I remember reading about Phil Karlson back in the early 1970s when some of his 1950s films were re-released on 16mm and he was written about in Monthly Film Bulletin. Kansas City Confidential was one of the titles that lodged in my brain but I don’t think I saw it in the 1970s. The film was released as The Secret Four in the UK in 1953. That title does refer to the plot but makes it sound like an Enid Blyton children’s story. ‘Kansas City Confidential‘ as a title is explained in the poster above (and in the opening credit sequence) as a police story that the authorities didn’t want to be told. This is a tough crime film related to 1950s film noir. It has a deserved reputation as a film with an intriguing plot that was referenced by more than one later film and perhaps most famously by Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs (1992).
Karlson began as an assistant director in the early 1930s and progressed to directing in 1944, proving to be an efficient director of B films. By the early 1950s as the B units of the majors were winding down he was working for independent producers. In this instance it was Edward Small and the film was released through United Artists. Small may have been a low budget producer but this is not a B picture, running at 99 minutes and looking very good in HD on MUBI in the UK. The film has an interesting script by George Bruce and Harry Essex based on a story by Harold Greene and Rowland Browne. It has a strong cast and excellent photography by George Diskant, best known perhaps for his work at RKO, especially on Nick Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951). His work on Kansas City Confidential features close-ups of the leading characters and emphasises the tension in an unusual story.
There are three of cinema’s natural ‘heavies’ here, played by Jack Elam, Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef. They are recruited for an armoured car robbery by a ‘Mr Big’ who recruits them individually and forces them to wear a felt mask so that they will not know each other after the robbery. The haul is over $1 million and the three are sent to different locations to await instructions about meeting up and dividing the spoils. The planning for the robbery implicates an innocent man, ‘Joe Rolfe’ played by John Payne, the tob-billed actor in the cast. Is this deliberate or accidental? Either way he isn’t going to be happy and we know he will find a way to track down the others.
Most of the narrative focuses on the aftermath of the robbery and takes place in Mexico where the four robbers and are intended to meet at a fishing resort and Mr Big will divide the spoils. A fifth character is introduced in the form of a youngish woman played by Coleen Gray who inevitably becomes interested in Joe. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative. Needless to say it all ends badly after a ‘reveal’.
My initial reaction to this film was simply how good it looked. This is a film which somehow did not have its intellectual property rights renewed and fell into the Public Domain in the US, meaning that anyone could circulate poorly copied prints. This HD print is a revelation. I was reminded of a host of American crime films from the 1940s to 1960s. The Mexican setting (actually filmed in California) made me think of Out of the Past (1947) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953), both seen as films noirs. It doesn’t have the romanticism of Out of the Past but instead it has the hardness and brutality of the 1950s films like The Big Combo (1955). In fact, the brutality is picked out by several commentators. Joe in particular is subjected to several beatings and he also delivers his own. Jack Elam, in particular suffers badly. These beatings are ones in which the victims seem to recover remarkably quickly – that’s possibly a reason why, for a modern audience they seem more shocking, as if the kicks and punches are of no consequence. Joe is an interesting character, well played by the experienced Payne, who has a back-story that is hinted at but not filled in with any detail. This seems like another difference compared to the late 1940s noirs in which the war is only a few years past and there might be some kind of explanation for why some men behave as they do. I did also think about Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall (1956), a film which shares some narrative elements with Kansas City Confidential and was also overlooked at the time perhaps but has since been appreciated. Tourneur and Karlson had similar early careers and made a broad range of films, Tourneur was given his chance by Val Lewton in the RKO B-unit and from then on got more interesting jobs (including Out of the Past) but in the 1950s found himself again being badly treated by the studios. I don’t know enough about Karlson to make a proper comparison but he seems to have remained within the world of low budget genre pictures.
Kansas City Confidential isn’t perfect. The low budget shows in places. I noticed several continuity errors that perhaps should have been re-shot – a gun is placed in a holster under a jacket on the right but in a fight is drawn from under the jacket on the left and so on. The plot is cleverly thought through but still has a few holes, I think. Nevertheless, I think this film deserves its high rating on IMDb and I’ll certainly take any other opportunities to see films by Phil Karlson.