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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.