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The contract murders of mobsters Charles Binaggio and Charles "Mad Dog" Gargotta on April 6, 1950, in the First Ward Democratic Club of Kansas City, Missouri, was considered at the time to have been a simple matter of underworld housecleaning. Having risen to power as a regional distributor of Al Capone's bootleg beer, Binaggio had been attempting to gain influence over the police departments in Kansas City and St. Louis with the aim of securing a place for illegal gambling in both cities. When Binaggio was stymied in this bid by the very Democratic governor his ill-gotten gains had placed in office, it is theorized that Binaggio's Chicago bosses had him rubbed out as punishment. This minor bit of syndicate downsizing would likely have remained of only passing interest had not the Republican party used the political ramifications of the incident to embarrass President Harry S. Truman, a Democrat and native Missourian who once had represented the state as a United States Senator. Not to be slandered by any GOP-backed exposs, Truman himself called up a grand jury to look into the allegations. Beginning in 1950, a bipartisan Senate Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce spent a year touring the United States, subpoenaing Mafia capos, their underbosses, hirelings and known associates. When the televised hearings were concluded in 1951, the findings of the subcommittee were published by its chairman, Democratic Senator Estes Kefauver from Tennessee, who concluded that the country was in the grip of nothing less than a national crime syndicate.
Hollywood was quick to cash in on the escalating public interest in organized crime and shifted focus from the moody film noirs of the postwar era to fact-based (or at least fact-flavored) tales of corruption in high and low places. Warner Brothers' The Enforcer (1951), starring Humphrey Bogart, was the first major studio release to capitalize on these compelling current events; the producers milked the film's topicality for all its worth, to the point of including an opening narration spoken by Estes Kefauver. The torch of topicality was carried through the ensuing decade by The Mob (1951) with Broderick Crawford, The Racket (1951) with Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan, Hoodlum Empire (1952) with Brian Donlevy, The Big Heat (1953) with Glenn Ford, The System (1953) with Frank Lovejoy, On the Waterfront (1954) with Marlon Brando and Lee J. Cobb, Chicago Syndicate (1955) with Dennis O'Keefe and Paul Stewart, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957) with Richard Egan and Dan Duryea, The Garment Jungle (1957) with Lee J. Cobb and Kerwin Mathews and Underworld USA (1961) with Cliff Robertson. While the majority of directors tackled the subject as they would have any studio assignment, a select few made the choice to specialize. One filmmaker who distinguished himself from the pack during this time was Phil Karlson. Starting in 1952, Karlson turned out an impressive handful of crime and gangster films, beginning with Scandal Sheet (1952) and including Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953), Five Against the House (1955), Tight Spot (1955), The Phenix City Story (1955) and The Brothers Rico (1957).
For this adaptation of a 1952 short story by French crime writer Georges Simenon, Karlson and director of photography Burnett Guffey (All the King's Men , From Here to Eternity ) take a flat, matter-of-fact approach to the story of one-time Mafia accountant Eddie Rico (Richard Conte, nearly a decade out from Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway ) whose escape into legitimacy and suburban conformity is compromised when his hotheaded younger brothers Gino (Paul Picerni) and Johnny (James Darren) are involved in a gangland slaying. Advised by his former capo and mentor, Sid Kubik (Larry Gates, from Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956) that his siblings must be executed, Eddie must choose between playing it safe and protecting his nest egg or opposing the villainy that has paid for his piece of the American Dream. Until the last act of The Brothers Rico, Karlson eschews onscreen violence for the most part to establish the banality of modern day syndicate crime (personified by the avuncular Kubik) and its psychological toll on the agonized Eddie, who is unable ultimately to save his brothers from their fates. Screenwriters Lewis Meltzer and Ben Perry (working with an uncredited assist from a blacklisted Dalton Trumbo) swing wide of the downbeat Simenon model (in which the hero sucks it up and accepts the received wisdom that les frres Rico had it coming to them), sending Eddie out to settle the score with his erstwhile godfather boss in a .38 caliber heart to heart that goes down in the claustrophobic confines of a Little Italy candy shop.
