Kansas City Confidential (The Film Detective, NR)

Kansas City Confidential is an underrated little gem.

Kansas City C

Crime films date back almost to the birth of the movies, and the genre includes many enduringly popular films as well as some real gems of cinematic art like Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1902) and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). The genre was particularly popular in the 1930s and 1940s in the U.S., decades which produced classics such as Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and White Heat (1949).

With so many good crime films available, it’s easy for one to get overlooked or unfairly labeled as subpar, and once such a label is applied, it’s hard to dislodge it. Factors unrelated to the film’s merits may well come into play, such as the quality of available prints: it’s hard to recognize a masterpiece when you’re watching a dirty, blurry print. That’s basically what happened to Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential (1952), which is not exactly a masterpiece but is still a very interesting film.

Kansas City Confidential is in the public domain, which is something of a mixed blessing for film lovers—you can watch it for free over the internet or get a cheap copy on DVD, but because it is freely available, no one has a financial interest in restoring it. Fortunately, some specialty companies have realized that film lovers will pay to see a good print of a film, and that’s where the Blu-ray restoration recently released by The Film Detective comes in. Their restoration is based on a 35mm print and used digital techniques to repair and remove dirt. The result is a film that looks pretty good (much better than the PD versions), with the main flaw being that well-lit scenes sometimes appear washed out.

If you’re a fan of Quentin Tarantino, you will get a particular kick out of this film because a key element of Kansas City Confidential is also featured in Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs. Both involve a crime executed by a gang of criminals put together for that purpose by a boss who uses a device to keep them from knowing the true identities of their collaborators. I have to say that Karlson bests Tarantino in this regard, however, because he uses an inherently cinematic device (creepy masks) rather than the fake names (“Mr. Pink,” “Mr. White”) employed in Reservoir Dogs.

The pacing of Kansas City Confidential is refreshingly different from the typical crime film. The action begins immediately, with information is provided in fragments, beginning with a perfectly ordinary street scene, a window identifying a building as a bank, and a clock (a recurring theme). A well-dressed man (Preston Foster) looks out the window as a delivery truck pulls up to a florist’s shop, followed shortly afterward by an armored car pulling up to the bank. The gazer looks at wristwatch—clearly he’s timing something—then the camera reveals a detailed map and timetable that, given that the opening screen crawl has promised us a film about a “perfect crime,” can only be the plans for a robbery.

There’s no dialogue for almost five minutes, with the silence broken only when Foster’s character (a.k.a. “Mr. Big”) makes a series of phone calls to the desperate men who will act as his criminal gang: degenerate gambler Peter Harris (Jack Elam), pretty boy Tony Romano (Lee Van Cleef), and thuggish Boyd Kane (Neville Brand), each of which needs not only the work, but also a way to get out of the country. When Mr. Big meets with each man, he wears a cloth masks that comes down below his chin and insists that each of them do likewise whenever they are together, because if they don’t know who they are working with, they can’t rat on each other.

The robbery is completed before 15 minutes have elapsed (so calling this a “heist film” really isn’t correct), incriminating the driver of the florist’s truck, Joe Rolfe (John Payne), in the process. Rolfe is an ex-con trying to go straight and is subject to some brutal treatment by the police before an alibi gets him off the hook. Despite his innocence, Rolfe loses his job, and, like a good movie hero, sets off the find the real criminals and restore his good name.

Rolfe tracks down Harris (who seems to have about the same luck in his criminal career as Wilmer Cook did in The Maltese Falcon) and finds out that the gang is planning a meet-up in Mexico. The action shifts to Mexico (some of this film may or may not have been shot in Central America, depending on whom you believe) less than half an hour in, as the film follows Rolfe on his mission. He also meets Mr. Big’s lovely daughter Helen (Colleen Grey), who’s just about to take her law exams (three cheers to writers Rowland Brown and Harold Greene for giving her a serious profession), and the plot thickens from there.

George E. Diskant’s cinematography in Kansas City Confidential also deserves a mention. Diskant, who shot more than 20 films including Beware, My Lovely and They Live by Night before going into television, has a great feel for noir conventions (some of his shots might as well be titled “Shadowland”). But he also put his own stamp on this film, most notably in the distorted shots introducing each of the three henchmen (Payne, by contrast, is treated to some shadow-free glamor shots that would not be out of place were he the heroine rather than the hero). There’s also a reflection shot near the end that is striking in itself and also serves the plot. All in all, Kansas City Confidential is an underrated little gem that shows what a skilled cast and crew could do within one of the enduringly popular film genres.

There are no extras on the disc. | Sarah Boslaugh

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