Five years after he played the nice-guy lawyer who defended Santa Claus in "Miracle on 34th Street," John Payne turned in a convincing performance as a tough-guy ex-con in the underappreciated film noir classic "Kansas City Confidential."
He slaps people. He shakes people. He pulls guns on them. And he holds his own against a trio of bad guys who belong in the Bad Guys Hall of Fame, if there were such a thing: Lee Van Cleef ("The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"), Neville Brand (TV's "The Untouchables"), and Jack Elam ("Rio Lobo," "Zane Grey Theater").
We don't know why Payne's character ended up in the Big House, but we get the feeling it wasn't anything too awful, because this guy is trying to go straight. He's got a job as a floral delivery truck driver, and life would have continued to smell like roses for him if it weren't for the fact that one of his deliveries was a daily stop right next to a bank that a classic Mr. Big type (Preston Foster) is casing from a window across the street.
Fans of "The Town" will recognize some of the same patterns in this million-dollar heist, including the distinctive masks that keep everyone from recognizing (and later being able to identify) the other people involved in the caper. This Mr. Big has it all figured out, including a duplicate flower truck that sets up Joe Rolfe (Payne) to take the fall.
These days, if the cops roughed up a guy as bad as they did Rolfe during questioning, there'd be a lawsuit. Same with the newspapers that splash his face all over page one, implying he committed a crime. But these were tougher times, so when a guy loses his job over a frame-up he's not grateful that the cops finally figure out they don't have enough to pin it on him. He's resentful. And he spends the rest of the movie trying to learn the identity of the men who committed the crime and get his own kind of justice . . . though, to the credit of this film from director Phil Karlson ("Kid Galahad," TV's "The Scarface Mob"), we never really know what he has in mind. That creates a level of tension throughout the film that's matched by the heavy noir style.
"Kansas City Confidential" doesn't follow the noir script exactly. There are a great many daylight scenes, for example, and the traditional femme fatale is replaced by a naïve lawyer (Coleen Gray). But there are still plenty of shadows, dark themes, tough talk, and tough-guy melodrama . . . and I mean that in the best sort of way. When the film first played theaters, Variety wrote, "With exception of the denouement, director Phil Karlson reins his cast in a grim atmosphere that develops momentum through succeeding reels." Watching years later, I found myself tense and on edge throughout most of this film, though the acting is, as so often happens with crime films of the Fifties, heavily (some might say "excessively") dramatic. But it works. Every scene seems carefully constructed to sustain the tension of the opening, and withheld information and concealed identities add to the suspense. Each scene has a secret that could spill, and Payne holds up his end as the male lead without flinching. To be honest, I like it more than a higher profile film like "The Big Sleep"--and that's saying something.
"Kansas City Confidential" begins in KC but soon moves south, to a Mexican village popular with sport fishing tourists. "It don't take no big thinking to figure a couple of guys like us ain't in this bananaville on a vacation," one of the thugs says, and it's fascinating to watch noir transplanted to a cheery resort area. Even the daylight grows tense under Karlson's direction. The attorney's naiveté can seem far-fetched, especially since her father was a cop, but the tension is so expertly maintained that we're willing to overlook that incongruent fact. Simply put, this is a great example of film noir, and a great film, period.
This title has been in the public domain for a long time, and there have been some very bad releases. But Film Chest has taken the trouble of digitally restoring the film in HD, transferring it from original 35mm elements. The result? It looks quite good. I might have preferred a little more contrast in some of the daylight scenes, but the level of detail in this black-and-white film is very good, and the picture isn't overscrubbed. Just don't expect much "pop," because for whatever reason the sense of 3-dimensionality varies according to scene. "Kansas City Confidential" is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and so wide screens will show vertical bars on each side.
The original soundtrack was, of course, Mono, and purists may have wished for a restored Mono track. But the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix is actually very good, providing depth of sound and a tonal richness that I wouldn't have guessed compatible with the video images. But it works. Spanish subtitles are provided.
Aside from a before and after restoration demo, the only other bonus feature is a reproduction of the movie art on a postcard and the original trailer--that and the DVD version which is part of this Combo Pack.
If you know someone who's resistant to old black-and-white dramas and you've been looking for just the right one to try on them, I'd recommend "Kansas City Confidential." It's moves along at a clip that plays well with contemporary audiences, and a level of tension to match.