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Kansas City Confidential(1952)
Hard-hitting film noir where Joe Rolfe s an ex-con who's trying to go straight with a job as a deliveryman for a florist company. Unfortunately, a gang of thugs led by a criminal mastermind have arranged a bank robbery using a van that looks just like the one driven by Rolfe--and the deliveryman takes the fall for the heist. This leads to Rolfe's search for the real thieves, a trail that leads to Mexico and an unexpected love affair with the gang leader's daughter.
For more about Kansas City Confidential and the Kansas City Confidential Blu-ray release, see Kansas City Confidential Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on February 8, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: John Payne, Coleen Gray, Preston Foster, Neville Brand, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam
Director: Phil Karlson
» See full cast & crew
Kansas City Confidential Blu-ray Review
Can you keep a secret?
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, February 8, 2011
What a difference one letter can make. John Wayne, after paying his dues in less than stellar films and roles, managed to break through to superstardom with Stagecoach, and then enjoyed a relatively unbroken string of big screen successes. Change that surname "W" to a "P" and the story is remarkably different. Despite being cut from much the same leading man cloth as The Duke, John Payne never really managed to break out into anything approaching major stardom, despite having a long career filled with a variety of roles which included everything from song and dance (something Wayne never really attempted) to westerns to film noir. Payne is probably best remembered today for the Christmas perennial Miracle on 34th Street, but Payne showed a rather remarkable versatility throughout his many years in film and television, and he's front and center in Phil Karlson's acclaimed noir Kansas City Confidential. Payne plays ex-con Joe Rolfe, a delivery truck driver for a florist who finds himself caught up in a million dollar-plus heist from a bank next door to a shop where he drops off blooms every morning. Kansas City Confidential is a rather odd little film in the noir canon, a sort of combination of Hitchcock's frequent trope of the wrongly accused everyman combined with a hunt through a labyrinth of lies and duplicity that recalls better remembered noirs like Out of the Past. This is low budget, stripped to the bare essentials filmmaking, but it's a bracing piece of work that rarely if ever lets up from its breakneck pace and it provides Payne with one of his signature roles.
Edward Small was an independent producer who frequently released lower budget films through United Artists. He did occasionally get to work with larger sums of money and A-list stars, and it's always been interesting to me due to my interest in Frances Farmer that Small produced two of Frances' A-list, big budget, features, 1937's RKO release The Toast of New York (in fact the most expensive film RKO released that year and one which nearly bankrupted the studio) and the 1940 United Artists South Seas epic South of Pago Pago. New York co-starred Cary Grant and Edward Arnold and Pago Pago featured Victor McLaglen and Jon Hall, so Small was certainly able to hire big names when the dollars were available. But more typically Small crafted extremely tight, well woven productions that usually featured less than above-the-marquee "stars", usually in offerings that didn't require a lot of fuss and bother. Kansas City Confidential fits into that mold perfectly, with a few establishing stock shots of its titular city, and then a lot of backlot work that is meant to mimic both Kansas City and a Mexico resort.
What's notable about Kansas City Confidential is its now iconic supporting cast. The film quickly sets up a sort of pre-Thomas Crown Affair conceit of a mastermind hiring various lackeys to perform a huge bank heist, none of whom know each other and all of whom will remain strangers to each other, courtesy of masks, even as they perform the robbery. But just look at the three actors playing the thugs: Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand. While a lot of classic film lovers will of course recognize all three names, it's actually a bit unnerving to see these three in their relative youth, without the added grizzled appearance that all three assumed as they aged and made some of their better known films and television appearances in the 1960's and beyond. The three bring a vicious quality to their roles, even when, as in the case of Elam, they're being pistol whipped into submission by the guy plotting the heist.
Though director Phil Karlson stages Kansas City Confidential in a quasi-documentary style, he fills the frame with nicely skewed angles and vertigo inducing close-ups. What's so fascinating about this "little" film from a bygone age is how completely it has inspired filmmakers of all sorts of stripes in succeeding generations. Though it's become part of modern film lore that Reservoir Dogs borrows heavily from Kansas City Confidential, you can see elements of its plot and style in such disparate offerings as the aforementioned Thomas Crown Affair and The Dark Knight. This is also a film which plays one of its nice twists fairly close to its vest, delivering a nice figurative punch that makes the setup between good guy and bad guy more compelling than it might have otherwise been.
While it's the supporting cast of hoods who steal the performance spotlight throughout much of Kansas City Confidential, Payne acquits himself quite admirably in a role that necessitates both bewilderment (when he's initially arrested for a crime he did not commit) to slowly burning contempt and then simmering rage once he figures out at least part of what's going on and decides to exact revenge. Payne isn't a traditional action star, in much the same way Dick Powell wasn't, but he manages an extremely believable and sympathetic character here that anchors Kansas City Confidential in the very quasi-documentary style Karlson at least is attempting to convey.
