The Noirs of John Payne and Phil Karlson

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John Payne was one of the most versatile and underrated talents in classic Hollywood. Like a few other actors (thinking of  Dick Powell and Robert Taylor) who got their starts as dashing dreamboats in musicals and light romantic fare, Payne reinvented himself as a hardboiled star excelling in complex roles. He was also a writer with a good sense of interesting script material, co-wrote and produced some of his own films and often suggested properties to studio brass, including his best known film Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Something I love to tell people about Payne was that he bought the rights to Ian Fleming’s Moonraker and shopped it around Hollywood, long before the first 007 movie was made. He was told the Bond novel was too sexy, violent and expensive to film, and he gave up pursuing an adaptation once the option ran out and he was unable to get rights to the whole series of books.

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That desire to adapt and star in more challenging material was what caused Payne dissatisfaction in the last years of his Fox contract. He opted out of his contract early and began the switch to action, western and crime genres, including the noirs Larceny (1948) and The Crooked Way (1949) which showed he could play those tough roles. He soon found a great collaborator in director Phil Karlson, who was just then coming off a successful shift of his own with Scandal Sheet (1952). The former gag writer and Poverty Row quickie helmer displayed a talent for filming graphic, pulpy violence and creating shocking crime drama that doubled as social commentary. Payne and Karlson’s first picture together, Kansas City Confidential (1952) is a must-see heist and revenge movie that influenced Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), if you need those extra hooks to seek out a classic.

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Payne (who co-wrote) plays down-on-his-luck decorated war hero and flower delivery truck driver Joe, who’s set up as the fall guy for a clever armored car heist. Only the ex-cop organizer Mr. Big (Preston Foster) knows who’s in his gang (Jack Elam, Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef), since they all wear masks and, when the coast is clear will claim their share of the payout by presenting their part of a torn playing card. Joe is questioned and released, but his time as prime suspect costs him his job and reputation. Joe resolves to find the gang, but it’s unclear whether he’s out to bust them and clear his name, or if he’s after the loot he feels he’s owed for the life he’s lost.

Kansas City Confidential helped kick off a string of “crime expose” pictures in which corrupt authorities, organized gangs and thugs were tracked down, infiltrated and broken up by G-Men, vigilante do-gooders and even some losers trying to go good. That hopeful theme of justice was present even in the meanest, darkest and most cynical of Karlson’s noirs, and the central character, the determined loser with a streak of goodness turned out to be a fine fit for Payne. He got your sympathy as an emotionally wounded working class failure or likable chump, suckered and fed up and trying to get revenge or prove his worth and innocence. The physique which made young Payne a prime beefcake now made him dangerous and scary when desperate and pushed past his limits.

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Payne and Karlson would revisit and improve on those things in their next film together, the fantastic 99 River Street (1953). Here Payne (who again co-wrote) plays Ernie, an ex-boxer who missed his big chance because of an eye injury. Now a depressed cab driver, he relives old fights and dreams of opening his own gas station, but his girl dreamt of the high life, emotionally abuses and cheats on him, and a crook once again sets him up as a patsy. Through one dark night Payne goes from being mistreated and self-pitying to trying to get clear of all the trouble. Once again Karlson served up powerful imagery and atmosphere, and in this case you can spot the influence and trace the gritty boxing scenes right to Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980).

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Hell’s Island (1955) is one I haven’t seen yet (but I have a lobby card of it) and reviews ranging from good to bad all seem to agree it’s the least of the three Payne-Karlson movies. Payne once again did uncredited co-writing, and played a disgraced ex-district attorney hired to find a stolen ruby which leads to his ex. It was colourful, exotic and convoluted and came in an otherwise prolific year for Karlson. In 1955 he also had in theaters the excellent noir The Phenix City Story, the casino heist story 5 Against the House and Tight Spot, a thriller with Ginger Rogers as a witness against the mob. 

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Today Karlson is likely best known for Walking Tall (1973) while Payne is still criminally underrated given his talent and the wide range of roles he played. If that’s the most you know about the two of them, please look at their noirs. They made a great creative team and quite an impact in those few films together, reinventing themselves and telling groundbreaking stories that punch hard and present vivid and highly influential themes and images.

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This post is part of Classic Symbiotic Collaborations: The Star-Director Blogathon, hosted by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. Please click here to enjoy all the great posts about classic collaborations in film history.

SYMBIOTIC COLLABORATIONS ( Foursome )

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45 thoughts on “The Noirs of John Payne and Phil Karlson”

    1. For sure, love to put the spotlight on them and these movies especially, which felt like such a big discovery when I was getting into classic film.

