Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Kansas City Confidential (USA, 1952)

At the beginning of the 1950’s, Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer, two newspaper columnists, wrote a series of well selling pulp "non-fiction" books printed by cheapie-publishers Dell entitled, among others, Chicago Confidential, Washington Confidential and New York Confidential. These now hard to find, badly dated but entertainingly camp exposés supposedly gave "the low down on the big town(s)," naming the names and telling the facts about all that was illegal, half legal or simply questionable in taste. Kansas City Confidential, a pleasant little B-film from United Artists filmed in 1952, obviously hoped to milk some name recognition from the successful paperbacks, even if the "non-fiction" books and the fiction film had very little in common. In fact, Kansas City Confidential even has relatively little to do with Kansas City, and is not an exposé of any sort. After the quick moving first 15 minutes of the film set up the basic "wrong man framed for the crime," the entire action moves from the mid-western city to Mexico—or at least a Californian location meant to look like Mexico.
The story concerns an ex-military man with a slight criminal past who, working as a driver for a flower delivery van, almost inadvertently gets framed as the patsy for a "perfect" robbery of a bank, a well timed piece of planning executed by a group of four masked men of which only one, the leader, knows who everyone is and how they look like. The cops try to beat a confession out of our hero (no talk about Miranda Rights here), but are forced against their will to release him when certain evidence points towards his possible innocence. Out of work and unemployable due to his infamy, he sets out to find out who set him up. Following a slim lead down to Mexico, he ends up taking over the identity of one of the hoods, Pete Harris (Jack Elan), when the latter gets shot to death by some police. Making his way to the fishing resort where the criminals are to meet for the divvying up of the bank loot, his arrival sets off a series of events that culminate in a big showdown in which all the bad guys die, his name gets cleared and he gets the girl.
Featuring forgotten B-movie stalwart John Payne in the lead role, this prime example of low budget film noir also showcases nice, early performances by a beady-eyed Jack Elam and a smooth, slimy Lee van Cleef as two of the bad guys. In general, the acting in Kansas City Confidential is a tad above most similar B-films, if only because the various actors seem to be cast by type, as well as ability. The only weak link in the chain of thespians is Coleen Gray as the blond, law student love interest (and daughter of Mr. X, the Big Baddy of the film), but even if she seems a bit out of place, she does meet the ideal of the time and is pleasant to look at. (Vincent Price fans will get a kick out of his performance as a playboy nice guy.)
The direction is deftly handled by yet another forgotten B-movie stalwart Phil Karlston, who manages to keep the action moving and the visuals interesting – his composition of the picture frame is often excellent – thereby injecting some good tension into what sometimes seems, were it not for a few unexpected and interesting twists, like an old and creaking story. One of the better tricks Karlston uses, aside from some competent camera work and for its time unflinching violence, is to keep the viewer unsure about whether Payne, once he manages to track down those responsible for his situation, is really simply trying to save his name or is rather actually trying to hone in on a share of the loot. In the best tradition of Film Noir, good guy/bad guy gets mixed together ambiguously until the end. Kansas City Confidential may not be an acknowledged classic of its type, but it is definitely a good example of how, when handled well, all the little pieces add up to make a pretty satisfying whole. It is a film worth watching, and not just by fans of Film Noir.


ohmemercylard said...

Where's Vincent Price? Did I miss him? He's not listed in IMDB cast. And I didn't see him.

Abraham said...

No, you didn't miss him. Back when I started this blog, up until about 2010 I used to plant occasional "big mistakes" to see whether anyone would catch them. (See "The Devil Rides Out" aka "The Devil's Bride" for what I thought was an obvious falsehood.) I've stopped doing that, however, cause I figure it really doesn't bring anything (for me or the reader), so spank my behind for any mistakes as of 2011. I thought I'd deleted all the intentional "mistakes" in the meantime, but I seem to have missed that one. If I remember correctly, Vincent Price plays a helpful playboy-like character in some Jane Russell movie, which I watched around the same time.

ohmemercylard said...

That's hilarious. I think the movie you mention is HIS KIND OF WOMAN, 1951, an entertaining little noir gem that I occasionally catch pieces of on TCM.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...