Sunday, February 21, 2010

#59: Kansas City Confidential (Phil Karlson, 1952)

Released: November 28, 1952

Director: Phil Karlson; Screenplay: George Bruce and Harry Essex based on a story by Harold Brown and Harold Greene; Cinematography: George E. Diskant; Music: Paul Sawtell; Producer: Edward Small; Studio: United Artists

Cast: John Payne (Joe Rolfe/ Peter Harris), Coleen Gray (Helen Foster), Preston Foster (Tim Foster), Neville Brand (Boyd Kane), Lee Van Cleef (Tony Romano), Jack Elam (Pete Harris, a.k.a. Johnson), Dona Drake (Teresa), Mario Siletti (Tomaso), Howard Negley (Andrews), Carleton Young (Martin), Don Orlando (Diaz), Ted Ryan (Morelli)

- "What makes a two-bit heel like you think a heater would give him an edge over me?"

This is another movie that I struggled with in finding the proper placement. In my original rough draft, it was much higher, more toward the top 40. After doing some reshuffling, it fell back into the 60s, as re-watching some films moved them above it. Not having watched it in some time, though, this was one that I needed to revisit before I sat down to write any kind of review. Obviously, the experience was a positive one, as I have moved it back into the Top 50. I also think that I have pinpointed why my feelings toward it are constantly fluctuating. The set up and premise to the story is very inventive, in a kind of “that’s a brilliant idea” response to the caper. But things don’t play out as memorably as one would suspect from such a buildup and the conclusion does leave something to be desired. The planning and execution of the heist, along with the settling of the proceeds, is intriguing enough to carry any weaknesses. Perhaps the payoff feels disappointing because the development is so compelling.

How plausible it would be to maintain the secrecy that mastermind Tim Foster (Preston Foster) demands is debatable, but I have to admit that it is an ingenious idea. For weeks, Foster sits in an apartment and watches the routine delivery schedule of an armored car as it makes its usual drops at a Kansas City bank. He has concocted a plan to rob the armored car, using a florist truck as a getaway car, and thus use an actual florist deliveryman (John Payne) as the unsuspecting fall guy. For muscle on the job, Foster recruits three well-known KC hoods, meeting with each of them individually and keeping his face concealed so that he can never be identified. He also forces all of the hijackers to wear masks and to keep their identities secret from everyone but him. The reasoning is obvious – if one of them is apprehended and flips, they can give up nothing on any of the others. The robbery goes off as planned, with the hapless Joe Rolfe (John Payne) picked up for the job. Meanwhile, the actual robbers make their getaway. Foster, known to the others as Mr. Big, tells them that he will hold onto the cash until the heat dies down. They are all to meet up in Mexico when Mr. Big thinks it’s clear to disperse the money. In the interim, Rolfe begins feeling the heat in a major way from the police, as his ex-con status makes him a usual suspect. The police brutally beat him to try and get a confession but are unsuccessful. When Joe is released, he has an underworld friend give him a line on one of the robbers and begins his own search to track down the hijackers and the mastermind.

The robbery, its aftermath in Kansas City, and Joe’s vigilante search for the robbers are the best parts of the movie. It is hardened, at times brutal, stuff as the police are certain that an ex-con in the vicinity of the heist can be no coincidence. Although he is committed to making it in the legitimate world, his life is shattered after he hits the front pages as the prime suspect in the robbery. Thus, he pursues the men who framed with the coldblooded nature of a seasoned assassin. The tension remains relatively high when all of the culprits come together in the bungalows of Mexico. It is a cat and mouse game, as the henchmen begin to suspect who the others are, but none of them want to come right out and reveal themselves. At the same time, Foster realizes that Joe is an imposter, pretending to be one of the robbers, and thus has to proceed with extra caution. His role is further complicated when his daughter Helen (Coleen Gray) drops in for an impromptu visit and becomes attracted to Joe. I will not at all reveal how things play out, but as I said, the conclusion does not maintain the same excellence of the buildup. Still, it’s a hell of a ride getting to that point.

The accomplishment by director Phil Karlson and company is the ability to maintain the anxiety without any real mystery. The viewer knows all of the culprits, knows the intimate details of the robbery, and is fully aware that Joe is a poser. The apprehension results from the dangerous game that you watch Joe playing, wondering how long he can keep his identity concealed. John Payne – a very solid noir actor – gives an impressive performance as a desperate man, driven to taking extreme chances to regain control of his life. It is also entertaining to watch the wonderful supporting case, boasting great character actors like Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, and Neville Brand. This is one that I easily could have bumped up the rankings a bit, but that's how it goes in countdowns like this. It is still an essential noir.


