As it turns out, my idea of using A Time for Killing (1967, Phil Karlson) as a jumping-off point for looking at the career of Phil Karlson was less than fortuitous, since Roger Corman was the original director, replaced by Karlson at some unknown point in the filmmaking. Although it was exciting to get that correction from famed film director Joe Dante in an unexpected visit to my comments section!
Despite the uncertainty about when he joined the film, I thought there were umistakable signs of Phil Karlson's touch that marked it as a legitimate but weak part of his oeuvre. The very intense close-ups reminded me of 99 River Street. In A Time for Killing, the extreme close-ups during the confrontation between George Hamilton and Max Baer Jr. are exquisitely and dramatically lit to a pleasantly jarring and intensifying effect. I can't cue up 99 River Street to check, but I remember something similar occurring in it (it may be the particular angle on the actors' faces that makes it a Karlson touch to me).
In a way, this alternating intense close-ups style is a microcosm of Karlson's approach to filmmaking. More so than most filmmakers, he keys in deeply on a few very intense, small-scale interpersonal relationships/confrontations. He draws you in to the characters and their confrontations at a very personal, intimate level, no matter how grand the setting of the drama, and frequently uses extreme close-ups at high points so that you get a an intense feeling for the emotions that the characters are feeling (and that the actors are hopefully effectively delivering). It's a small-scale cinema. This Western is not like Anthony Mann's. It may feature some scenery, but he does not film it in the same way. To be fair, the Netflix instant watch feature, which was the only way to view this rare film, other than awaiting a fortuitously timed Starz airing, was a panned-and-scanned version of a 2.35 film (per IMDB). Although I don't think seeing it properly would change my opinion because the amount of time he devotes to the landscape and how he uses it within the shots (for instance dollying against a certain background) would remain unchanged.
Despite being able to identify some Karlson trademarks, the film is not terrific. It is watchable and enjoyable to a point but faded quickly from consciousness for me and would not invite further viewings, not even the chance to see it in a proper letterbox format. One key problem that drags this down is the acting: George Hamilton is not a good actor, and I am not a fan of Glenn Ford, who brings pretty much the same narrow range of emotional gradations to almost every film he is in. (There are exceptions.) Inger Stevens was new to me and was not spectacular but was better to me than the guys. The film, probably due to its gestation as a project of two directors (and a studio with its own interests), seemed jumpy in places, and Inger Stevens' feistiness comes unexpectedly and at a much higher intensity level than was justified by her earlier scenes. (We hadn't seen a glimmer of it. She was a wallflower.) The film also has some ugly subject matter in terms of the rape. (I should elaborate on that, but I'm polishing off this review that I first drafted months ago when I watched the film.)
While it's like any film that takes a major event, like the Civil War, and approaches it through several characters (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), I sense what I feel is the Karlson touch in this film where he does not seem to care as much about the large historical event but is more interested in these characters. In a film like this, his trademark is a detriment, because it is such a significant event in our history, and he is far less inquisitive about the historical aspects. To be fair, the plot is intimately tied to the Civil War, with George Hamilton wearing his Southern pride to the point of insanity, but Glenn Ford is more reactive to Hamilton, who is reduced to a crazy character for which the Civil War is only a device to motivate his behavior and create an interesting story. I think a better director (or maybe even Karlson if he had involvement from the beginning of the project) would have created a story that reflected more deeply on the Civil War and surrounding issues at the same time it told its characters' story.
Possible evidence of studio interference seemed in evidence to me in the form of the two stupid characters played by Corman/Dante regular Dick Miller and Emile Meyer (I think is the actor's name). Their scenes without exception seemed shoehorned in for comic relief very uneasily in a film in which they had no place. I wondered if some successful recent film had a similar dynamic that prompted the studio to insist. I was really scratching my head at Karlson for their inclusion, until Joe Dante educated me about Corman's involvement and stated that all the casting was Corman's (and probably the studio as well). So I'm quick to put all blame for that on Corman, although he may have had a plan that would have integrated them into the film less jarringly.
I have to admit it was pretty neat to see Harrison Ford in a film from 1967, after trying in vain to spot where the hell he is in Zabriskie Point (my conclusion is he is not in it!). Although he is so young in A Time for Killing that I totally missed him. I realized who it had to be later but his character didn't show up again after I had figured it out. I rewatched the beginning and was amazed I had watched his scenes without realizing it was him.
Also Timothy Carey, who I was quite excited to notice in the cast list, comes off pretty terribly in this film. It's the usual Carey insanity but it's just peppered here and there and not weaved in enough to build a fully developed character.
I am not going to write a reconsideration of Phil Karlson attempting to elevate him for consideration as one of the true greats, as I thought perhaps I might have done during this exercise in analysis. He is a director of interest but not one of the great artists. If you are watching an exciting genre film, especially a film noir, selecting a Phil Karlson film is going to be far more satisfying than a Henry Hathaway film. This exercise has helped me categorize him (although unfairly since he joined the film late). I think he is a director of high ability in his craft but, for my money, not one with the astronomically high artistic goals of, say, a Bergman, Fellini or Godard. Even Anthony Mann I think is reaching for something higher, and more clearly, Nicholas Ray, to cite just some random examples. As mentioned earlier in this blog, I'm searching for art, and I don't think we should spend a lot of time on directors who fall (or especially aim) short of it. Although a big caveat to that snobbishness is that with the right script, key crew and amazing performances, a director like this can easily make a film that achieves that high level. But other directors, like Sam Fuller, are more odds-on favorites to deliver something deeply artistically moving.