HD Cinema Classics // 1952 // 99 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ike Oden (Retired) // February 21st, 2011
The picture that hits with BULLET FORCE and BLACKJACK FURY!
Kansas City Confidential has been bopping around bargain bins and dollar store electronic sections since DVDs were conceived. Like so many great films, its public domain status has made it difficult to find a transfer that doesn't look like it survived nuclear fallout. Barring a single MGM release in 2007, finding a good copy of this film noir classic was about as easy as redeeming yourself after a million dollar frame up. HD Cinema has finally given the film the hi-def treatment, but is it necessarily an achievement to hike the technical spec bar up from "poor" to "sort of good?"
Embittered ex-cop Tim Foster (Preston Foster, The Informer) anonymously organizes a full-proof armored car bank heist using a group of masked criminals (Neville Brand, Eaten Alive; Lee Van Cleef, Escape From New York; and Jack Elam, Once Upon A Time In The West). The only problem: they've accidentally framed Joe Rolfe (John Payne, The Razor's Edge), an ex-con whose rehab is tarnished when he's pinned for the crime. Hell-bent on revenge, Joe tracks the criminals to South America, where he falsely assumes a criminal identity to take his piece of the million dollars the crew swindled.
Kansas City Confidential is a horrible title for this sort of movie, sounding more appropriate for a 1950s cop show than a gritty crime flick. Less than twenty minutes of the film takes place in Kansas City, and that number includes the scrolling text monologue that vaguely promises the narrative is ripped straight from Kansas City's case book. Really, everything bad about the film is Kansas City related -- the bank heist is a boring, shot-during-the-day affair that plays out with zero suspense, while Joe's arrest and frame-up plays out flatter than a Dragnet re-run. This first act is pure set-up and exposition -- dry and predictable, carried by some interestingly dangerous criminals (Neville as the psychotic, Van Cleef as a lady's man, and Elam as a tweaked out twerp).
Things get particularly interesting when Joe heads south-of-the-border, tracking his perps through seedy speakeasy casinos and the sleazy back alleys of Mexico City. As Joe, John Payne counterbalances square-jawed, post-WW2 do-goodery with a kind of ruthless, moral ambiguity. He's a classic noir protagonist, one that's not above smacking around bad guys, wrestling pistols out of their hands, or letting them take a hail of bullets without warning.
Yet, for all his badassitude, Joe is weighed down toward the film's latter half. At the behest of obligatory film convention, Joe's soft side is explored through his relationship with Helen (Coleen Gray, Red River) the corrupt cop's legal eagle daughter. His poorly timed visit to dear old dad results in a sideline romance for Joe, which complicates matters for both protagonist and antagonist. Yet, where Helen's presence should ratchet up the tension in the film's many fight scenes and double crosses, the character sort of just peters off. She's pretty and charming, but fails as a character and a narrative device, distracting from the action and suspense. Couldn't the filmmakers put her on the fringe of femme fatale, ala Laura? Her character's consistent inaction smacks of 1950s sexism.
Regardless or its flaws and datedness, Kansas City Confidential is thoroughly engrossing, suspenseful, and pretty darn great. It is a movie that's very, very easy to like, and unique in that it spares most of the mystery aspects of the story in favor of keeping a hard-hitting, adventurous pace going. There's very little doubt that Joe Rolfe will get his revenge and that the bank robbers (Neville, Elam, and Van Cleef showing of their evil chops perfectly) that framed him deserve whatever grim fate rural Mexico has to offer them. While many critics have cited Kansas City Confidential's bank robbery plot device as a surefire influence on Reservoir Dogs, the film's "they-messed-with-the-wrong-guy" action film tropes feel very fresh within the context of 1952.
Now, to the meat of the review: Does Kansas City Confidential stack up as a Blu-ray? Well, yes and no. Yes, in that, the full frame 1080p transfer is as clean a transfer as you're likely to find for the film, but take this with a grain of salt. As Judge Clark Douglas noted in his review of HD Cinema's other new noir release, The Stranger, the restoration's cleanliness comes at the expense of the picture. Transferred not from a 35mm print, HD Cinema's transfer is clean to the point of sterility, making for a dull, somewhat washed out transfer. The film's 5.1 mix is a little better, offering up clear dialogue and a passable array of canned sound effects common to the period. It's solid, but it doesn't really sound all that great when compared to most other 5.1 mixes.
Then again, if you want to put the Blu-ray's audio and video context to the film's history on video, feel free to take a crack at Alpha's release of the film, or perhaps any edition you'd find in a bin at the Dollar Tree. This is about as good as Kansas City Confidential is liable to get, kids, and though that's not saying much (especially with only a trailer and a restoration demonstration as extras), a budget price makes this edition something of a steal in this reviewer's opinion.
For all of its flaws, Kansas City Confidential is as hard-boiled and two-fisted as a noir is likely to get -- a fairly well written, mostly well directed film that's oriented more toward action and suspense than mystery or convoluted plotting. It lacks the elegance and grace of much of its noir brethren, but damn if doesn't accomplish exactly what it sets out to: provide pulpy thrills for 99 minutes. The Blu-ray isn't great, but it's leaps and bounds above what you're likely to find digging around the public domain graveyards the film has long suffered in.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: HD Cinema Classics
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1952
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Restoration Comparison