Kansas City Confidential (1952)
“Exploding! Like a gun in your face!”
Director: Phil Karlson
Cast: John Payne, Coleen Gray, Preston Foster
Synopsis: An ex-con trying to go straight is framed for a million dollar armored car robbery and must go to Mexico in order to unmask the real culprits.
Phil Karlson had a fairly nondescript directing career. He was accomplished enough, but too often toiled in Hollywood’s dungeons, churning out forgettable B-movies like The Iroquois trail (1950) and Mask of the Avenger (1951). Every now and then, though, he coughed up a jewel: Kansas City Confidential, a tough, no-budget Noir filled with irredeemable heavies and damaged good guys, is one of those gems. Other Karlson movies that transcended their B-movie constraints include The Phenix City Story (1955) and Walking Tall (1973).
In Kansas City Confidential, Preston Foster plays Tim Foster, an embittered ex-cop forced to retire over some unspecified incident, who blackmails three hoods into helping him to commit an armed robbery. Each of the men wear masks while in each other’s presence so that they remain unknown to one another, thus minimising the risk of them all being caught. They use a fake florist’s truck to get close to an armoured van, and after they make their escape, Joe Rolfe (John Payne), the driver of the real florist truck, is arrested and brutally grilled for two days by the police before the fake van is located and Rolfe is released. Determined to clear his name, Rolfe sets about tracking down the real robbers.
The three hoods forcibly enlisted by Foster make up a real cinematic rogues gallery. First we have Jack Elam as Pete Harris, a nervy, twitchy, chain-smoking weasel whose permanent agitation nevertheless makes him a dangerous foe. Harris is the first of the trio that Rolfe tracks down, as he waits nervously in a Mexican hotel for the message informing him of the location of the rendezvous where he can collect his share of the loot. When Harris is gunned down by Mexican police shortly after receiving the word, Rolfe assumes his identity and travels to the resort of Borados, as per Foster’s instructions.
There he runs into the other members of the gang – Boyd Kane (Neville Brand) and Tony Romano (Lee Van Cleef). These two would be enough to put anyone off; they lounge around the resort’s bar, playing pool and poker and suspiciously eyeing everyone that crosses their path. Even though they sweat a lot, they wear their suits at all times to conceal the guns they’re packing in shoulder holsters as they wait for their ring leader to make contact. Unknown to them, Foster is already amongst them, posing as a vacationing fisherman.
Kansas City Confidential has all the usual Noir trappings, and Karlson develops a nice pressure-cooker atmosphere which is enhanced by his use of close-ups on the tense, sweaty faces of both Rolfe and his antagonists. But what’s interesting about the movie is the way in which Foster and Rolfe’s true identities remain unknown to one another until the final reel. Although Rolfe is a victim of Foster’s crime, his false arrest was an unfortunate consequence unforeseen and unintended by Foster. Rolfe is an ex-con, which is why he was given such a tough time by the police, but once he’s released his and Foster’s roles are effectively reversed: Rolfe, the ex-con, becomes the investigator, while ex-cop Foster assumes the role of villain. This reversal of roles complements everyone’s disguising of their true identities, effectively blurring the lines between good and evil.
Payne makes an effective and likeable leading man: tough, principled, but far from perfect. He’s not afraid of mixing it with the likes of Brand and Van Cleef, and the gambling den scene in which he baits Elam forewarns us of the tainted integrity that drives him on. Brand, Van Cleef and Elam – an unholy triumvirate if ever there was one – are, of course, perfect for their roles, and are great fun to watch as they snarl and bite like caged panthers. Foster, too, provides a convincing performance. His character provides an unusually human element to the bad guy role, and has a back story that could perhaps have withstood a little more probing.
Having been made in the 1950s, Kansas City Confidential is weakened by an upbeat ending that’s at odds with all that has gone before, but other than this it provides 100 minutes of solid entertainment that won’t disappoint fans of the genre.
(Reviewed 12th July 2012)