Saturday, December 13, 2008


“Dark Alibi” director Phil Karlson’s “Kansas City Confidential” (***1/2 out of ****) qualifies as a crisply-made, smartly-plotted, entertaining heist caper about the perfect crime. This imaginative, 1952 release from United Artists and producer Edward Small about an innocent man framed for a robbery that he didn’t commit teems with interesting characters, a seasoned cast, edgy predicaments, and a fine resolution. Good guy John Payne musters considerable credibility as the flawed protagonist who is punished for the crime, while a dream cast of classic heavies--Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef, and Neville Brand—enjoy their ill-gotten gains until our hero can pay them back with interest. “Red River’s” Coleen Gray plays Payne’s love interest, but her character is strictly peripheral in the greater scheme of the action. Yes, she does figure into the plot, but she isn’t front and center like the rest of the cast, including Preston Foster as the mastermind of the a million dollar hold-up.

“Narrow Margin” lenser George E. Diskant’s moody black & white photography is first-rate, and several camera angles stand out, enhancing the thrills and chills. Rowland Brown and Harold Bruce provided the basis for the story, while Harry Essex and George Bruce penned the tightly-knit screenplay with uncredited assistance from both Karlson and Payne. Clocking in at a trim 99 minutes, “Kansas City Confidential” doesn’t squander a second and never wears out its welcome. Moreover, some commentators have described it as a film noir entry when it really isn’t film noir. The interesting thing is that Karlson’s crime thriller seems a little ahead of its time with its post-modern spin on events. The cops are portrayed as pretty ruthless and the mastermind has a back story that makes him a tragic character. All in all, “Kansas City Confidential” delivers more than the usual 1952 thriller about a robbery.

The film opens with this foreword: “In the police annuals of Kansas City are written lurid chapters of criminals apprehended and brought to punishment. But it is the purpose of this picture to expose the amazing operations of a man who conceived and executed a ‘perfect crime,’ the true solution of which is not entered in any case history, and could well be entitled ‘Kansas City Confidential.’”

The action occurs in three parts. The mastermind checks his plan. He has decided to rob an armored car as the cops tote the money sacks out to the vehicle. A florist truck usually parks near where the armored car is parked. The florist delivery man, Joe Rolfe (John Payne of “Tripoli”), parks his truck and takes flowers into a building. The mastermind, Tim Foster (Preston Foster of “Guadalcanal Diary”), has been planning the heist fastidiously as a close-up reveals a time table of events he has made. For example, he notes the times that police squad cars cruise past, the arrival and departure of the Western Florist Delivery truck as well as the Bank Armored cars. Foster has timed everything at least five times for pin-point accuracy. He has calculated that he will need between two and four minutes to pull the job. He picks three criminals, Pete Harris (Jack Elam of “The Comancheros”) a trigger-happy, chain-smoking, dice gambler; ladies man Tommy Romano (Lee Van Cleef of “High Noon”) who is a habitual criminal, and Boyd Kane (Neville Brand of “Riot in Cell Block 3”) a cop killer who chews bubble-gum.

The second part involves the bank hold-up. As Foster has planned it, the criminals slip up beside the armored car and in unless than four minutes, they appropriate the money bags and hightail with one guard snapping off a couple of rounds at them. Predictably, the Kansas City cops pull over Joe, search his florist delivery truck, and haul him off to the station for some police brutality. Eventually, the authorities discover the abandoned florist delivery truck, but by then Joe has lost his job. “Thanks for nothing,” he utters contemptuously.

We learn that Joe fought in World War II hero and saved a man’s life on Iwo Jima. Joe’s grateful pal provides Joe with a tip about Harris’ whereabouts through a third party. What Joe doesn’t realize until he catches up with shifty-eyed Jack Elam is that Foster planned the crime wearing a mask. He almost entrusted each criminal enough money to leave the country until he thinks thing have cooled down enough to divide the loot. None of them knows what Foster looks like and they don’t know what the others look like because Foster forced them to always wear masks in front of each other. “I’ve made you cop-proof and stool-pigeon proof,” Foster brags. He gives them each a tore playing card in case he doesn’t make it to the split-up. Later, Tijuana authorities get the drop on Harris as Joe and he are about to leave for the Central American hamlet of Borados. Harris tries to shoot his way out and dies. Somehow, Joe appropriates Harris’ luggage with the mask and the torn poker card that Foster gave each of them.

What sets “Kansas City Confidential” apart from most B-pictures about the perfect crime is mastermind Tim Foster’s motivation. He spent 20 years on the KCPD and he was forced to retire because of politics. He engineers this perfect crime so that he can weasel his way back into the good graces of the department. Even his daughter has figured out a way for him to get another shot at being a cop. However, Foster has gone beyond the point of no return. Nevertheless, he almost pulls it off. Tracking down Foster and company is no picnic for Joe, but he manages to clear himself in the end rather neatly. Karlson does an outstanding job pacing this little thriller and revealing only a bit at a time. The scene where Joe loses his revolver at the swimming pool and finds himself pitting against Kane and Romano in his bungalow is terrific.

Critically speaking, “Time” magazine observed that “Kansas City Confidential” “combines a ‘perfect crime’ plot with some fair-to-middling moviemaking.” However, the November 10 review added: “After a few brawls and beatings, both justice and love emerge triumphant. Obviously, the ‘confidential’ of the title does not refer to the picture’s plot, which is a very model of transparency.” Meanwhile, “The Nation” magazine on November 8, 1952, opined: “For a fairly good movie you can see “Kansas City Confidential,” which in general burglarizes another burglar movie, “The Asphalt Jungle,” adds a few wrinkles picked up from the Brink robbery, and passes over probability faster than any movie in memory. But unlike any of the above films, it tells a story with gimmicks or short cuts, and all the people involved—director Karlson, actors Elam, Van Cleef, Brand—were not only concerned with the best way to express the material on hand but obviously enjoying themselves.” “The Saturday Review” stipulated that “for all its titular hints at daring political expose, is really just another cops-and-robbers thriller, somewhat better done than most and far more absorbing than many, thanks to its taut and logical story.” “The Saturday Review” went on to say: “There are some surprisingly explicit hints at police brutality, a good deal of gratuitous violence all around. The director, Phil Karlson, keeps his action whipping along at full tilt, aided considerably by George Kiskant’s clean, imaginative camera work. “Newsweek” magazine in its December 8, 1952, review avers that after the set-up for the crime that the film slid down hill. “From this point on George Bruce’s and Harry Essex’s script loses in tension and gains in elaboration and incredibility. The picture never recaptures the cold, fast drama that director Phil Karlson got into the sinister masquerade of the earliest footage.”

Altogether, “Kansas City Confidential” is worth watching again and again.

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