Kansas City Confidential (1952), the first of three collaborations between Phil Karlson, a director who graduated from B-movies with a strong storytelling punch and a tough, two-fisted sensibility, and John Payne, a former light romantic lead and bland song-and-dance man of Fox musicals, was a career changer for both of them. Payne was already reinventing himself as a hard, taciturn lead in the westerns and action films when he connected up with Karlson and (according to the director) they came up with the story: “he and I loaded with a bottle of Scotch. We wrote the entire script and then we turned it over to a writer to put it in screenplay form.”
Kansas City Confidential opens on Preston Foster, a mystery man with a stopwatch and a checklist casing a bank, piecing together his plan and his crew, a real rogues gallery of desperate thugs all but blackmailed by this mystery man in a mask into filling out his strike force. The robbery is executed with clockwork timing and Karlson directs the scene with terse efficiency, snappy momentum and crack timing. It’s also where we get our first real look at delivery man Joe (Payne), the hard-luck working class guy flipped off by fate when the armored car heist uses his florist deliveries as cover and leaves him to take the fall: a patsy to give them camouflage and the cops a distraction as they make their getaway. He’s a decorated soldier and survivor, a war hero who took the hard knocks that came his way and rolled with the punches, but is almost knocked down for the count with this sucker punch. His name is smeared in the press and his livelihood stolen by suspicion, but he’s resourceful, resilient and unflinching when it comes to taking the hit. He follows the only lead his has out of the states and into a sleepy little Mexican vacation spot where a payoff already complicated by double-dealing and double crosses gets a new player.
The hoods in this film are a triumvirate of essential B-movie thugs with attitude and an edge of psychosis: a beady-eyed Neville Brand, a smiling cobra of a Lee Van Cleef and a skinny, sweaty Jack Elam, who later played his cock-eyed looks for shaggy humor but here works his gargoyle face for underworld shiftiness. They give the film a shot of raw menace, a trio of thugs who are quick with a gun and slow to trust anyone and would just as soon solve a problem with a bullet. Foster, never the most dynamic of screen professionals, doesn’t exactly radiate authority as a criminal mastermind but part of the film’s fun is the play of false identities and double lives and Foster’s ex-cop with a grudge is all about appearing innocent while pulling the strings behind the scenes. His revenge on his forced retirement is a doozy that, if all goes to plan, will leave both rich and a hero.
There is something very everyman about Payne that comes through when he’s the underdog knocked around by life but still getting up to take the next punch. Not simply questioned by the cops, he’s put through the ringer of police beatings to get a confession; they can’t actually show it on screen, of course, but he’s almost limp coming back from some of those “interrogation” sessions, doubled over in pain but never uttering a whimper or groan, never letting them see him crumple. When he’s finally let go for lack of evidence, all he gets from the D.A. is a reluctant “Sorry. These things happen.” (This kind of offhanded acknowledgment of police corruption, presented without comment or condemnation by the “good” cops of the force, could only have been slipped through an independent production.) It’s not hard to see how he gets so bitter but instead of wallowing, he turns detective to get back not just his good name but his dignity and his life. And when the cops can’t or won’t help him, it’s the criminal brother of a war buddy who steps up to give him the only lead he has to clear his name.
Terse and tough, Kansas City Confidential is one of the great lean, mean B crime thrillers, with a bang-up opening, a deadly payoff and a shifting set of identities and alliances that keep pulling the rug from under our hero. The scheming rogues gallery and Karlson’s steely transformation of thick fall guy Payne into a snarling, ruthless hero makes this hard-bitten low budget classic a darkly satisfying caper. The collaboration was so successful that Karlson and Payne reunited the next year for 99 River Street, an even more bare-knuckle noir set in the nocturnal shadows of the predatory city.
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Kansas City Confidential (MGM Film Noir) [DVD]
Kansas City Confidential [Blu-Ray + DVD Combo Pack]
Kansas City Confidential has long been a staple of second-rate PD (public domain) editions on VHS and DVD clogging up bargain bins at box stores. Film Chest offers a Blu-ray+DVD Combo Pack that is disappointing, ostensibly “transferred from original 35mm elements” and “digitally restored in high definition” but the results suggests second generation (or more) elements and heavy digital clean-up that scrubs away the details with the damage. While it is superior to other PD edition, the best version available is the DVD edition released by MGM/Fox in 2007, still the superior edition of this film noir classic.