Directed by Phil Karlson
Screenplay by George Bruce and Harry Essex from a story by Harold Greene and Rowland Brown.
Starring John Payne, Helen Foster, Preston Foster, Neville Brand, Lee Van Cleef, and Jack Elam
Download from Archive.org
I like caper films, where a group of criminals get together to pull off the perfect crime. Sometimes they succeed, other times the fail, but watching the crime unfold and fall apart can be gripping. Kansas City Confidential is a strong but obscure member of the genre.*
The film shows a mastermind (Preston Foster) gathering together a group of three henchmen, Pete Harris (Jack Elam), Tony Romano (Lee Van Cleef), and Boyd Kane (Neville Brand). The three all are scuttling away from the law and are enticed to take part in a million dollar bank robbery in Kansas City. The mastermind wears a mask, and insists everyone else does, too, so they can't squeal on each other.
The robbery goes off like clockwork, but an innocent delivery driver, Joe Rolfe (John Payne), gets arrested for it. He's quickly released, but the notoriety loses him his job and he realizes the only way to clear his name is to go after the crooks. So he goes off to Mexico to try to track them down.
The film is definitely dark, with a lot of tough talk, and Rolfe singleminded in his revenge (even if he does get sidetracked by a young law student, Helen Foster (Colleen Gray). But it's more than just talk. Rolfe can dish it out and, when necessary, take it.
The film does feature three of the 50s greatest heavies. Jack Elam**, with his Frankenstein face, plays Pete as twitchy and violent and clearly a coward. Lee Van Cleef's Tony is a ladies' man who can turn dangerous in an instant, while Brand's Boyd is a more plodding form of danger. They all make the most of their roles.***
John Payne is interesting as Joe. I remember him best as the idealistic lawyer in Miracle on 34th Street who makes Santa Claus real. I've seen him in that role dozens of times and it's quite a change to see him as a desperate character who isn't afraid to beat up others to get what he wants. Payne, like Dick Powell before him, managed to make the switch from light comic actor to tough guy, and did it more convincingly.
The film did not impress critics upon its release, as they found it too brutal.**** Still, Payne and Karlson collaborated on other, similar films afterwards (some sources say they also worked on the screenplay). It also seems to be a big influence on Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.
In any case, the film slipped into public domain and can be downloaded from archive.org. It's still an entertaining and dark look at the underbelly of crime.
*Many categorize it as a film noir, but that term has been devalued. I prefer the original concept as a dark tragedy in which a good man is tempted into crime, often by a two-timing woman. Double Indemnity is a classic example. The ending of Kansas City Confidential, plus the fact that Joe is not enticed into crime, puts it outside the category.
**Elam had two careers, starting out as a menacing heavy in the 1950s. In the 60s, he grew a beard, which softened his angular face and which made him into a lovable comic sidekick in such films as Support Your Local Sheriff.
***Although, as the script has it, they're particularly inept whenever they want to do something other than just threaten. Rolfe gets the drop on them nearly every time.
****Though it hardly seems that way today. What that says about modern society I leave as an exercise for the reader. It was also interesting to read the New York Times review, which condemned what it thought was a "crime does pay" ending -- Joe commits no crime and is rewarded by the insurance company for finding the real robbers.