Thursday, November 28, 2019
Noir Watch: Kansas CIty Confidential (1952)
Format: Noir Alley on TCM on DVR
Somehow I'd never seen Kansas City Confidential (1952), but if I'd known it starred John Payne, Coleen Gray, Lee Van Cleef and Jack Elam, I would have tried a lot harder to see it sooner.
A windy, twisty heist caper - this one is told from the outside as John Payne plays an ex-con who is accidentally/ sorta framed for a bank heist when masked robbers pull a job worth $1.2 million (that's about $11.6 million now), using a duplicate of his flower delivery van.
Payne gets roughed up by the Kansas City po-po's - a genuine surprise to see in 1950's Hayes Code Hollywood - but is freed and decides to track down the heisters. But the trick is - in a move predicting Reservoir Dogs' code-named anonymity, the robbers only ever saw each other in masks, organized by a central figure who similarly never revealed his identity. They're to meet in Mexico to recover and divvy up their loot, and Payne figures it out, subbing himself in for Jack Elam (who, I mean, mask or no, I'm not sure anyone would mistake Jack Elam for John Payne, but...).
A beautiful law student stumbles into the picture, played by Coleen Gray with a bit of plucky grit. Identities and motivations shuffle and come to light, and there's a heck of a lot of people beating the holy hell out of each other in this film. Which, you know, John Payne is pretty convincing at.
The movie was directed by Phil Karlson, who also did 99 River Street, a favorite of mine, which he'd do with Payne the next year (and firecracker Evelyn Keyes). Cinematography was by George E. Diskant, which really shows in those fight scenes. Diskant was responsible for photographing the superlative The Narrow Margin, which has one of the craziest fight scenes from the era and which I'm pretty convinced led to the train fight at the end of From Russia With Love.
Costars also include Dona Drake as Teresa, Preston Foster as Coleen Gray's father, and real life war hero Neville Brand as heavy Kane. But it is absolutely remarkable to see a young, slick Lee Van Cleef and know exactly how he moved into roles as a guy who would cut you, and an equally young Jack Elam as a crook at the end of his rope. And, of course, I'm on record regarding my feeling that John Payne is underrated. And we can all make extra room for Coleen Gray.
The movie isn't a romp, but it is remarkably fun to watch as Payne maneuvers through Mexico (they leave Kansas City in the dust after the first fifteen minutes) and locates the crooks, using their own trick against them. It's all pretty small-scale, but it's a great script made well with terrific casting and no-frills pacing. And, hey, it's crazy to see a movie that basically entirely hinges on the idea that the cops are out of control in a major American city in an era when the notion was something we didn't talk about in movies.