  1. I’m not a Payne fan, but you’ve encouraged me to reconsider, especially his noir work. I had no idea he wrote. Thanks for a great collaborations post.

    1. I think these movies work as well even if you’re not much into Payne, they’re just great tough crime stories with good casts. Thanks so much!

    1. I always wonder if he could watch the Bond movies later on without being too bitter about it 🙂 “I told them these would make great movies!!” Who knows what would have come of it? Thanks!

  2. Hi Kristina ~ thanks so much for posting in my weekend blogathon. I look forward to reading this. So…another light song & dance man has a career change as a tough guy. I always liked John Payne. Thanks again!!!

    1. Thank YOU for hosting, this is a huge event and a great idea. Those charming young matinee idols had more in them and these crime pictures helped them show it. Likable and handsome, easy to like Payne 🙂 Thanks!

  3. I’ve come around to more of Payne’s titles other then Kansas City. That was on my radar as a kid because of the infamous trio, Brand, Van Cleef and Elam. What’s not to love there. Now I see Payne as a solid leading man and really like his crime dramas.
    In my best Fred MacMurray imitation…….That’s a honey of a lobby card there. 🙂

    1. He did great westerns, The Boss is a good one. He did a lot of good pictures. But yes, that trio in Kansas was amazing to me, when I first saw it, I had no clue who Payne was, just knew those guys! That is a nice lobby card for my growing Payne collection 🙂

  4. Have I told you my John Payne story already? A couple of years ago I was watching his “Columbo” guest spot (“Forgotten Lady”) when my daughter walked into the room. It is Payne’s last scene where he puts on his fedora and turns and gives Columbo a look. Daughter says “Who?!”. I said “John Payne. I must have shown you John Payne.” Daughter says “If you had shown me John Payne, I would have remembered. You’re a bad mother.”

    1. Ha! Good story 🙂 Such a heartthrob and like many of those, had a struggle to prove he could be more. Deserves more attention and fans like us are always happy to praise him. Thanks!

    1. He would have been interesting wouldn’t he? Kind of hard to imagine Moonraker being first movie out of the gate though. There was a tv adaptation with Barry Nelson (of Casino Royale I think). Thanks!

  5. I’ve only seen in him musicals with Alice Faye, but am really looking forward to seeing his noirs. I’m fascinating by actors – like Payne and Dick Powell – who are able to transition and are not trapped by their original persona.

    1. Reinvention is usually something women have to do in the movies, but the men who first made it as “pretty boys” have just as tough a time proving their talent and getting juicy roles. Still goes on today. Hope you enjoy watching his tougher roles. Thanks!

  6. Actually, Payne bought out his Fox contract, which had several years to run, after being asked to play the role in “Sitting Pretty” that Robert Young played.

    1. Thanks for reading, for the kind words and the correction, I appreciate that– looking that up he said he was disappointed in not having input and that getting out was worth it to have more control over his career. Thanks!

    1. Happens a lot (still) with actors who start out valued for their looks., tough to get people to see there’s more to them. Always love to watch him in anything. Thanks!

  7. Terrific piece, Kristina! John Payne films, post 1946, stand up so well today, I think. His gritty performances were very ‘modern’ at the time and don’t look at all dated today.
    He made a very good series of westerns but an even better series of ‘noir’ crime dramas, as you so rightly say.
    ’99 RIVER STREET’ is a real classic and also ‘SLIGHTLY SCARLET’ and the rarely-seen, brutal ‘THE BOSS’. I find myself appreciating his work more with each passing year.

    1. Thanks so much! Yes he definitely feels modern, I saw KC Confidential before I had any clue who he was and you could have popped him from that into any new movie easily. I really like The Boss too, and I am really curious to see Hell’s Island too.

  8. I adore film noir, although my blog is currently deficient of that category of films. (But my entry for the recent Barbara Stanwyck blogathon does cover two of her film noir titles). I have KC Confidential on a box set, but it’s been years since I watched. Guess I need to to dig it out and watch it again. Great post.

    1. Great ones to revisit anytime, but (to me anyway) especially once you’ve seen many other crime movies and can have fun spotting the influences. Thanks very much!