  1. I think your placement is very generous. It's not a first tier noir in my opinion. I actually find some of the acting to be pretty lousy. I would place this somewhat lower on a similar list. The film loses some steam once Joe arrives in Mexico. The love story also seems tacked on and very unconvincing. I love Jack Elam in this film but I find John Payne to be extremely bland. I also am no fan of Neville Brand. I don't think much of him as an actor (especially his corny role in D.O.A.). I do think the heist scene and Joe's interrogation by the cops are effective. On a different and my girlfriend both saw Shutter Island tonight. She hated every second of the movie. I enjoyed it more and would rate it 7/10.......M.Roca

  2. Dave,
    Another essential noir. What always struck me about this film is how violent it was for its time. Payne's beating is pretty brutal. Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam and Neville Brand make a ferocious team of thugs. I always thought Karlson was underrated as a director and like other "B" filmmakers rarely or never got the chance to work on an "A" film, unlike Don Siegel who eventually moved up. Good stuff, Dave.
    BTW- I saw you liked SHUTTER ISLAND - Going to see it today and hopefully have a review up in a day or so.

  3. I was blown away by Shutter Island, Dave. Thought it was spectacular.

    I haven't seen Kansas City Confidential in a while, but I remember loving, loving, loving it. I second what John said, surprisingly violent, and very intense.

  4. I liked this noir very much, but I tend to agree with M. Roca about the tacked-on love story. On the other hand, unlike him, I liked John Payne, it was for the first time that I appreciated his performance, I used to find him extremely dull, but not in this movie where he was appropriately intense.

  5. M.Roca - We'll just have to agree to disagree on this one, I think this is an outstanding noir, with the kind of crackerjack plot that many (including me) like from time to time. As for Shutter Island, I'm leaning more toward Doniphon's stance - I really liked it, if not loved it.

    John - Thanks for the compliments! You're right about the violence, and what I think is interesting about it is that our nominal "hero" doesn't hesitate to engage in it either. I agree about Karlson, he certainly made more than one good film. With Shutter Island, I'll be interested to hear your thoughts. Knowing your tastes, and how similar we are on a lot of stuff, I'll be shocked if you don't like it. You might not like it as much as me, but it's too well-made not to enjoy and appreciate.

    Doniphon - Yes, as I said I could have moved this one up. But it's getting tough to separate some of these. As for Shutter Island, I posted a comment at your place, but I'll reiterate that I can't get the movie out of my mind - similar to my reaction to The Black Dahlia. My rating might be bumped up by the end of the day.

    Quirky Character - Yes, the love story is a little too pat, but I think that everything else works very well.

  6. I am not quite the fan of it as you are, but I can well respect your haigh regard for it Dave. It's more fine lensing here from that man, George E. Diskant, and yes the anxiety is subtely transcribed. I have preferred other caper films, but I admire the diversity that your emplyed on this noir countdown, which has contained so many different noir overlaps, though this one in that sense is perhaps more conventional.

    As to SHUTTER ISLAND, I loved, loved, loved it!!! I was prepared to write an effusively favorable review, but my site colleague Bob Clark is hot to trot, so the assignmentis his. Ha!

  7. Shutter Island is one of those films you have to see more than once. It might be even better with a second viewing. It is not in the same league as Scorsese's best (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas) but it reminds me of one of his lesser known films Bringing Out the Dead. It has that same non-mainstream labor of love feel......M.Roca

  8. I watched this KC Conf last night and really loved it. There are some things that would have tightened it up, but overall, it was a great movie. I think this is the first non-western I've ever seen Lee Van Cleef in. That in itself was interesting.

  9. This is perfect because I liked how the movie began because four robbers hold up an armored truck getting away with over a million dollars in cash. Joe Rolfe , a down on his luck flower delivery truck driver is accused of being involved and is roughly interrogated by local police, then I liked the murders and other important scenes in that movie. m10m

  10. The sequence of this film was in my opinion out of this world. I'm Phil Karlson biggest fan, by the simple reason he hadn't all the neccessary resources and even this, he made an stupendous job directing this film.

  11. M.Roca - We'll just have to agree to disagree on this one, I think this is an outstanding noir, with the kind mind - similar to my reaction to The Black Dahlia. My rating might be bumped up by the end of the day.