Monday, August 27, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Kansas City Confidential" (1952)

"Kansas City Confidential" isn't as well-known as some other film noirs, but it's something of a lodestone for the genre.

Quentin Tarantino used it as inspiration for his first film "Reservoir Dogs," borrowing the notion of a gang of criminals brought together for a heist without knowing each others' identities. Instead of hiding behind names assigned by colors, they wear extraordinarily creepy masks, with only the boss knowing who everyone is.

Of course, the kingpin turns out to be a disgraced police captain who's planning to turn them all in to restore his name -- not to mention get a 25 percent cut of the $1.2 million take being offered by the insurance company.

"Confidential," directed by Phil Karlson from a screenplay by George Bruce and Harry Essex, is notable for the several ways in which it diverges from Hollywood movies of its time.

For starters, the main character isn't really established until about 15-20 minutes into the movie. Joe Rolfe -- played by John Payne, a song-and-dance man who segued into tough guy roles -- shows up briefly, working as a deliveryman for a flower shop. But it's not until after the heist has been planned and executed that the audience realizes he's "the guy" -- when the police arrest him.

Because the robbers used a duplicate of the flower truck as their cover, the cops think Joe is in on the job. Which brings us to another notable aspect of this film -- its decidedly negative portrayal of law enforcement officers.

Beyond the depiction of Tim Foster (an effective Preston Foster) as the former captain turned bank robber, the way the police treat Joe after his arrest is quite shocking. He's shown being roughed up and denied attorney representation, and it's quite clearly implied that he is repeatedly beaten during his interrogations with an especially rough detective. Lacking evidence, they finally let him go, and Joe lets it be known what he thinks of police who abuse innocent men instead of solving crimes.

There is a brief disclaimer during the opening text crawl that the depictions in the movie are unrepresentative of law enforcement professionals in general. But that's a pretty timid tide wall to brace against the powerful expectations of the era, which dictated that criminals always had to get what had coming to them, and police were the means for making that happen.

Another interesting thing is the portrayal of the three hoods. Jack Elam grabs most of our attention during the first half of the film as Pete Harris, a nervous type with a googly eye. (Of course, all of Elam's characters had that.) A compulsive gambler, Pete is a walking potpourri of tics and trouble -- until he's gunned down by the police in Tijuana.

Lee Van Cleef, in one of his first big roles, plays Tony Romano, a cool-as-ice lady killer. Van Cleef's snake-like face and reptilian eyes led to a lifetime of villainous roles, which he seemed to relish. Neville Brand is blunt and brutal as Boyd Kane, a gum-chewing thug.

They all wind up together at a resort in Mexico, where Foster has arranged to split the money, planning to double-cross them and turn them over to the authorities. Of course, if the idea is to keep their identities secret from each other, it makes little sense to direct them all to a tiny little Mexican hotel where hard-bitten guys hiding revolvers in their coats stand out like a sore thumb.

Joe, having tracked down Pete and seen him slain, plans to take over his spot and collect his share of the dough. A war hero who ran afoul of the law over gambling debts, Joe loses his flower shop job and finds his prospects dim with his face splashed all over the newspapers.Of course, Foster immediately recognizes him as an imposter.

Then Joe runs into Helen Foster (Coleen Gray), a smart young gal studying to take the bar exam and become an attorney. She's sassy and self-confident, and finds herself drawn to the star-crossed Joe. She's also the daughter of the police captain, which is bound to lead to complications.

The plot gets sucked into a bit of a vortex once all the principles have arrived at the resort. There's a half-hour or so of one-upsmanship between Joe and the two robbers, where they go back-and-forth sticking muzzles into each others' ribs and slapping people around. I lost count of how many times one guy got the drop on another, only to find himself disarmed by a sudden move, with the upper hand changing quickly and often.

It's very sweaty work -- literally, as blobs of perspiration roll off the mens' faces and necks. Though never from Helen's ... during that time in Hollywood, leading ladies didn't sweat, they glistened.

"Kansas City Confidential" is a first-rate film noir that dared to break the mold of what a crime story could be.

3.5 stars out of four

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