Kansas City Confidential (1951)

Kansas City Confidential poster

Phil Karlson’s dark and quaintly dishonest redemption story had me from the beginning, with its almost trancelike, hypnagogic scene-setting and its unrelenting pessimism about the kind of thugs on both sides of the law.

It strikes me as a fine example of film noir not widely acknowledged as such.  How it comes to be that is a story buried deeper than earnest examinations of film techniques and aesthetics, let alone the all too frequent marketing claims about ‘noir’ made for old stock pitched at new markets.

Kansas City Confidential (KCC) was probably conceived of as a low-budget filler, perhaps for a double-bill featuring a more anodyne A-list headline movie.  Its scenery is contrived, being shot in back-lot sets rather than on location in Kansas City or Mexico, but perhaps less obtrusive and more expressive for it, with Karlson and his cinematographer, George Diskant, having to work harder at creating a visual verité that matched the story for narrative integrity.

The story is pure hard-boiled, featuring a heist masterminded by a mysterious man forcing his entire crew to wear masks so they cannot identify each other, and holding onto the loot for a split in Mexico after the ‘heat’ has died down.  The plan calls for diverting suspicion to a witless florist’s delivery driver who has a previous criminal record, John Rolfe, and who is brutally strong-armed by police to confess, with no apologies after he’s cleared.  Instead he gets fired from an already demeaning job and makes vengeance his remaining purpose.

Rolfe (John Payne) being sweated by police.

Gary Johnson suggests that former Hollywood crooner John Payne, cast as Rolfe, was bland and never leading man material, but that this blandness made of Rolfe an everyman the audience might find easier to identify with than an A-list star.  I thought Payne comes across as no more bland than Alan Ladd, Dick Powell, Dana Andrews, John Garfield or a bunch of others, but I will concede he doesn’t quite have the presence of a Humphrey Bogart or Bob Mitchum.

There were some inspired casting choices for the three gangsters Rolfe must track to get to the heist’s mastermind.

Lee Van Cleef has a face like a knife and is easily believable as the ruthless, mercenary type he continued to play in the spaghetti westerns of the 1970s.  In KCC he was oddly reminiscent of Richard Widmark’s debut as the psychopathic hoodlum Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947).

Jack Elam’s physiognomy is like a grotesque cartoon, which worked well for his rôle as a degenerate gambler feeding that addiction with crime.  Neville Brand has the square, butch face of a pugilist, which is all he needed for his part as a menacing gunsel in KCC.

The revelation that the mastermind is a retired and disgruntled police officer was probably a surprise in a film at the time, but rings true about successful crimes committed at any time in history, no matter how inconvenient that might be for the faux public morality usually manufactured in Hollywood films.

Only the contrived romance between the mastermind’s daughter and Rolfe, and the ensuing deus ex machina exoneration of Rolfe, is disappointing, but I suppose Karlson was obliged to follow at least some Hollywood conventions to satisfy studio bosses.  That ridiculous, romantic happy ending is why I called this film dishonest.

The masked robbers in a film still.

Stylistically the film is simple, relying on the low-budget lighting techniques that create the chiaroscuro effect so often discussed as a tell-tale feature of noir, and on anxiety-inducing close-ups that have a lot more in common with comic book dramatics than conventional Hollywood films of the time.  But it all works to produce the kind of tension-laden, dream-like atmosphere that separates ordinary screen crime fictions from something else.

Phil Karlson was a low-budget director throughout his career, until he made his pension with his percentage of Walking Tall (1973), which was a surprise financial success, possibly riding the wave of fear and resentment about urban violence that also propelled the Eastwood Dirty Harry and Bronson Deathwish franchises in the 1970s and ‘80s. Karlson last film in 1975, Framed, stuck with his leitmotif of corruption and crime, but it is a poor revisitation of KCC, with none of the visual impact, and much of the feel of flat and unimaginative television visualisation about it.

Karlson teamed up with John Payne again in 1953 for 99 River Street, which today seems a much more respectable noir than many others for which that claim is made, even though it doesn’t achieve the tension and suspense of KCC. Despite the solid noir credentials of KCC and 99 River Street, Karlson is probably better known for the ugly, uncompromising tales of corruption and crime that are represented in The Phoenix City Story (1955), The Brothers Rico (1957), and Key Witness (1960).  It’s not that these films are unworthy of audience time, but they are not what I’d call film noir.

KCC inspired producer Edward Small to fund New York Confidential (1955) and Chicago Confidential (1957).  

KCC is also reputed to have influenced The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and Reservoir Dogs (1992), though I suspect its influence was far wider than that, particularly through its hard-boiled argot.  I speculate whether James Elroy did not base a good deal of his own literary style on films like KCC, and that the title LA Confidential is not entirely coincidental.

