Welcome to Phil Karlson's fifties America, where corruption and cruelty lurk not just in urban back alleys but in sunny resorts and leafy villages, and injustice is not an abstraction but a visceral blow to the body politic. Karlson is known for a particularly stark and punishing brand of noir, but his visual assaults are based in a brutal morality. Although he objected to screen violence for its own sake, Karlson said, “when it belongs, you should show it and you shouldn't pussyfoot around it. You should put it on there the way it happened.” This fidelity to the physical was part of a pulp naturalism that combined authentic locations and downscale details with weird set pieces and startling twists, uncovering the uncanny in the real.
Born Philip Karlstein, Karlson (1908–86) came of age in 1920s Chicago and was seasoned in that city's underworld as well as its high culture: he was a bootlegger's lookout and witnessed a mob killing before attending the Art Institute. Later, to pay his way through law school at Loyola, he took a job at Universal, “washing toilets and dishes and whatever the hell they gave me.” He eventually landed a barely more glamorous position as a director at Monogram on Poverty Row, where he compared himself to “a mechanic that worked on a line”-but “I was experimenting with everything I was making, trying to get my little pieces of truth here and there.” The experiments paid off in the fifties, when Karlson put out the remarkable run of movies we feature here (all but one of which are unavailable on DVD). Join us for four nights of low-budget ingenuity and exhilarating eccentricity, laced with gritty little pieces of truth.