Kansas City Confidential

Just a glance at the ingredients is sometimes enough to tell you you’re going to like the house specialty. First up, we have a carefully planned and executed heist, added to that is a bunch of edgy and suspicious hoods, a vindictive and brutal police force, and a textbook example of a fall guy. Kansas City Confidential (1952) consists of the kind of components that spell noir in unmistakably flickering neon. It’s all about double-crosses and cheats, keeping the other guy guessing and off-guard while looking out for a chance to get even for the cheap brush-off fate has handed you.

Joe Rolfe (John Payne) is a classic noir protagonist, a poor sap who can’t seem to catch a break no matter what. He’s had an (incomplete) education and a war record to be proud of but he’s also had a little trouble with the law. A mistake on his part has led to his doing some time inside and now his prospects are a little dimmed. We first catch sight of him at work, driving a delivery van for a florist. Someone else sees him too, a man (Preston Foster) across the way with a stopwatch is timing is movements. Why? Because a heist, an armored car raid, is being set up and part of that setup is hanging a frame round the neck of Joe Rolfe. The police will be sweating, and beating, the innocent delivery guy while the real thieves are making their getaway with $1.2 million along for their trouble. The beauty of this raid, aside from the convenient patsy to occupy the law, is the idea to make all the participants wear masks that means their anonymity (and thus their inability to identify or be identified) is ensured. The concept of honor among thieves has always been a sour joke and brains behind this robbery is well aware of that and so has taken these steps so as to avoid having to depend on any such fairy tales. By the time the police have finished pummeling Rolfe and released him he hasn’t much beyond cold shoulders and welfare to look forward to, that and a desire to find the men who put him in this bind. He’s handed one lead – a criminal called Pete Harris (Jack Elam) has recently lit out unexpectedly for Tijuana in Mexico and it’s just possible it may be to avoid the attentions of the law. And so Rolfe heads south, looking for men he’s never seen, money he’s never laid hands on, and a reputation he might never retrieve.

Noir from the 50s has a slightly different feel and flavor to it, the crimes that typically underpin such stories tend to be less personal than those of the previous decade. While the focus remains on the individuals involved and the consequences faced by them, there is an increasing shift towards organized crime and a frequently faceless threat. It’s kind of appropriate, therefore, that the villains of this piece are essentially faceless men, career criminals stripped of all identity beyond their own left-handed professionalism, and answerable only to another disguised figure. Even our hero in this story of deception, deceit and illusion indulges in the same chameleon-like behavior, stepping into the shoes of another man in order to coax his enemies out into the open. The setting is altered too, although the movie opens in an urban environment it soon moves out of the city to a small Mexican vacation resort, a place tourists usually visit for the fishing but the people we’re watching are angling for something else.  Anyway, regardless of what variations on the classic noir formula are on view, director Phil Karlson turns in a characteristically strong piece of work. He moves the camera around with great fluidity, catching every subtle nuance in what is a tricky game of bluff and counter-bluff.

I’ve talked before about John Payne’s noir work and I’ll just reiterate here that he was particularly skilled in nailing the resigned quality that is such an important part of make-up of characters in this type of cinema. The role here suits him well and he has the innate toughness you’d expect of a war veteran, the intelligence of an educated man but also the weariness of one who’s had to face up to the unpalatable fact that life doesn’t play fair all the time. In addition to Payne, there’s a supporting cast to die for. Preston Foster was well cast in a reasonably complex part – it called for a confident, avuncular smoothness in one respect but also required a diamond-hard core.

Coleen Gray is fine too playing a woman who is having the wool pulled over her eyes by just about everyone yet she’s supposed to be on the verge of becoming a lawyer; while this isn’t any criticism of the actress I think the script is probably at its weakest, or least logical anyway, on this score. The other woman in the cast is Dona Drake who was clearly having a good time as a flirtatious souvenir seller. And of course we have the holy trinity of heavies in Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand. I sometimes think it’s a shame all three don’t get to spend more time on screen together, but then again it may have just led to character actor gluttony  – one way or another, we do get to see a lot of all of them and there’s really not a lot to complain about.

