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Kansas City Confidential | Blu-ray Review

Kansas City ConfidentialAfter falling into the public domain, Phil Karlson’s 1952 film noir Kansas City Confidential became unfairly lumped into B-grade bracket, a disservice considering the title’s odd narrative and eventual influence on contemporary filmmakers. Karlson, who would eventually turn to mainstream efforts starring the likes of Dean Martin and Elvis Presley in the 1960s and 1970s, contributed several enjoyable minor noir efforts in the 1950s. These would include 1952’s Scandal Sheet with Donna Reed and Broderick Crawford, Kim Novak casino heist effort 5 Against the House, and that same year’s Tight Spot with a peculiar role for Ginger Rogers. But none have enjoyed the staying power of this particular heist drama, now restored with its most accomplished transfer yet.

Kansas City delivery man Joe Rolfe (John Payne) is at the wrong place at the wrong time when he’s nabbed by the cops as the driver of a heist involving the robbing of an armored truck. Angry at the ordeal he’s thrust into, he follows the trail of hired killers, three men hired secretively by a mysterious masked man, Mr. Big (Preston Foster). Stealing the identity of one of their mates (Jack Elam), Rolfe poses as a member of their gang, thinking he’ll receive a portion of the take. But when the beautiful Helen Foster (Coleen Gray) shows up at the resort, matters become complicated for Rolfe.

John Payne is still best known as the romantic lead opposite Maureen O’Hara in the 1947 Christmas flick Miracle on 34th Street, but he started out in the mid-1930s being groomed as a potential matinee idol with small roles in items such as Dodsworth before taking leads in B-grade cheapies. Before turning to television by the late 1950s, Payne seemed poised to parallel the likes of Dana Andrews, appearing in other noir oddities like Allan Dwan’s delightful Slightly Scarlet. Here, he’s the cool and collected straight man, wrongly fingered for a crime he had no part of, spurring him to investigate the real culprits and cut himself into the profit. Payne is a rather imposing figure, his reserve working best when involved with the actual narrative rather than a romantic subplot involving fellow B-player Coleen Gray (The Leech Woman; The Killing). The actors happened to be dating in real life during this period, both staunchly conservative performers, comical to note thanks to the sometimes lurid quality of their film work. But when we aren’t pandering to the stilted romantic angle showing up nearly half way through the narrative, Kansas City Confidential plays fast and loose with a notable supporting cast. As the three heavies Karlson casts a trio of striking performers who would go on to be well known character actors, here still preserved enough to be referred to as ‘young.’ Jack Elam, Neville Brand, and Lee Van Cleef are the sinister triptych bamboozled into Preston Foster’s insidious, tricked out plan.

Famously, Kansas City Confidential provided the basis for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), but we see homage elsewhere in his filmography, notably his use of the Bride’s hit-list in Kill Bill (2003), an item made similarly prominent by Karlson. Comparisons to the banker engaged in a bank heist in Norman Jewison’s original version of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) is also a point of comparison here. While George Bruce and Harry Essex’s screenplay busts into a rushed showdown followed by a pat resolution, this cascade of meaty characters waiting for a reckoning on Mexican resort plays like the sober version of John Huston’s Key Largo (1948).

Disc Review:

The Film Detective rescues the title from its decades of tattered duplicate copies, presented in 1.33:1 with a cleaned up restoration. Finally, we can focus on the playful cinematography of George E. Diskant (who worked on Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin and Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground during the same period), such as a moment huddled in a car where Payne’s match lights a reflection in the windshield. The release is without any extra features (of note, Coleen Gray passed away in August of 2015, and the title is one of several notable items from her noir years).

Final Thoughts:

Fans of film noir are undoubtedly familiar with Karlson’s notable Kansas City Confidential, but it’s finally available in a deserving disc release.

Film Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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