Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Kansas City Confidential is an almost perfect compact noir thriller, a clever caper that often approaches the charge of crime novels by Jim Thompson. The Edward Small production is (along with Scandal Sheet) the first of a series of top-notch crime dramas by the great Phil Karlson, whose filmography is a top list of noir pictures missing on DVD: 99 River Street, Tight Spot, Hell's Island, 5 Against the House, The Phenix City Story, The Brothers Rico.
The film's title is misleading, as Kansas City Confidential is not a story of corruption in a big city. After the opening, in fact, the movie changes locale completely.
Down-on-his-luck ex- G.I. Joe Rolfe (John Payne) becomes the inadvertent patsy of bank robbers who steal 1.2 million dollars in broad daylight. Having already served prison time, Rolfe is eager to find out who the real crooks are when the cops finally realize he's innocent. He manages to trace one of the real thieves Pete Harris (Jack Elam) to Tijuana, Mexico, and finds out that the three masked robbers don't even know who their partners are -- that information is held exclusively by the unknown leader of the gang. Joe takes Pete's place and continues on to a thieves' rendezvous in the seaside village of Borrados. There he finds additional gang members Boyd Kane and Tony Romano (Neville Brand & Lee Van Cleef) -- and also meets attractive American Helen Foster (Coleen Gray). Her father Tim (Preston Foster) is a retired cop, who warns her against her new boyfriend. When will 'Mr. Big' arrive to split the loot? And when do the double-crosses begin?
When a director has limited resources for locations and big-scale action scenes, the best thing to do is to concentrate on interesting faces. Kansas City Confidential is filmed on a patchwork of sets: a Beverly Hills pool (the same one as in Kiss Me Deadly) is supposed to be attached to a stage interior of a Mexican resort. Phil Karlson instead gives us great characters running in an almost predetermined maze of intrigues. At this time getting started as second-string baddies in westerns, Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand all have strong roles as shifty crooks. Elam is nervous and strung-out as a neurotic loser and Van Cleef's oily and boastful lothario likes to hang out with pretty Mexican hostess Teresa (Dona Drake of Another Part of the Forest). Neville Brand's gravel-voiced thug is almost sympathetic, as we know that all of the crooks are merely being used as pawns.
John Payne spent the earlier part of his career as a cheerful leading man and singer in musicals and comedies like Week-End in Havana and Miracle on 34th Street, never quite achieving top star status. He excelled as a bitter tough guy in noir roles; in Kansas City Confidential he looks quite a bit like Kevin Spacey. Phil Karlson always had interesting female leads and Colleen Gray puts adds another great noir performance to her list: Kiss of Death, Nightmare Alley, The Sleeping City, The Killing.
The story moves so quickly that we never question why the three crooks would enter the robbery scheme without knowing who their confederates are. To a lesser degree, you'd think that they'd have been reading the Kansas City papers and would have seen Joe Rolfe's face. The suspenseful plot balances a number of unstable elements, while crime film fans never have to wait long for a good slugfest or to hear some more choice pulp fiction dialogue: "You been giving me the fisheye all night." "That was a sucker move, burning down your boss."
Kansas City Confidential is useful in defining the difference between a caper thriller or a straight crime story, and one that is inflected with the noir style. Joe Rolfe is a sour individual, a hero of Iwo Jima on the outs because of a couple of bad breaks as a gambler. The cops presume he's guilty and torture him. When evidence surfaces to exonerate Joe, the Assistant D.A. must intervene to keep the sadistic K.C. cops from beating a confession out of him anyway. Any presumption of fairness in the legal system is undercut. Even Helen's father Tim is bitter at the law, having been 'forcibly retired' by politicians back in Kansas City. On his own in Mexico, Joe finds his fate totally up for grabs. The other two bandits might kill him when they find out the truth, and there's no telling who Mr. Big might be. We, the audience already know that the situation is even more complicated, and that Joe's hopes for exoneration are at best very slim. Unlike standard crime stories, Kansas City Confidential has a strange ambivalence toward its doomed characters. Even the hero is morally compromised.
MGM's DVD of Kansas City Confidential is a beauty. The title has been out for years in miserable graymarket versions, but MGM has possession of the original United Artists elements and it looks and sounds great. This MGM Film Noir release has been organized under the guidance of new distributors 20th Fox (Sony is now completely out of the picture) but sadly, does not carry over Fox's attitude toward extras. There is no still gallery, no trailer and no commentary. MGM's UA noir holdings haven't been given the class presentation of titles by Fox and Warners and will undoubtedly suffer for it among noir fans.
Made in 1952, Kansas City Confidential is presented in its correct flat 1:37 aspect ratio. MGM has had a bad habit of ignoring widescreen ARs for B&W films; I hope that Fox's better policy 'rubs off' on MGM when the studio puts out more late- 50s B&W genre pictures this fall.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Kansas City Confidential rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 7, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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