Kansas City Confidential is a film that spent a long time in public domain hell as far as commercial releases are concerned. For a long time the only way to see the movie was by viewing grotty copies with fuzzy contrast and non-existent detail. Then, some years ago, MGM put out a quality version of the title on DVD in the US and it was a revelation. There have been a few Blu-ray releases since then but, by all accounts, these are waxy-looking affairs which haven’t been restored but simply had flaws (and vital detail too) digitally scrubbed away. As far as I’m aware, the old MGM DVD remains the best edition on the market. Digital issues and quibbles aside, the film is an excellent film noir, a highlight in the resumés of the cast and the director.

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31 thoughts on “Kansas City Confidential

  1. Nice choice of film to review, Colin. Aside from the Western genre, Film Noir is my other film passion. And when it comes to Noir, John Payne was tops in terms of both the films he was making and his performances in them. Like Dick Powell he reinvented his screen persona in the mid-40s from musical comedy to really tough, gritty dramas.
    PLUS what a great cast assembled behind him here. Elam, Brand and Van Cleef together! Lee Marvin would have made it the perfect quartet. Mustn’t forget Preston Foster either; he added much and is too often overlooked these days.
    Good to see you not so much ‘riding the high country’ here as sweeping through the dark rainswept streets!!

    • Yes, Powell and Payne (sounds like a firm of lawyers) made that transition very smoothly and with great success.
      And yes, Jerry, I’m trying to mix tings up as much as possible these days and feature as much variety as possible.

  2. Hard to go wrong with a Payne noir. THE CROOKED WAY, LARCENY, 99 RIVER STREET etc all hold up very well. The man has that everyman feel to him a lot like Glenn Ford did. I first saw KCC about 15-20 years ago on a rather weather-beaten vhs and loved it. It has all you need, a chump, a villain, thugs and a pretty dolly.

    • Haven’t seen Larceny, Gordon, but I do hope to at some point. I think you’re on to something there with the parallels to Glenn Ford’s screen persona – an everyman figure for sure and also with a sort of restless, almost self-conscious, quality inside.

      It has all you need, a chump, a villain, thugs and a pretty dolly.
      That’s a lovely summation of the basic ingredients of a film noir. 🙂

  3. Great addition to your ever changing choice of headers.

    Other key film Noir with Payne:CAPTAIN CHINA,SLIGHTLY SCARLET and THE BOSS the latter,sadly needing a major restoration. I totally agree that the USA/MGM version is the best on the market those who have only viewed the wretched p.d. versions have not really seen the film-and yes the “official” MGM DVD IS superior to the recent Blu Ray version-DVD Beaver agrees.

    Sadly HIDDEN FEAR is a major disappointment from both Payne and Andre De Toth-if you approach with low expectations you may find minor enjoyment.

    Interestingly,the third Payne/Karlson effort HELL’S ISLAND is on Park Circus’ list of titles so it could be leased to anyone wanting to release it-Eureka perhaps. HELL’S ISLAND is the least of the Payne/Karlson efforts but still had plenty of good points;the fact that it was shot in VistaVision means
    that it will look stunning on Blu Ray. Mary Murphy;who by all accounts had a very flippant attitude to her acting career;is seen to very good advantage in HELLS’S ISLAND as a Femme Fatale to be reckoned with.

    In the UK HELL’S ISLAND was released in a double bill with George Pal’s CONQUEST OF SPACE one hell of an evening’s entertainment by anyone’s standards.

    • I have a bit of a backlog of Payne movies at present, but that’s kind of a nice complaint to have. I’d love if someone – Eureka would be great – would take on Hell’s Island and give us a nice Blu-ray.

