Kansas City Confidential (1952)

Kansas City Confidential isn’t the slickest show in the film noir canon — but it has plenty of malice crammed into the close ups of its prolific baddies’ sweaty, greedy faces.

Director Phil Karlson made some pretty smart crime flicks in his time, such as 99 River Street and Scandal Sheet, but this one isn’t quite up to those giddy heights, and has some clumsy moments, as some poorly scripted and cheap-looking scenes. 

On the plus side, Kansas City Confidential may be the sweatiest of all film noirs, with several gallons of perspiration being shown on the flow in each act.

Unique to Kansas City Confidential are the memorable masks that the hoods wear at the start of the film.  They don’t these masks so that they cannot recognise each other, and although it doesn’t quite work plot-wise, it is without doubt visually striking.  The masks are odd, and while bland remain spooky as they retain enough facial features to suggest the barest of personality.

Which film noir favourites are here arraigned in Kansas City Confidential?  

John Payne
Well there’s John Payne, of The Crooked Way (1948) fame, in which he plays a war veteran who’s lost his memory.  

Here, as in other film noirs, the lead is a war hero who has slid from grace into crime, but John Payne’s character, the florist delivery driver, is trying his best to go straight.  This isn’t made any easier by the cops, who arrest him although he is entirely innocent, and beat him up several times in the course of the night that they hold him.  

All Payne has to say to this is: “Thanks — for NOTHING!”

Who is Jack Elam?

If you had to cast a bad guy line up in the 1950s however, you could not have done much better than to go with Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand.  Jack Elam was a character actor who appeared in many crime and western films, usually as a villain, and who here has a pretty meaty role, slightly more than he normally got back in these times.  Elam, who appears in a few other noirs such as Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Quicksand (1950), gave this great interview on ABC one time, in which he defined the career of a moderately successful actor, such as he was, by how a director refers to the actor suggested for a part.  It goes as follows:

    Stage 1: "Who is Jack Elam?"
    Stage 2: "Get me Jack Elam."
    Stage 3: "I want a Jack Elam type."
    Stage 4: "I want a younger Jack Elam."
    Stage 5: "Who is Jack Elam?"

Then there’s Neville Brand, whom we know from D.O.A. (1950) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), where he reprises much of the same dumb-thug dude as he does here — and of course Lee Van Cleef, who before he hit the West, used to do a great turn as a sinister hit man in the odd noir, such as The Big Combo (1955).

Each of the thugs has a weakness in Kansas City Confidential — in the case of Pete Harris (Jack Elam) it’s the crap game he can’t get enough of — in the case of Tony Romano (Lee Van Cleef) it’s the ladies — and in the case of Boyd Kane (Neville Brand), he is something of a psychopath with a drive to kill policemen.

Kansas City Confidential gets a pretty bad rap, with some folks finding it dull and unbelievable, but it’s got more than enough going for it that it can hold its head up in any crime line-up of the time.

Much of Kansas City Confidential isn’t set in Kansas City, but in Mexico.  In fact it is all vaguely reminiscent of Key largo, insofar as it presents a coterie of hoods holed up in a remote fishing hotel.  

Filming took place in June 1952, and it was partly shot on Santa Catalina Island, California, which stood in for Mexico.

Yes, the story begins in Kansas City, but most of the film actually takes place at a fictitious fishing resort in Mexico. The plot also served as inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. 

It's the bad-ass badness that makes it film noir, the fact that we're so far inside the criminal gang as to almost make a virtue of their wickedness. The view is the opposite of the police procedural, an inside out view of crime. It's bad luck that things work out the way they do for this charismatic gang of flawed criminals, including the nameless, ruthless mastermind behind the scam, known as Mr Big.

Flower delivery guy turns tough!
This viewpoint is one of the strengths of film noir, and the suggestion that criminality is not only rife in society, but that it is organised to a high degree. Amid that, is the figure of the patsy, here played by John Payne. As with the awful miracles of Hitchcock's many 'innocent man caught up in murderous intrigue' plot lines, John Payne solves his own crime, where the police fail. Behind this fantasy, is a separate failure, because while we all get caught up in crime from time to time, we generally do so as victims, and as such remain powerless; the very opposite of this fantasy.

In the movies however, such as here, regular Joes appear capable of not just acts of violence, but of bravery and risk taking that were it real, would be a helluva surprise.

Finally, the film was popular enough to usher in a series of "confidential" films from Edward Small: New York Confidential, Chicago Confidential, and Hong Kong Confidential.

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