Appellate Judge James A. Stewart says the movie wanders so far afield that you'll need a passport just to watch.
"I can't help feeling you're in trouble."—Helen (Coleen Gray, The Twinkle in God's Eye) to Joe Rolfe (John Payne, Week-End in Havana)
Kansas City Confidential. The name conjures up images of a sleepy Midwestern town with a seething underbelly of crime and decay. The opening crawl promises a ripped-from-the-headlines quality with its stark words. Then there's the man who's watching the local bank from a hotel window.
Does this installment in MGM's Film Noir Collection deliver on these promises? The answer may be confidential, but if you read on, you'll pick up a few clues.
Facts of the Case
Tim Foster (Preston Foster, I, The Jury), a police captain forced off the force, has been keeping an eye on the activity around the Southwest Bank. He's not a security guard; instead, he's planning a bank job. Foster recruits three down-on-their-luck criminals for the job: Pete Harris, who's twitchy because he killed his gang's boss; Tony Romano, a habitual criminal and ladies' man; and Boyd Kane, a cop killer.
The crime goes off without a hitch, with Foster's gang driving away in a duplicate of the florist's van that regularly makes stops near the bank. That's trouble for Joe Rolfe (John Payne), the ex-con who's driving the real florist's truck. Even after he's cleared, Rolfe's out of a job, and the fact that his mug was plastered all over the tabloids didn't help any.
When Rolfe hears about Pete Harris's sudden trip to Tijuana, the wronged ex-con decides to head down to Mexico, seeking revenge. His quest sends him to Borados, where the gang is meeting to split $1.2 million in loot—if Foster doesn't betray them first.
Making Rolfe's mission even more complicated is love, in the form of Foster's pretty daughter Helen (Coleen Gray), a law student who suspects that he's in over his head.
Wasn't a movie called Kansas City Confidential supposed to take place in Kansas City? While the initial bank job does take place there, the action quickly shifts to Latin America.
As the location changes, the tone of the movie changes as well. It starts out like a gritty, docudrama-style thriller, with crawls on the screen ominously waxing melodramatic about the "perfect crime." That tone is maintained through the clockwork plotting of the caper and the rough questioning of Rolfe by the Kansas City cops. But once Rolfe decides on revenge, Kansas City Confidential's not in Kansas anymore. It also leaves the trappings of the real world behind, starting to feel like a low-rent Hitchcock imitation as Rolfe gets involved in plotting and counter-plotting at a lush resort. There's still some violence and danger, but the pace slows down and the tone softens. By the end, the gritty opening feels like it was tacked on at the last minute to please some distributor. Still, Kansas City Confidential is entertaining.
John Payne's performance, which adds a touch of toughness to the typical Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant everyman, holds up well enough to carry the audience along. A scene in which Payne mops his brow and face after standing up to the gang sums up his character well. Coleen Gray's smart and caring Helen is strong enough to go toe-to-toe with him.
Some of you will want to see Kansas City Confidential just to get a look at the bad guys. Jack Elam (Rio Lobo) almost belongs in Dick Tracy's rogues gallery as the twitchy Pete Harris; his nervous reaction to the first phone call from Foster is great. Lee Van Cleef (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) and Neville Brand (The Tin Star) also demonstrate their evil chops as their paranoia and greed leads to a violent end. The least among the movie's villains, Preston Foster makes an intriguing man in the shadows early on, but I found his character less interesting once he was fleshed out.
The monochrome picture holds up well, so the prison bars that come at you at all angles in the early scenes still have that ominous quality. The sound may not be spectacular, but the dialogue's clear, as is the just-the-facts Dragnet-style music in the early scenes and the more pulsing thriller score as the movie continues.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Extras are nonexistent here. I'd love to hear an explanation of Confidential's odd tone shift from some film historian (or perhaps Joel and the 'Bots). On the other hand, this isn't Double Indemnity, so I won't be waiting for the Criterion release.
The cover art, which characterizes the movie as classic noir, seems a bit of a cheat. Still, it's nice to have Kansas City Confidential on the market, and the folks at Fox and MGM aren't likely to come out with a "Film Ragout" collection.
Kansas City Confidential's split personality will aggravate any noir purists, and could leave anyone else scratching their heads. It doesn't entirely gel, but it's still fun on its own terms and it has some great bad guys.
Guilty, but since it's trying to make a go of it despite a crooked path, I'll give Kansas City Confidential a suspended sentence.
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