      That’s a little disappointing to hear about Hidden Fear, especially given the talent involved, but I have a copy of the film and will certainly give it a go anyway – perhaps if I adjust my expectations…

      And I’m pleased to hear the new header image meets with your approval – I’m trying to keep the place as fresh as I can.

  4. i have just shocked myself by checking my records and discovering I don’t have a copy of this film!! Seen it certainly at some time but do not have it. Have taken on board the above comments and immediately ordered the MGM DVD. Thanks, Colin (and John) for putting me onto the right version to get.

    • It definitely deserves a place in any noir collection, my friend, and it’s one of those where you really do need to take care to get the right edition.

    • Then I must be doing something right! I love hearing that I got someone’s curiosity stoked up enough to check out a movie – sharing our enthusiasm around for this kind of stuff is a big part of what it’s all about.

  5. Mike recently reviewed PEARL OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC,an inspired choice,I thought which got me to thinking why Warner Archive have not released remastered editions of the Benedict Bogeaus/Allan Dwan films including the classic SILVER LODE with Payne. Warners replied that the Bogeaus films were independent productions only released but not owned by RKO. This is why,sadly these films have sort of ended up in p.d. hell. The VCI version of SILVER LODE is OK but the color is way off and the film is in dire need of a proper restoration. SILVER LODE has also been championed by Scorsese so it’s profile is not exactly under the radar-personally I would love to see Blu Ray versions of many of these films especially SILVER LODE and SLIGHTLY SCARLET. These rights issues are generally a pain-I have not seen the French Dwan box set of a few years back-perhaps they are an improvement on the VCI versions.

    On a more positive note Warners do own many interesting RKO films which they intend to eventually give us remastered versions of. These include many much sought after titles like DEVIL’S CANYON, GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING,TENSION AT TABLE ROCK,TREASURE OF PANCHO VILLA and THE NAKED AND THE DEAD.

    • Yes, Warners still have plenty of great material to look forward to.

      I never got that Dwan box from France but my, admittedly very hazy, memories of comments around the time of release seemed to suggest there was some improvement, although not anything massive.

      Mike’s enjoyable piece on Pearl of the South Pacific is here for anyone who want to take a look.

  6. My new copy of the MGM DVD of KCC arrived this morning. After all the comment here I am really looking forward to re-discovering it!

  7. We fleetingly mentioned 100 RIFLES on the previous thread.
    At 7 Euros I found it hard to resist.
    The transfer from Germany’s Black Hill is excellent.
    The film is a virtual non stop “shoot ’em up” which in the end
    leaves one thinking-what’s the point of all this?
    To me it has virtually the same plot as BANDIDO,and VILLA RIDES.
    I think I prefer VILLA RIDES out of the three merely because of the
    star power of Brynner,Mitchum and Bronson.
    Also VILLA RIDES seemed to make more sense-to me at least.
    I would probably up-grade BANDIDO to Blu Ray purely because of the
    CinemaScope compositions which are the best thing in the film.
    I was interested in your Tom Gries section which garnered 47 replies
    for WILL PENNY and virtually none for the other three films.
    I have not seen WILL PENNY since it was released and it’s another title
    I am holding out for a Blu Ray edition.
    Certainly Gries career never scaled the same heights again although I
    like BREAKOUT quiet a bit-for me one of Bronson’s best.
    Sorry to go off topic-yet again we are a long way from Kansas City here,
    but I am finding “Colin’s Back Pages” quiet useful in re-visiting films that
    I have not seen,in some cases for more than 40 years.

    • Yeah, lots of similarities in terms of plot in those Mexican revolutionary films but I h=find all of them entertaining enough, if ultimately disposable.
      I think with those Gries articles you mention the lack of response on some of them is down to the time they were written. I had the ste running on a different platform until the end of 2011 and then transferred all the material over here. The problem was that a lot of the commentary was lost in the move – I couldn’t figure how to shift it.
      And, John, never worry about straying off-topic – it’s not like this is some controlled academic study, I like the fact we can and do range far and wide in our chats and discussions here.

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