Kansas City Confidential is an elbow to the noir chops. A crime flick with no real suspense or twist, but heaps of action. It features a heist that corners too soon and leaves the guesswork on the floor. There's plenty of sweaty brows, straightened backs and choreographed glances. We suffer through terrible lines, like when the cops chirp, "we'll be back after first thing in the morning." No idea what it means. I guess it's supposed to sound hard, but it's just stupid. But there's also a gimpy bartender with one of the better lines - "you're leading with your chin." Director Phil Karlson, and screenwriters George Bruce and Harry Essex, deliver a tight picture. It's flawed and flavorful just like '50s melodrama is supposed to be.
A quick synopsis to tell us where we're going: Foster (Preston Foster) recruits three jailbird lifers to rob an armored truck, disguised as masked florist delivery men, never revealing their faces to anyone except Foster. The three low-lives are Pete Harris (Jack Elam), Tony Romano (Lee Van Cleef) and Boyd Kane (Neville Brand). The take is $1.2M split four ways. Joe Rolph (John Payne) is the real delivery guy who's picked up for the robbery, but eventually let go. Joe's a WWII vet with a short rap sheet, looking to go straight with some steady work and taking night classes. He's pissed about being the patsy and sets out to find who framed him. He tracks Harris down in Tijuana and learns about the rendezvous at some Mexican resort where Foster is waiting with their $300,000 cuts. Harris is made at the airport and smoked by the police. Joe assumes Harris' identity and makes his way to the seaside hotel, meeting Foster and his daughter Helen (Coleen Gray), Romano and Kane. The audience learns that Foster is an ex-cop, who set the whole thing up in order to turn the others in, look the hero and make with a huge reward. Joe wants in, while Romano and Kane had about enough of dangling their trust to the likes of Foster and Harris, with nobody really knowing who the others are. A budding romance between Joe and Helen, some fistfights, gun play and a denouement so predictable that only a hack could draw it up, fill the rest of the way.
This was made back when actors looked the part. When filmmakers wanted performers who show up on time, take direction and put on a face. They dolled up the chicks and greased the hombres. Tough meant squinted eyes and blowfish cheeks. Sexy was titled heads and imagined folds of the body.
Payne is a dynamite leading man. He plays Joe like a Midwestern Bond. Composed, charming, durable and decisive. His soul stained by war and gambling, but his heart still not hardened nor his integrity compromised. The supporting actors run from adequate, in Foster and Brand, to outstanding, in Cleef, Elam and Gray. Cleef's angular face and strong neck make us believe that Romano can take bad news like he's been taking it his whole life, and still gives it the finger. Elam's Harris is all sinewy, slushy and loose in the joints. He gets bitch-slapped more times than I can remember, and dies like a nobody at a cigarette machine because he reaches for a gun he doesn't have. And Gray can work a scene as Helen. She's smart and smitten, but never saddled by her crush on Joe or racing pulse. She's daddy little girl, studying for the bar exam and hitching her heels. She puts herself in the shit with Joe, knowing him as Pete Harris and then bludgeoning his conscience for the truth.
The picture's meaty visuals also save it from being just a well-acted, run-of-the-mill noir. We get shadows and smoke and light cast as if through a snow cone. And the settings are prime. Some of the early scenes in Kansas City stink of a backlot, but the film makes up for it when the action moves to Mexico. There's a great shot at a craps table in Tijuana, right before Harris and Joe meet. Both men are in suits and fedoras (a little foreshadowing), rolling the dice and eyeing the goons, all serving the silent discussion they're having in their heads. And the scene at the hotel's swimming pool is ridiculously good. Helen meets up with Joe on a makeshift date under sunny skies, bringing her law books to feign disinterest and make Joe curious. She struts the entire length of the pool as Joe swims laps, knowing he's catching a glimpse between the splashes. She sits like a shortcake, inviting Joe's dripping wet body to shade her as he towels off, while she measures the man. This is a neat reversal, considering the times. It's tits and ass that don't belong to some blonde dame.
There's probably a message in this flick somewhere. Maybe it's the transient lives of crooks who are utterly incapable of running the straight track, even after serving time. Or the sanctity of honor for a battle-tested veteran and bright-eyed career woman. Maybe honesty is only a virtue when it doesn't count. The know of it all is that the film lacks any mystery except that between the characters. Maybe lies keep the peace. Maybe that's the message, if there is one. In the end, it's all fun and ragged, and sits well on a list of the era's better B-movies.