The only slightly less than ingratiating element here is the romantic angle, featuring Coleen Gray in a largely thankless ingénue role which has a supposedly heartstring pulling connection to one of the major characters. The rest of the film is so bristling with machismo that the interludes between Payne and Gray are often momentum killers. Karlson and screenwriters George Bruce and Harry Essex also craft a climax and then a brief coda which may be too pat and without the typical dour noir denouement that colors so many other films in this genre. In fact Kansas City Confidential in some ways defies the noir label, with a big clinch for its romantic duo at the end. There's no femme fatale here tempting the leading man to his moral demise. Instead there's a slow and steady slog toward salvation, with an abundance of thrown fists, backstabbing and gunplay along the way.
Kansas City Confidential Blu-ray, Video Quality
Film Chest is a new niche label which is beginning to release public domain titles on Blu-ray. Like The Stranger, which I just reviewed, Kansas City Confidential is presented in an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.33:1. Also like The Stranger, this release was sourced from a 35mm print. Unlike The Stranger, however, this release sports much better contrast and a sharper, more well defined image that, while certainly nowhere near reference quality, offers a suitably hi-def look at least some of the time. Black levels are consistent and at times very impressive, and the delineation between gray tones and whites is also often quite admirable. While we're still missing a good grain structure as in The Stranger, this release doesn't have the completely over-DNR'd smooth, textureless appearance that the Welles opus did. I haven't seen as many PD DVDs of this title as I have of The Stranger, but this release has a couple of things going for it. It is virtually spot and blemish free, which none of the DVD releases I've seen (including the touted MGM) have, sometime in abundance. This also sports a reasonably sharp and clear image with above average contrast. It's certainly not what it could have been had an internegative been available, but transfers must be judged based on their source elements, and in this case the digital sharpening of a decent 35mm print hasn't been literally smoothed over to the point of blandness.
Kansas City Confidential Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Once again, as was the case with The Stranger, we have no lossless options and instead are given two standard Dolby mixes, one in 5.1 and one in 2.0. The better news is that, unlike The Stranger, the source soundtrack utilized for this new Blu-ray does not have egregious damage, with noticeably less hiss and virtually none of the pops and cracks that marred the Welles film. Dialogue is presented cleanly and clearly and both the sound effects and underscore sound good, if slightly boxy. These 5.1 mixes on the first two Film Chest releases seem needless, as there simply isn't the ability to separate discrete effects for proper placement around the soundfield. Instead we get a sort of willy- nilly spread out into the surrounds that never approaches anything like a modern surround track, and in fact, this film really doesn't call out for an immersive surround track, anyway. It's a close-up look at a man in peril, without a lot of big action sequences, and so there just isn't ample opportunity to exploit the side and rear channels. Film Chest would do better to look into presenting decent lossless mono tracks for its releases; my hunch is most Blu-ray consumers would prefer that option to a needlessly dispersed faux surround option, especially in Dolby.
Kansas City Confidential Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Do a brief Theatrical Trailer and Restoration Demonstration count as real life supplements? I personally don't think so.
Kansas City Confidential Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Kansas City Confidential is one of the most quietly influential noirs ever. It's a film that strangely has never really been paid its due, despite several elements having been quoted in numerous subsequent films. While there will be a host of people probably nitpicking this release due to its public domain genesis, it sports a sharper image than any other PD DVD I've seen with perhaps the exception of the MGM release, but the print is also noticeably cleaner and more damage free than even the MGM print. While it's inarguable that DNR has been applied here, it's not to the smooth, textureless level that a lot of The Stranger was. The soundtrack here also does not have the damage, hiss, cracks and pops that plagued The Stranger BD. While this may not be the most perfect release imaginable on Blu-ray for this film, it's better by far than some might expect from a "mere" PD release. Recommended.
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Kansas City Confidential Blu-ray, News and Updates
• The Stranger Blu-ray Announced - January 28, 2011
Film Chest and Virgil Films & Entertainment (formerly Arts Alliance America) have announced The Stranger, Orson Welles' Oscar-nominated 1946 classic, for release in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack on February 15. Digitally restored in high definition from original 35 ...
• Kansas City Confidential Blu-ray Announced - December 28, 2010
Film Chest, in conjunction with HD Cinema Classics and Virgil Films, has announced Kansas City Confidential for Blu-ray release on February 15, 2011. This 1952 film noir is is a taut and gritty melodrama, and reportedly the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir ...
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