My Review of ‘Kansas City Confidential’ (1952)

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This film noir starts off with a documentary-style opening, in which the viewer is informed that the story could be based on confidential files of the city. That city being, in this case, Kansas City.

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The important thing is that the first character me meet is a Mr. Big – an anonymous greedhead and user – who cobbles together a small gang to pull off a bank job for him. Mr. Big meets his Gang of Three: a gambling junkie, Peter Harris (played by Jack Elam), who’s also wanted for murder; a gum-chewing thug named Boyd Kane (Neville Brand); and the sleazy one, Tony Romano (played by the ever-devilish Lee Van Cleef), whose interest in the whole affair seems largely prompted by his desire to score with the dames.

So Mr. Big meets these guys individually, while wearing a mask and basically threatens to reveal their horrible secrets if they don’t play along and rob the bank. And, despite numerous opportunities, none of this amazing trio considers pulling the mask off his freaking face.

In any case, Mr. Big plans the robbery in such a way that while the Gang of Three steal the loot, the blame gets laid on an innocent party – one Mr. John Rolfe (played by John Payne), an ex-con and flower truck driver who made a stop at the worst possible time and place. One that Mr. Big obviously knew, as the plan involves the bad guys driving a lookalike truck. Thus, confusing everyone into thinking Rolfe’s the thief. Even though four guys in masks committed the robbery and Rolfe is only one guy. I suppose in all the confusion, the robbery victims forgot how to count.

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Now, here’s the real interesting part of Mr. Big’s plan. He gets his trio of goons together (and they all wear masks – these guys will do anything, apparently) and gives them each a torn playing card. Then, he announces (essentially), “You’ll get your share of the dough when the heat’s off. And, if I can’t deliver it myself, those half-cards will identify you to whoever does.” Or something like that. And then off the bad boys go – to other countries, with their masks at hand. And their half-cards. I ask you, is that preposterous or what?

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Meanwhile, the hapless Rolphe is accused by the very (in Wikipedia’s words) “brutal, corrupt and somewhat stupid” police of a crime he didn’t commit. And when his alibi checks out, the bank’s insurance company (somewhat conveniently) offers him a 25% reward in the event that he finds the stolen money. In that Rolphe is now unemployed, broke and without prospects, that seems only fair. The rest of film is about Rolphe’s search for the real robbers, in order to clear his name (not to mention getting that 25%).

I won’t go into further detail for risk of totally spoiling the movie. But the film has a fairly intricate (if somewhat incredible) plotline involving Rolphe stealing one robber’s identity to get to the others, flushing out the real Mr. Big (who planned to double cross the trio of masked flunkies – my what a surprise! – in order to get reinstated on the police force – a job he lost due to political opponents), and the unexpected appearance of Mr. Big’s daughter (a law school student, naturally) who falls for … can you guess? … Rolphe, of course!

While this may not be the best film noir ever made, it’s a highly watchable one. One with an unusually upbeat ending. Plus, Lee Van Cleef pulls off the amazing trick of looking sinister in a bow tie.

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So, for that, I think the film should get at least one thumb up!

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PS: Here’s a bit of trivia for you. The plot of this movie was the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs! The similarities are pretty obvious.

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