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The Original Gangsta 

Shadowy syndicates led by corrupt white men -- welcome to the '50s on film

Wednesday, Apr 2 2003
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The standard image of the 1950s as an era of unfettered achievement and optimism tells only part of the story; that decade's film noir narratives speak of darker things. And there's no better spokesman for the latter than Phil Karlson, rightly considered by noir aficionados the key architect of the brutal postwar gangster flick. Six of these pictures will be featured in the retrospective "A World Worth Fighting For: Phil Karlson's America."

Karlson's view of the nation, in films like 99 River Street (April 11) and The Brothers Rico (April 18), has a disturbing similarity to contemporary society despite the distance of 50-odd years. Shadowy syndicates led by successful middle-aged white men -- read: corporations and the government -- run webs of corruption from their plush digs. In these movies, nothing is predictable: A simple walk in a garden can end in murder; a policeman sworn to protect a witness can engineer her demise.

Karlson's world is one of double and triple crosses, though the baroque plots are completely intelligible, with no mysterious body counts or contested killers. Films like The Phenix City Story and Tight Spot (both April 4) brilliantly exploit real locations: Phenix City, for example, is based on an appalling case of corruption in the South and features actors as well as the real people they're portraying. While his movies never stint on the violence -- witness the vicious killing of a little black girl in Phenix City or the newspaper magnate beating his blackmailing wife to death in a sleazy hotel room in Scandal Sheet (April 18) -- there are also surprisingly ambitious touches like Kansas City Confidential's (April 11) surreal mask motif and 99 River Street's brilliantly Brechtian sequence involving a stage, a duplicitous actress, a confused cabbie, and a body that may or may not be dead. Karlson hasn't yet been a big beneficiary of the DVD craze, making the Yerba Buena Center's six-film tribute all the more important.

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Gary Morris

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