Kansas City Confidential (1952)

Toronto Film Society presented Kansas City Confidential (1952) on Saturday, April 29, 2023 as part of the Season 75 Virtual Film Buffs Screening Series, Programme 7.

Production Companies: Associated Players and Producers Edward Small Productions.  Distributor: United Artists.  Director: Phil Karlson.  Screenplay: George Bruce, Harry Essex; Story By Rowland Brown, Harold Greene.  Cinematography: George E. Diskant.  Film Editor: Buddy Small.  Release Dates: November 11, 1952 (U.S.), November 28, 1952 (New York City).  Released in the United Kingdom as The Secret Four.

Cast: John Payne (Joe Rolfe), Coleen Gray (Helen Foster), Preston Foster (Tim Foster, Mr. Big), Neville Brand (Boyd Kane), Lee Van Cleef (Tony Romano), Jack Elam (Pete Harris), Dona Drake (Teresa), Mario Stiletti (Tomaso), Howard Negley (Andrews), Carleton Young (Martin), Don Orlando (Diaz), Ted Ryan (Morelli).

Director Philip Karlson was noted as a film noir specialist (99 River Street, Hell’s Island). In the June 2017 issue of Senses of Cinema, Wheeler Winston Dixon wrote that he “emerges as a violent American original, born and brought up in Chicago, used to violence as a way of life, someone who was forced to make a great many films that he didn’t believe in, just so he could finally get a free hand with the minor studios to make the films that he did…In Karlson’s best films, a truly bleak vision of American society is readily apparent;  a world where everything is for sale, where no one can be trusted, where all authority is corrupt, and honest men and women have no one to turn to but themselves if they want any measure of justice.”  Karlson “works through gigantic close-ups and an unusually visceral treatment of bare-knuckle violence.”

John Payne was reputed to have broken some of Jack Elam’s ribs in a fight scene. Trivia: He was Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Salzman’s first choice to direct Dr. No, their first James Bond film, but he asked for too high a salary.

Kansas City Confidential was the only film made by Edward Short’s short-lived Associated Players and Producers. Originally it was titled Kansas City 117, the title based on a police code.  Although Kansas is in the title, only stock footage of Kansas City is in the opening and most of the film takes place in Santa Catalina, California standing in for Mexico.

Mr. Big masterminds the heist of an armored car picking up cash with three other masked crooks who only know each other by their colour-coded names (this was an inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs). The plan includes a flower delivery truck as a getaway car.

John Payne (Joe Rolfe), whose most familiar role is probably Miracle on 39th Street, was in several of Karlson’s film noir films.  He plays the hapless ex-convict turned flower delivery man in the wrong place at the wrong time who gets arrested, beaten up by the police, released and vows revenge on the gang.

The plot is somewhat convoluted, involving Rolfe impersonating Mr. Big, torn playing cards to identify the gang members when they meet in Mexico to divide up the loot, the arrival of Mr. Big’s law student daughter Helen to help clear her father’s name, the coincidence that Rolfe was in prison with Harris, beatings, ambushes, miraculous escapes by Rolfe and a final shootout.

Interestingly, it concentrates on the story within the story of an embittered former police captain (Tim Foster, Mr. Big) who dons a mask to interview potential collaborators who he has identified from police files.

Lee Van Cleef (Tony Romano), star of Italian Spaghetti westerns with sharp cheeks and chin and piercing eyes was mainly cast in villainous roles. Of the crooks, he perhaps delivers the most successful performance. Despite sporting a bowtie, he continues to look menacing.  John Payne who claimed he owed 25% of the film “delivers an impressive portrayal of an unrelenting outsider who cracks the ring.”  Coleen Gray, as an aspiring lawyer, plays an unconventional female role and serves as the love interest.  She was rumoured to have had an affair with John Payne.

There were different reactions to the film.  New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther thought Kansas City Confidential “appears designed – not too adroitly – just to stimulate the curious and the cruel” and thought that the screenplay was an illogical fable of crime.  Still, the film was well-received and ushered in a series of “confidential” films from Edward Small.  Indeed, when the film was released on DVD format in 2002, film critic Gary Johnson noted that although it was brutal, hard-edged and unflinching, he praised its distinct streak of optimism.

Notes by Susan Murray

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