Tuesday 9 June 2020

Movie Review: Kansas City Confidential (1952)

A crime and revenge film noir, Kansas City Confidential features an intelligent plot rich with crooked characters, layers of suspicion, and delicious double crossing.

In Kansas City, the distinguished Tim Foster (Preston Foster), initially known only as Mr. Big, plots a masterful bank robbery of $1.2 million. He recruits three hoodlums to pull it off: Pete Harris (Jack Elam), Tony Romano (Lee Van Cleef) and Boyd Kane (Neville Brand). They all wear masks and never see each other, with Foster arranging for the men to first disappear then regroup to divide the loot once the heat dies down.

The innocent fall guy is flower delivery van driver Joe Rolfe (John Payne), who is arrested, questioned and roughed up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Joe is a decorated war hero with a minor criminal record. Now his life is ruined, and he sets out to find the men responsible. He tracks down Harris in Tijuana, Mexico, then heads to the gang's rendevouz at the resort of Barados. Romano and Kane are already waiting, while Foster is pretending to be a fisherman and readying a further twist to his crime. But the surprise arrival of his daughter Helen (Coleen Gray) disrupts all the plans.

Filled with uncompromising violence, threats, and mean men guarding against other, Kansas City Confidential delves into the world of small-time hoods manipulated by one mastermind, and one war hero out for revenge. Director Phil Karlson translates a gem of a script by Rowland Brown and Harold Greene to the screen and the 99 minutes are unrelenting: with every man for himself, mistrust becomes the primary currency energizing the action.

Despite the title, the majority of the film takes place in Mexico, with the final third confined to the small (fictional) resort of Barados. Here Karlson eventually loses some grit. Joe infiltrates the gang while romancing Helen, and repetitiveness creeps in through multiple similar interactions with hoods Romano and Kane.

But the story's threads are woven together with a base level of rationality. Joe's army background, two combat medals and stint in prison provide the steel and courage to now face down evil men. And the script saves another surprise related to Foster, arming him with both motive and opportunity to recruit desperate men and pull-off a daring heist.

The noir style is relatively subtle, with a more straightforward thrust for revenge dominating. Karlson mixes day and night shots with ease, and keeps light levels more neutral. Instead the emphasis is on close-ups, and the actors oblige with some stellar work. Jack Elam and Lee Van Cleef as Harris and Romano bring an admirable dedication to shiftiness, with Neville Brand's Kane adding a layer of gum-chewing smarminess. John Payne as the lead protagonist finds the right balance between toughness and empathy.

Oozing with greed, scheming and deception, Kansas City Confidential is a crafty caper.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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