Kansas City Confidential

KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL slugged, sapped and shot its way into 1952, putting a crew of  tough guys on vivid display in a hard-as-nails noir classic. Two veterans were joined by a trio of fresh, not exactly pretty faces, in a lean and mean script written by George Bruce and Harry Essex, directed with a decided flair for rough stuff by Phil Karlson. Quentin Tarantino said this sharp-cut diamond was a key inspiration for unleashing his vicious Reservoir Dogs. * 

A man styling himself ‘Mr. Big’ plans a bank robbery in Kansas City, Missouri. Masked to disguise his identity, he selects three confederates, interviewing them separately so they can’t identify each other during the heist, where they’ll be masked and stay so until they split up. He’ll tell them where & when to meet up and divide the spoils. Their patsy during the holdup, delivery driver ‘Joe Rolfe’ (John Payne), cleared after getting worked over by the cops, sets off to find out who framed him. He tracks them to Mexico to settle accounts, where he not only finds the thugs but Mr. Big’s uninvolved and innocent daughter, a law student, played by Colleen Gray.

Laying on the nastiness, director Karlson doesn’t shy from some jarring brutality and the threat and fear level is heightened by the many striking closeups employed by George E. Diskant’s black & white cinematography.

With the partial exception of the colorless Gray, the cast is steak.  Ruggedly handsome Payne, 40, well vested over a decade adeptly playing mostly nice guys, smoothly shifts gear into smart, desperate & tough mode. At 51, Foster (we know he’s Mr. Big before anyone else does) had already moved from a long run in lead roles into suitably sturdy supporting work, here juggling his schemer’s harshness with gentleness he displays with his daughter.

Then there’s the three hoods—quiet, gum-chewing brute ‘Boyd Kane’ (Neville Brand); sarcastic, viperish ‘Tony Romano’ (Lee Van Cleef); and fidgety weasel ‘Pete Harris’ (Jack Elam).

Jack Elam at 31 had gained notice in 22 mostly small parts over five years, making a particularly upsetting impression in 1951’s Rawhide; among a horde of ensuing credits, this immersion into ick was probably his best showcase until the last year of the next decade let him be funny instead of creepy in Support Your Local Sheriff.

Lee Van Cleef was 27 in his debut year, kicked off by High Noon. For years he would squint and sneer steadily in films and TV but this coiled snake was his best part until 1965, when For A Few Dollars More pistol-whipped him into a new career turn that would run another 25 years.

WW2 hero Brand at 31 had been doing notable film work since ’49, and his chilly thug here notched another in a gallery of hard cases he’d send up until, like Elam, he’d finally be allowed to go humane in the mid-60s, on the big screen in Birdman Of Alcatraz and via TV’s Laredo.

Though she was no stranger to noir harshness, having been through Kiss Of Death and Nightmare Alley, Gray is rather hard to buy (plus the script doesn’t sufficiently sell her too-quick relationship with Payne, either), but her slack is more than taken up by some tease action from supporting vixen Dona Drake.

Dona Drake, 1914-1989

Apart from some establishing shots in the title town, filming was done in L.A., and Catalina Island stood in for Tijuana and the fictional resort of ‘Barados’. One bemused observation: these characters end up in a sweltering coastal village, yet the script has them always decked out in suits and ties. This type of costuming flaw is present in many older movies, insistent on over-outfitting people doing things like sitting in their backyard, driving to the store, trekking through jungles or confronting monsters. That was then…

A gross of $1,500,000 punched into position #178 among the ’52 mob. Scored by Paul Sawtell, also featuring Mario Siletti and Carleton Young. 99 minutes.

* We hardened connoisseurs prefer this to QTs indulgent 1992 case of assault & battery: so bring on the pissy fanboy hate. Besides giving a future video clerk a brain freeze, in its own era KCC, along with serving up great roles to the baddies, launched Payne on a cycle of blistering crime pix with him often a fall guy-turned-avenger (two directed by Karlson), and was successful enough at grabbing cash that producer Edward Small went forth (confidentially) with New York Confidential, Chicago Confidential and Hong Kong Confidential.

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