KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952)
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]im Foster (Preston Foster) is a bitter ex-cop forced into early retirement for mysterious reasons. He blackmails three wanted criminals into becoming part a meticulously planned armored car robbery. Criminals Boyd Kane (Neville Brand), Tony Romano (Lee Van Cleef) and Pete Harris (Jack Elam) are cogs in the scheme but they never meet each other face-to-face. When Foster meets with each man he wears a mask to hide his identity. During the robbery itself, all four wear masks. The plan is that after the robbery, the crew will rendezvous at a Mexican fishing village to split the money. Foster gives each man one half of a playing card by which they will identify themselves to each other in Mexico.
Joe Rolfe (John Payne) is an army veteran and ex-con trying to go straight. His job as a florist delivery man is going well until Rolfe discovers that he’s been set up as a fall guy for the robbery. Rolfe is brutally beaten by police to elicit a confession but he has nothing to tell. He is released due to lack of evidence but because of news coverage and suspicion he loses his job and can’t find another. Out of desperation and the need for redemption Rolfe begins his own investigation. Through an underworld contact Rolfe discovers that Pete Harris might have been one of the robbers because he has taken it on the lam to Mexico. When American cops recognize Harris trying to cross the border he goes for his gun and ends up getting killed.Rolfe witnesses the shooting, assumes Harris’s identity and continues on to the rendezvous village. On the way he happens to meet beautiful law student Helen Foster (Colleen Gray) who is planning to meet her father there.
Unbeknownst to Helen, her father is the mastermind behind the Kansas City armored car robbery. Foster doesn’t recognize Rolfe because he only knows his background from a rap sheet and he’s only seen him from distance when he observed the florist truck making deliveries. But Foster is wary and he warns his daughter to stay away from Rolfe but she is already falling for him.
There’s a high degree of suspicion among all the men as they encounter each other in Mexico. When Foster hears that the real Harris was been gunned down by the police he becomes more wary of the fake Harris and more intent on keeping him away from Helen.
There are several twists in the story including a major one about motive for the robbery. Foster himself has stooped to criminal behavior yet he has nothing but disdain for the criminals he has drawn into his web. To his way of thinking the twisted plan will vindicate him while concealing the fact that he masterminded the robbery. At the end of the movie Rolfe, in a chivalrous act, saves Helen the pain of discovering her father’s illegal activity.
John Payne as Rolfe is tough and unrelenting when he needs to be but he is also loyal to his friends. In the army he had distinguished himself with medals for valor. His criminal conviction was due to problems with a gambling debt. Payne, like Dick Powell, had started out as a song and dance man in the ‘30s but found that he had a talent for playing tough guys in films like 99 River Street (1953) and Slightly Scarlet (1956). Preston Foster brings dimension and humanity to his vengeful ex-cop character. In the ‘30s Foster had been a stalwart leading man. In later years he found a steady career as a fine supporting player. Colleen Gray over the years worked with directors Henry Hathaway, Howard Hawks and Stanley Kubrick in Kiss of Death (1947), Red River (1948), and The Killing (1956) before settling into B-movies and many guest starring roles on television series. The three recruited robbers are beautifully portrayed by young character actors Neville Brand, Lee Van Cleef and Jack Elam. Brand later famously played Al Capone in The Untouchables television series while Van Cleef went on to star in several Italian westerns and action movies in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Elam became a supporting player in scores of westerns, often as a comic relief character. The three actors’ individualized performances in what were similar roles in Kansas City Confidential was an indication of successful careers to come.
Director Phil Karlson directed many tough little “B-movie” crime films over the years. His work is marked by scenes with startling bursts of violence, often in revenge stories. His career high point came with Walking Tall (1973) based on the true story of a sheriff Buford Pusser waging a one-man war against corruption in his home town.
Black-and-white cinematography by George Diskant is suitably shadowy and moody. He also did fine work on several other film noir titles including They Live by Night (1948), The Racket (1951), On Dangerous Ground (1951), and The Narrow Margin (1952).
Trivia: Actor Preston Foster was also a singer/songwriter. He wrote the classic R&B hit “Got My Mojo Working” first recorded by Ann Cole and later popularized by Muddy Waters. Because Waters added some of his own lyrics he assigned himself songwriting credit on the label of his Chess single. The original recording of the song by Ann Cole properly credited Foster as the writer. Subsequent arbitration found that Foster was the copyright holder and writer of the song.
My review is based on releases of this movie by two different companies – MGM and HD Cinema Classics.
MGM DVD extras :
• Spanish and French subtitles
HD Cinema Classics Blu-ray/ DVD combo pack extras:
• Before-and-after restoration demonstration
• Spanish subtitles
• 5.1 surround sound mix (mono in all channels)
• Postcard of the original poster art
The restoration demo shows that work was done to digitally remove minor dust and dirt. This movie had been available in many washed out public domain releases in the past so both the MGM DVD and the Cinema Classics versions are remarkable improvements.
Which is better? The MGM disc looks great with a full range of blacks, grays and whites. On the Blu-ray edges are slightly sharper but the grain structure is not as apparent and there is slight ghosting in scenes with large movements. You can get both versions relatively cheaply so if you’re on a budget the best bet might be to go with the cheapest. Cinema Classics also bundles the disc in a Twin Pack that includes The Stranger (1946) directed by Orson Welles. If you want a technical analysis of the various versions I suggest you check out this page from DVD Beaver: http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/DVDCompare3/kansascityconfidential.htm
DIR: Phil Karlson. PROD: Edward Small. SCR: George Bruce and Harry Essex, story by Harold R. Greene and Rowland Brown. CIN: George E. Diskant. ED: Buddy Small. SCORE: Paul Sawtelle. CAST: John Payne, Colleen Gray, Preston Foster, Neville Brand, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam. GENRE: Crime thriller/Film noir. B&W. Aspect ratio: 1.33:1. Running Time: 99 minutes. United Artists.
Blu-ray/DVD distributor: HD Cinema Classics/Film Chest (http://filmchestmediagroup.com/retail).
DVD distributor MGM (http://www.mgm.com).