Kansas City Confidential, John Payne, Preston Foster, Coleen Gray, Jack Elam, directed by Phillip Karlson, United Artists, 1952
I have said this many times. Sure I am an aficionado of film noir, especially those 1940s detective epics like the film adaptations of Dashiell Hammet’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. Nothing like that gritty black and white film, ominous musical background, and shadowy moments to stir the imagination. Others in the genre like Gilda, The Lady From Shang-hai, and Out Of The Past rate a nod because in addition to those attributes mentioned above they have classic femme fatales to add a little off-hand spice to the plot line, and, oh ya, they look nice too. Beyond those classics this period (say, roughly from the mid-1940s to mid-1950s produced many black and white film noir set pieces, some good, some not so good. For plot line, and plot interest, the film under review, Kansas City Confidential, is in the former category.
And why shouldn’t it be. One fall guy Joe (fall guys seem always to be named Joe, regular Joes I guess), played here in a understated way by John Payne, a little the worst for wear in post-World War II America, having had a few legal problems of his own, gets caught up in the dragnet after a major heist (over a million dollars, a lot of money then but just pocket change today) of a bank, in of all places Kansas City. Now all of this, aside from the criminal intent and cash reward, has been set-up by a disgruntled, vengeful ex-cop (played by Preston Foster) who masterminds the whole thing. Of course such a major heist then (as now) requires several, um, “associates”, in this case masked associates (for their own and Foster's self-protection against the dreaded “stoolie’ syndrome. Said associates are not anyone you or I would want to hang around with, these guys are strictly losers, especially one grafter extraordinaire, Pete Harris, played to manic perfection by Jack Elam. (The others are perennial bad guys Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand).
Now Joe, as one might expect, takes umbrage, yes, umbrage at having taken a beating from the cops, and also for being set up as the fall guy. So, naturally, as any crime noir hero worth his salt would do, he is going to get to the bottom of this thing come hell or high water. And the rest of the plot line centers of following the clues, and following the sun to sunny Mexico (low film budget faux Mexico, to be sure) to undo the bad guys, and maybe catch a reward. Or at least a stray gringa or senorita. Naturally he does, the gringa part anyway, although she turns out to be mastermind ex-cop’s daughter (law student daughter, by the way, played by Coleen Gray). Other than the inevitable tacky ending ( I won’t spoil your fun by telling what it is) this one moves along nicely, is filled with some nice twists, and is, as usual with black and white noir films great on those shadowy takes which reveal evil in the making. Especially those loser, grifter, chain-smoking Jack Elam takes. Some noirs you watch for the magic camera work, some for the femme fatales that drive the story line, some for the tough guys and their gaff. This one you get for the plot line.