In common with many other B-films of the period, no one thought KCC worth enough to note precise details about box office takings, back-stories, or to preserve a better quality print than the one from which the DVD I watched was digitised.

It is said to have been a moderate success for a B-grade film, but not everyone was content to let it go at that.  I was quite fascinated by contemporary reaction to the film.

New York Times long-time film critic of yesteryear, Bosley Crowther, whose unlikely name is almost fit to grace a noir character, said of KCC’s prominent violence that it ‘does not lend a climate of hope or moral uplift to the film’.  A declaration or re-affirmation of a doctrine that demands films provide hope and propagandize an official kind of ethics.

By all accounts Crowther was a snob.  Princeton-educated, and with aspirations to be a playwright, he told an audience at Indiana’s DePauw University in 1948 that ‘our movie entertainment is a long way from what discerning people would like it to be’!

‘Today’s film fare is “meaningless musical comedies, pseudo-historical, tough guy and other such pictures,” Crowther declared. “Nine out of ten of these are a mockery to the adult mind,”’ said DePauw’s own report of the seminar.

Bosley Crowther (left) and Phil Karlson.

Crowther comes across as a tight-arsed wowser in the conclusion of his review, arguing that ‘the violence that suffuses and corrupts this measly film’, and the fact that the anti-hero might collect a reward at the end ‘suggests, in this case, that crime does pay’.  Was that really such a big secret in the 1950s?

However, Crowther’s (1946) review of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), taken here as an example of a film acknowledged by many of its contemporaries as a significant work, was only slightly less dismissive, showing some consistency in Crowther’s public moral stance, but also a snobbery that doesn’t really stand the test of time.  I suspect he was somewhat out of step with many people of the time who were far less naïve or disingenuous about public and private corruption in the immediate post-war era.  It was, after all, a time populated with millions of battle-hardened veterans and women toughened by working in factories and fending for themselves against the predations of unprincipled profiteers, slum tenement landlords, and other assorted scumbags.

What remains to be said about KCC is again related to Crowther, who was, by reputation, an opponent of the McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunting of the later 1940s and early 1950s.  In that context I wonder why Crowther gave no indication that he could recognise in some of the many B-movies he dismissed as ugly and immoral a continuous and ill-disguised allegorical allusion to the depredations of the anti-communist witch-hunting of his era.

Karlson was not targeted by the McCarthy brownshirts, but he knew and worked with many who were, and KCC’s storyline closely resembles the fate of those smeared by the McCarthy-Cohn propaganda machine and its cowardly collaborators.  Except for the happy ending.

KCC’s Rolfe is a war hero forever tarnished by his previous conviction (read membership of socialist/communist organisations) who must fight not only real gangsters (read those who informed on others to the House Un-American Activities Committee), but also the police, crooked or straight (read all Americans spineless enough to give effect to blacklists).  In the end Rolfe’s only chance at redemption comes via a newer generation and the grudging admission by ‘official’ America that it had made a mistake.  An admission that never came for many ostracised or exiled by the McCarthy witch-hunting.

The unrepentantly doctrinaire, fascist America of McCarthy is what Crowther seems to represent in his one dimensional dismissal of films he regarded as two-dimensional.  Was he unable to judge and interpret farther afield than told or coached to?  Or was it simply a matter of expediency to hold an editorial line dictated from on high?

It is tempting to imagine a conversation with Crowther in which it is put to him that the ethics he was looking for didn’t exist anywhere in his America, except for in his imagination, and that there was little or no apparent hope for a great many Americans in those times.  I wonder whether he would have blustered and protested.

That hypothetical aside, perhaps I should just be glad to have found another piece of the puzzle I have been playing with for years: what defines film noir as such?  If we leave aside all the definitions given by those who have a pecuniary or professional interest in diluting it to encompass an ever wider repertoire, noir is notoriously difficult to pigeonhole.

However, considering the example of KCC, perhaps the existence of an allegorical contemporary political message layered underneath the literal is a noir hallmark, as is the need to hide such messages for being too illicit and dangerous to state literally. Perhaps the other ingredient necessary for noir to succeed is an audience not gullible enough not to see allegorical meanings, or dumb enough to talk about it in front of informers and wowsers.  That would certainly explain why film noir may well have died in the 1950s.

Postscript: Unfortunately the links to sources at the New York Times now no longer lead directly to the archives that were available publicly in 2014.


Associated Players and Producers, distributed by United Artists, 99 minutes, black and white.

Directed by Phil Karlson. Produced by Edward Small. Written by George Bruce and Harry Essex from a story by Rowland Brown and Harold Greene. Cinematography by George Diskant. Music by Paul Sawtell.

Starring John Payne as Joe Rolfe, Coleen Gray as Helen Foster, Preston Foster as Tim Foster, Lee Van Cleef as Tony Romano, Jack Elam as Pete Harris, Neville Brand as Boyd Kane.

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