Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential is a two-fisted revenge flick that’s a feast for fans of hardboiled dialogue and an essential in the annals of noir. The film cleverly unravels the “perfect crime” motif – one in which the heist is allegedly snitch-proof because the hoods don’t know the identity of each other or the cat who planned the shindig. Karlson’s sharp directing anchors the film, which features one tough lineup of hoods: Neville Brand, Lee Van Cleef, and Jack Elam. Top it off with John Payne as an embittered fall guy and Kansas City Confidential is a fucking powder keg of a noir (that ironically takes place mainly in Mexico).
Hey man, d’ya like leather masks? Cool, because for the first third of Kansas City Confidential, the cast wears them. Well, really only one guy – the fella who orchestrates a bank heist. He ropes in three hardened crooks (the badass triple threat listed above) and hooks them into pulling off the heist. They don’t know who he is, or who their “co-workers” are, but they’re given a small cut and a plane ticket to Mexico after the heist – along with the promise that they’ll be given the rest of their cut in a few weeks. It’s a helluva risk, but a lucrative one.
For the heist, the boys drove an exact duplicate of a florist truck that parked outside the bank everyday at the same time. So after it goes down, the cops naturally haul in the florist delivery driver, ex-GI Joe Rolfe (Payne). In a startlingly rough interrogation scene, they give him the third degree. Since the cops have no evidence and nothing to hold him on, he’s released. Unfortunately for him, his face is plastered over every news article concerning the heist, so he’s fired from his job. Rather than take it, Rolfe decides to utilize what evidence there is to track down the hoods, and take all their cuts.
What’s more noir than a veteran who comes homes, can’t find a decent paying gig, then is framed for a robbery and beaten by the cops? Shit, man. And Payne delivers the goods as the embittered hero. I mean, ya gotta be tough to take on Van Cleef, Brand, and Elam all by yourself. The theme of a veteran not being able to adjust to civilian life, causing him to stray from the straight and narrow is a noir staple as well. Payne worked with Karlson two more times on film, so I’ll have to check those other films out soon.
And let’s be real, how many times has this plot and its elements been rehashed? Tarantino aped it for Reservoir Dogs, then there’s The Usual Suspects and The Thomas Crowne Affair. To call Kansas City Confidential influential is an understatement in the heist game. Particularly, the heist aftermath game. While other films explored this tense stage of a crime before (The Asphalt Jungle – for one example), Kansas City Confidential took it to the full-length stage with guns blazing.
Thematically, visually, and baddassily, Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential is an essential noir. Not only that, it’s a damn important film in the crime genre as well.