  9. For an idea of what Payne would have been like as Bond check out Andre De Toth’s
    HIDDEN FEAR (soon out on Blu from Knio Lorber)…he even slaps his own
    sister around! Film is sub par for both Payne and De Toth,but it has its
    moments.
    THE BOSS (a Payne pet project) needs a proper restoration.
    LARCENY is also top drawer and needs a DVD or Blu Ray release.
    HELL’S ISLAND is the least of the Payne/Karlson films but still
    entertains plus the fact it’s in color and Vista Vision so would look
    stunning on Blu Ray.
    Actually MOONRAKER starring Payne,directed by Phil Karlson
    clocking in at 95 minutes…now that’s something I would have loved
    to have seen.

    1. I know, the idea of that Moonraker is great. Wish I had a time machine so we could try out some of these fantasy casts and projects. Hidden Fear is one I want to see too, and Hell’s Island I do have and will have to get to soon, wish I did in time for this post but I can always link them together. The Boss is a real gem and with a nice release would gets all kinds of attention I bet.

  10. I love 99 River Street. Havent watched Kansas City Confidential for ages. And I do recall Hell’s Island wasn’t up to much.
    I’m afraid I don’t know Walking Tall. What have I missed

    1. Walking Tall is another “expose” with the Sheriff cleaning up his town, that’t the one I’ve come across the most when people (maybe not as much into classics as we are 🙂 ) mention Karlson. Thanks!

  11. I don’t know how it is for everyone else
    but I watch films in “waves”
    I’ve just come off a Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood kick
    (both together and separate) watching loads of Blu’s in
    color and widescreen which left me with the feeling
    I NEED TO OVERDOSE ON NOIR!!!!
    Spurred on by someone who commented on a recent thread
    here at Kristinaland….”Richard Conte is the King of Noir”
    I watched CRY OF THE CITY…WOW what a picture that was
    and one I have not watched in a long long time.
    Followed up with THE BIG COMBO again Conte in blistering
    form.
    One things for sure John Payne,Richard Conte and Mark
    Stevens never got their due for their huge contributions
    to the genre.

    1. I do the same and watch in themes or following a person. I need to watch much more, my blogging is cutting into my viewing time 😀 Funny you mention because the thread I just followed a few days ago was watching another Di Leo Italocrime, Shoot First Die Later, that had Conte in it. So he’s a busy guy on our TVs. I like Cry of the City and Big Combo a lot too. So should I rename my blog Kristinaland?

  12. I always thought Payne was underrated, as you said. But now that I’ve read your post, I didn’t realize just how underrated he was. I had no idea about his behind-the-scenes work, or that he was shopping around a James Bond idea!

    Thanks for all this info. I’ll appreciate him even more after this!

    1. So many people in Hollywood (especially that era) were multi-talented plus he had a really interesting life to go with that great screen presence. Thanks!

  13. Payne remains woefully underrated. I wonder if people see his origins and then assume he could never be anything more than a dreamboat. I’m glad you bought him to the blogathon to redress the balance – of the films you mention, I think 99 River Street is my favourite. It’s beautifully brutal.

    1. Yeah that’s a big problem today, “pretty” men and women get judged on looks or whatever their first big role happened to be, and don’t always get the chances to show their talent. At least as bloggers we can point the way to get some of those people seen and appreciated more 🙂 thank you!

  14. Great post! I’ve always been a fan of John Payne and he had a lot more range than folks gave him credit. Interesting to discover he did writing as well.

  15. And not forgetting that he decided to get into television in 1957 with the rather good ‘THE RESTLESS GUN’ which was produced by his Window Glen production company. A man of many talents.

  16. Hey that last comment was not ANONYMOUS. Posted by Jerry Entract. Don’t know what I did wrong.

  17. Great to see so much love for John Payne on
    this epic thread.
    I DO wish more of his films were available-
    ROAD TO DENVER is one of his very best Westerns,
    and CAPTAIN CHINA is a great “Maritime Noir”
    I look forward to what you make of HELL’S ISLAND
    which seems to divide opinion so much….I think it’s a
    pretty cool movie. It’s very hard to track down in decent
    quality although I did get a fairly decent upgrade recently,
    but sadly 4×3.
    I think the film would be much more regarded should it
    surface on Blu Ray in it’s correct ratio 1.85.
    Vista Vision films look sensational on Blu ray especially
    RUN FOR COVER and GUNFIGHT AT OK CORRAL.

    No I don’t think you should change your blog’s name
    to “Kristinaland” but it sure is a great place to visit.

    1. haha, thanks! And I find I do have Captain China, too, along with Hell’s Island, so I think a Payne festival is coming here soon 🙂 I always say that and then get hopelessly distracted but I want to see those…

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