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Kansas City Confidential (1952)

by on 2011/03/20

“Don’t walk too fast. You’ll be out of town without really seeing it.”

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The recent re-release of Kansas City Confidential on Blu-ray has revived comparisons to Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Although I had never seen the former, I thought I knew what to expect. Instead I found both movies share similarities, but are nonetheless different beasts.

In their broadest strokes, both tell of a robbery committed by a group of men whose identities are concealed from each other. After the crime, complications arise because of greed and “a rat in the house”.

Preston Foster portrays Tim Foster, mastermind of the entire undertaking. He selects three independent criminals, played by Neville Brand (Stalag 17), Jack Elam (The Twilight Zone), and Lee Van Cleef (Escape from New York, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, High Noon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance . . . need I go on?). They wear masks and identify themselves with unique playing cards.

Their plan is carried off successfully, and the Kansas City police immediately suspect Joe Rolfe (John Payne of 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street). Despite his history as a highly decorated veteran, he has an unrelated criminal past, and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

By the time the police have exonerated Joe, he’s been routinely beaten, attained public infamy, and lost his job. Now he wants revenge. He’s determined to track down the true culprits who “framed” him, with a little bit of help from his brothers in arms.

Kansas City Confidential is a really great movie. It just doesn’t feel especially noir to me. A director* whose name escapes me now once said noir is elusive, that a film like Casablanca can meet all the theoretical criteria and still not qualify. That reaction was similar to mine here.

I can imagine the protestations. The urban setting, the criminal scheme, the constant twists and turns. Suits, hats, cigarettes, sharp shadows everywhere.

The thing is, there’s a purity — or at least sympathy — about Joe. Could it be the casting? Maybe, but the story’s bulk is driven by his quest for justice . . . and it’s not an impossible one. Hope, romance, and virtue all exist in this world. They’re less unattainable ideals than sustainable, realizable states.

Furthermore, some noirisms lose effect despite their own best efforts. For example, while derailings and double crosses are par for the course, the near constant back and forth here seems less like a power struggle than a kind of punctuation.

Elsewhere, we are treated to the most interesting shot I’ve seen in recent memory. Joe, riding “shotgun”, lights a cigarette, illuminating the reflections of two hoods (seated behind him) in the windshield of a car. It’s an impressive effect, yet stands nearly alone against numerous technical gaffes: lights, cameras, and crew, accidentally revealed by numerous other surfaces.

On balance, then, I enjoyed Kansas City Confidential most for its sympathetic lead, navigating an interesting tale. But how does it stack up against Reservoir Dogs? Well, let’s just say they’re about as similar as Inglourious Basterds is to its own forebear. I think the operative word is “inspiration”.

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* Update: The name of the director in question is the late Sydney Pollack, who said, “I know it when I see it, but I don’t know how to define it. Almost every element that you name as the definition of a noir film would apply to Casablanca, but you would not call Casablanca film noir.”

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Full movie (public domain) available here:

Rated PG

100 minutes

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