To have heard Phil Karlson tell the story, his apprenticeship for a career in movie crime began during Prohibition, where he worked as a lookout for a Chicago bootlegger. Born Philip N. Karlstein in 1908, he saw his first mob rubout before he was old enough to shave. After studying painting at the Chicago Art Institute, Karlson conceded to his father's wish that he should be a lawyer and enrolled in the pre-law program at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Earning money for tuition at nearby Universal Studios, Karlson worked his way up the studio ladder as a prop man, second assistant director and editor before becoming a first assistant director on such prestige pictures as Great Expectations (1934) and Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935). He also wrote the occasional joke for Universal funnyman Lou Costello, who got Karlson his first job as a director. For the Monogram Pictures musical comedy A Wave, a WAC, and a Marine (1944), he was billed as Phil Karlstein. A year later, he signed the name Phil Karlson to The Shanghai Cobra, the sixth "Charlie Chan" film produced after Monogram took over the long-running franchise from Twentieth Century Fox. Given the subject matter to which Karlson would turn his hand in the 1950s, he would have been a natural for the advent of film noir but his lot at Monogram and elsewhere was squarely franchise fodder (the Shadow mystery Dark Alibi, the Charlie Chan whodunit The Missing Lady [both 1946]) in addition to the occasional serious drama, such as Black Gold (1947) with Anthony Quinn. The full color film was Monogram's first bid for respectability after changing its name to the tonier Allied Artists.
In 1959, Karlson directed The Scarface Mob for producer Desi Arnaz. The two-part installment of Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse served as the pilot for the CBS series The Untouchables (1959-1963), starring Robert Stack as mob-busting "G" man Eliot Ness. (Although Karlson had warned him against doing a weekly TV series, then considered the death knoll for any film actor, Stack took the plunge, emboldened by a twenty percent profit share.) Karlson's output slowed during the ensuing decade. He made the soap opera-like melodrama The Young Doctors (1961) and the Elvis vehicle Kid Galahad (1962) for United Artists and helmed two installments of Columbia's lowbrow "Matt Helm" films - The Silencers (1966) and The Wrecking Crew (1968) starring Dean Martin. Closer to vintage Karlson was the offbeat war film Hornets' Nest (1969), starring Rock Hudson as an American paratrooper whipping a cadre of Italian war orphans into a fighting unit and Walking Tall (1973), a fact-based tale of corruption and redemption in Tennessee. Karlson's penultimate film was an unexpected cash cow for Bing Crosby Productions and the distributor Cinerama, spawning two sequels, a 1978 made-for-TV movie, a short-lived series and a 2004 remake that shed the "sixty percent accuracy" of the original film. Phil Karlson died in Los Angeles on December 12, 1985, at the age of 77.
Producer: William Goetz, Lewis J. Rachmil
Director: Phil Karlson
Screenplay: Lewis Meltzer, Ben Perry; Dalton Trumbo (uncredited)
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Art Direction: Robert Boyle
Music: George Duning
Film Editing: Charles Nelson
Cast: Richard Conte (Eddie Rico), Dianne Foster (Alice Rico), Kathryn Grant (Norah Malaks Rico), Larry Gates (Sid Kubik), James Darren (Johnny Rico), Argentina Brunetti (Mrs. Rico), Lamont Johnson (Peter Malaks), Harry Bellaver (Mike Lamotta), Paul Picerni (Gino Rico), Paul Dubov (Phil), Rudy Bond (Charlie Gonzales), Richard Bakalyan (Vic Tucci), William Phipps (Joe Wesson).
by Richard Harland Smith
Phil Karlson interview by Todd McCarthy and Richard Thompson, Kings of the Bs: Working Within the Hollywood System, edited by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn
Crime Movies: An Illustrated History by Carlos Clarens
Film Noir Reader, edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini
A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking by Samuel Fuller
The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz
e-mail from Alan K. Rode