be at least close to alone in its acknowledgement and makes it a central event for the evolving consciousness of its hero).

HTE 2Stylistic inflection that I would expect from him in present, for example, in forceful still moments that follow in the wake of drama, an early example being a beautiful high angle shot of Guy at his family’s home after they have left to be relocated in the camps, powerful in its simplicity, and a more sustained series of shots after the brutal first battle on Saipan, with dialogue absent for more than several minutes as the soldiers quietly regroup in the aftermath and gravely absorb all the death. Anyone who remembers something like the end of the middle part of The Brothers Rico (1957), with James Darren quietly walking out of his house to face his killers in extreme high angle long shot, will know Karlson’s mastery with these kinds of moments, and his gift for absorbing violence into an imposing calm.

But in Hell To Eternity, I find even more striking the unexpected ways in which scenes may be stretched out, taking on a very modernist feel at one with currents of world cinema that are important throughout the 1960s, so it’s one more Hollywood production (there are a fair number) prescient in this respect. A striking example is the erotically charged party with Reiko Sato’s practiced Famika stripping and then, unexpectedly, Patricia Owens’ Sheila stripping with even more abandon, glad to feel the effects of the liquor and the erotic pull of the moment that at last has shattered her reserve and finally set up an end to the sequence (not really an end—as the end is clear, it simply stops). Instead of being concerned about what an episode like this contributes to balance or coherence of narrative, it becomes interesting to consider what it contributes to tone of the whole—and the early scenes in East L.A. and the longer, richly developed ones on Saipan may be considered in the same way.

HTE 9.jpgAn insightful overview of Karlson by Bill Krohn for a Cinematheque Francaise retrospective in 2014* addresses several things about this—that Karlson liked for a movie to have three acts (Krohn uses Hell To Eternity  as an example of these three acts all being different, and indeed the Honolulu sequence seems to come in almost as something self-contained, even though we know the characters, and makes the first and third parts seem that way too) and that his relationship with actors may be almost documentary-like (as Shelia, Patricia Owens—who excelled in a fair number of fetching films, most famously as the desperate heroine of The Fly, 1958 —first projects the customary poise and ladylike reserve her beauty had always carried and seems liberated by the overt sexuality she then projects). With directors this gifted, it’s important not just to acknowledge their genre expertise but to observe and appreciate inflections of sensibility that are all their own, apart from whatever place they may have carved out in the cinema of their time and place.

HTE 6

There’s a lot to appreciate in Hell To Eternity and surely more than I’ve made note of here. Hopefully touching on things that are aesthetically interesting about it as well as what’s emotionally moving in realization of the subject are at least a start, and surely those things are related too. Guy’s divided cultural identity as seen in the film may be something Karlson personally responded to (the director was half Jewish and half Irish) and may be one reason why he treats this with such sensitivity throughout while also being related to his embrace of the freer structure and the personal flow that comes with this. Karlson also cared enough about visual tone to borrow cinematographer Burnett Guffey from Columbia, where they had worked on key films before—Guffey was a master of sharp images in bold black and white as here—and gave his usual attention to actors, including an ideally cast Jeffrey Hunter as Guy, believably earnest and intense as in all his best roles, a more extroverted David Janssen before his indelible TV lead in The Fugitive, John Larch (whose career as he came into features, often as the heavy for which his looks suited him, was helped immeasurably by Karlson) as a sympathetic commander, and most of all, Tsuro Aoki as the deeply knowing adoptive mother. It may not be the most perfect or polished film, but at the same time has so much, and those positive things are the ones that deserve attention, make it steadily absorbing, and give it its character.

HTE 8For Phil Karlson and Allied Artists, the movie was the end of a long relationship that began with the director’s first films for Monogram. When the company began to go beyond its B films as AA (for about five years Monogram and AA continued to exist together), Karlson made the first of those movies (Black Gold, 1947) and he returned during his Columbia years for another important work The Phenix City Story (1955) before finishing with them with this movie. It would be hard to imagine him apart from Monogram/Allied Artists history, and just as hard to imagine that company without him.

*archived in Kinoslang as “Phil Karlson Confidential”

Blake Lucas is a writer and film critic living in Los Angeles.

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Filed under 1960, Monogram/Allied Artists, Phil Karlson

Screening: Walking Tall (1973).

Walking Tall OS

Phil Karlson is a terrific, but underrated, director. His Westerns (such as Gunman’s Walk) and crime films (like 5 Against The House) of the Fifties are well worth seeking out. His next-to-last film was Walking Tall (1973), a mammoth hit that made him a rich man. It stars Joe Don Baker and a big piece of wood as real-life Louisiana lawman Buford Pusser. It was shot by the great Jack Marta, who worked on everything from Roy Rogers movies to Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971).

It’s playing at Raleigh’s Colony Theater on August 13th, 8:00pm.

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Filed under 1973, Joe Don Baker, Phil Karlson, Screenings