Black and Blu: “Kansas City Confidential”

Kansas City Confidential” (HD Cinema Classics/Film Chest)

The first of three collaborations between Phil Karlson, a director who graduated from B-movies with a strong storytelling punch and a tough, two-fisted sensibility, and John Payne, a former light romantic lead and bland song-and-dance man of Fox musicals, was a career changer for both of them. Payne was already reinventing himself as a hard, taciturn lead in the westerns and action films when he connected up with Karlson and (according to the director) they came up with the story: “he and I loaded with a bottle of Scotch. We wrote the entire script and then we turned it over to a writer to put it in screenplay form.”

Who were those masked men?

Kansas City Confidential opens on Preston Foster, a mystery man with a stopwatch and a checklist casing a bankfront, piecing together his plan and his crew, a real rogues gallery of desperate thugs all but blackmailed by this mystery man in a mask into filling out his strike force. The robbery is executed with clockwork timing and Karlson directs the scene with terse efficiency, snappy momentum and crack timing. It’s also where we get our first real look at delivery man Joe (Payne), the hard-luck working class guy flipped off by fate when the armored car heist uses his florist deliveries as cover and leaves him to take the fall: a patsy to give them camouflage and the cops a distraction as they make their getaway. He’s a decorated soldier and survivor, a war hero who took the hard knocks that came his way and rolled with the punches, but is almost knocked down for the count with this sucker punch. His name is smeared in the press and his livelihood stolen by suspicion, but he’s resourceful, resilient and unflinching when it comes to taking the hit. He follows his only lead out of the states and into a sleepy little Mexican vacation spot where a payoff already complicated by double-dealing and double crosses gets a new player.

The hoods in this film are a triumvirate of essential B-movie thugs with attitude and an edge of psychosis: a beady-eyed Neville Brand, a smiling cobra of a Lee Van Cleef and a skinny, sweaty Jack Elam, who later played his cock-eyed looks for shaggy humor but here works his gargoyle face for underworld shiftiness. They give the film a shot of raw menace, a trio of thugs who are quick with a gun and slow to trust anyone and would just as soon solve a problem with a bullet. Foster, never the most dynamic of screen professionals, doesn’t exactly radiate authority as a criminal mastermind but part of the film’s fun is the play of false identities and double lives and Foster’s ex-cop with a grudge is all about appearing innocent while pulling the strings behind the scenes. His revenge on his forced retirement is a doozy that, if all goes to plan, will leave both rich and a hero.

There is something very everyman about Payne that comes through when he’s the underdog knocked around by life but still getting up to take the next punch. Not simply questioned by the cops, he’s put through the ringer of police beatings to get a confession; they can’t actually show it on screen, of course, but he’s almost limp coming back from some of those “interrogation” sessions, doubled over in pain but never uttering a whimper or groan, never letting them see him crumple. When he’s finally let go for lack of evidence, all he gets from the D.A. is a reluctant “Sorry. These things happen.” (This kind of offhanded acknowledgment of police corruption, presented without comment or condemnation by the “good” cops of the force, could only have been slipped through an independent production.) It’s not hard to see how he gets so bitter but instead of wallowing, he turns detective to get back not just his good name but his dignity and his life. And when the cops can’t or won’t help him, it’s the criminal brother of a war buddy who steps up to give him the only lead he has to clear his name.

John Payne taking his licks from Neville Brand

Terse and tough, Kansas City Confidential is one of the great lean, mean B crime thrillers, with a bang-up opening, a deadly payoff and a shifting set of identities and alliances that keep pulling the rug from under our hero. The scheming rogues gallery and Karlson’s steely transformation of thick fall guy Payne into a snarling, ruthless hero makes this hard-bitten low budget classic a darkly satisfying caper. The collaboration was so successful that Karlson and Payne reunited the next year for 99 River Street, an even more bare-knuckle noir set in the nocturnal shadows of the predatory city. (See my review of 99 River Street here.)

Kansas City Confidential has long been a staple of second-rate PD (public domain) editions on VHS and DVD clogging up bargain bins at box stores. This week HD Cinema Classics, a new offshoot/imprint of PD stalwart Film Chest, tries to take the company into Blu-ray and respectability with the release of both Kansas City Confidential and Orson Welles’ The Stranger, another film that has more inferior DVD editions than there are stars in heavens, in Blu-ray+DVD Combo Packs. Which is a fine goal that doesn’t equate to a fine release for either film.

Both films have been “transferred from original 35mm elements” and “digitally restored in high definition” according to the notes on the film package, but the results are unsatisfying. The prints on both releases are clean enough but don’t appear to be first generation elements, and the “digital restoration” is really a low-tech salvage job to clean up imperfections that ends up digitally scrubbing away the texture of the print. The film grain is gone, the image is soft and the brightness levels are boosted to the point that the whites tend to lose all detail But even more annoying is the sound: it too is over-processed and comes out sounding trebly and harsh.

While these editions is still superior to the vast majority of PD editions, they are inferior to the DVD editions of both films released by MGM/Fox in 2007. In other words, in a format that offers the potential for greater detail, texture and clarity, we get less than a simple (but professionally and painstakingly mastered) DVD. The MGM/Fox The Stranger retails for about $20 (more than the $15.99 retail for the HD Cinema Classics edition) but the company’s excellent Kansas City Confidential is under $5 retail from most venders.

For more details, read the DVD Beaver reviews of Kansas City Confidential Blu-ray and The Stranger Blu-ray and the discussion board at The Home Theater Forum.

Kansas City Confidential Blu-ray+DVD Combo Pack (HD Cinema Classics/Film Chest)
The Stranger Blu-ray+DVD Combo Pack (HD Cinema Classics/Film Chest)
Kansas City Confidential (MGM Film Noir DVD)
The Stranger (MGM Film Noir DVD)


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