Kansas City Confidential (1952), the first of three collaborations between director Phil Karlson and actor John Payne, was a career changer for both of them.
Kansas City Confidential opens on a mystery man (Preston Foster) with a stopwatch and a checklist casing a bank, piecing together his plan and putting together his team. Payne’s Joe is 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. His name smeared in the press and his livelihood stolen by suspicion, he follows his only lead to a sleepy little Mexican vacation spot where a payoff already complicated by double-dealing and double crosses gets a new player.
Karlson graduated from B-movies with a strong storytelling punch and a tough, two-fisted sensibility. Payne, a former light romantic lead and bland song-and-dance man of Fox musicals, was already reinventing himself as a hard, taciturn lead in the westerns and action films when he connected up with Karlson. 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.
The hoods, meanwhile, 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. 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.
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.
It was also one of Quentin Tarantino’s major inspirations for Reservoir Dogs, another caper with a crew of men who use code names so they don’t know the real identities of one another.
Black and white
Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, Vudu, GooglePlay and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
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.