Blog Directory CineVerse: Confidentially, Kansas City isn't even the main setting of this noir classic

Confidentially, Kansas City isn't even the main setting of this noir classic

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

When you think of Kansas City, you probably think of barbecue, jazz, and Patrick Mahomes leading the Chiefs to a Super Bowl win. But those two words might also conjure up an association with film noir. That’s because one of the most memorable noir works is Kansas City Confidential, a 1952 crime thriller directed by Phil Karlson and starring John Payne (most famous from Miracle on 34th Street) but more importantly featuring Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, and Neville Brand in unforgettable supporting roles. Our CineVerse crew pulled out the files on this caper last week and discussed several key points, as summarized below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What stuck with you as interesting, remarkable, distinctive, unexpected, or otherwise about Kansas City Confidential?

  • It’s firmly in noir territory, but it lacks some of the traits and conventions of classic noir, including a femme fatale who leads men to danger, a story that primarily takes place in a dark urban jungle, and a downbeat/pessimistic ending. Instead, the prime female in this narrative is a law-abiding love interest for Joe, most of the tale occurs in a Mexican vacation town, and the conclusion sees Joe and Helen igniting a romantic “happily ever after” spark.
  • Interestingly, only the first few scenes occur in Kansas City, despite the title hinting that the town plays a major role in the entire story.
  • It’s filmed in a semi-documentary style and introduced via title card as if it were a true-crime recreation or police procedural. Yet this is a fictional yarn that plays out like a conventional crime thriller.
  • The movie was popular enough to usher in a series of "confidential" films from its producer Edward Small: New York Confidential, Chicago Confidential, and Hong Kong Confidential.
  • Put in proper context, there’s a lot of violence on display here for a 1952 film. We see plenty of bitch-slapping among the males, pistol-whipping, jaw-socking, and even groin-kicking. The fight choreography may not be exemplary, but you truly get the feeling that Joe has the proverbial snot kicked out of him during the hotel room interrogation scene.
  • Likewise, there is racy prurient insinuation between Romano and Teresa, whom we see tuck money between her cleavage and saunter sexily next to men, implying that she is a sex worker of sorts and that Latinas are hot-blooded.
  • This movie was controversial at the time for suggesting that police officers can be bad apples working against law and order. The director said in an interview, referring to himself in the third person: “This was so far ahead of itself that I say these pictures have been copied and recopied so many times. Unfortunately, Phil Karlson never got the credit for it because I've never been a publicity hound.”
  • Debatably, the biggest misstep in this film is the writing of the Helen character; she hasn’t given much to do, it’s an unrewarding role, and her romantic chemistry with Joe isn’t very believable or constructive to the plot.

Major themes

  • The wrong man, a theme often used in Hitchcock pictures in which an innocent protagonist is accused of a crime and in danger and must try to clear his name and overcome the villains.
  • The impossibility of the “perfect” crime. Despite Foster’s careful planning and clever prerequisite that none of the other collaborators know their identities, his scheme is bound to fail; that’s partially because films made in this period and during the censorship era must punish criminals by the end of the story and demonstrate that crime does not pay so as not to send the wrong message to audiences. But the scheme is also destined to go south because it is hubristic in its design and because Foster didn’t count on Joe, the framed patsy, demonstrating agency and ingenuity.
  • The forming and fellowship of a rogues gallery. Harris, Romano, and Kane are all intriguing characters most notably because the character actors portraying them are among the most memorable in cinema, having appeared in many other noirs, westerns, and genre pictures – each with an idiosyncratic appearance, physique, and mannerism.
  • Keep your friends close but your enemies closer. The key to Joe clearing his name and staying alive amid a den of snakes is to flush out all the criminals and keep close tabs on them. He’s not always successful and pays the price for dropping his guard or underestimating the cunning and ruthlessness of these villains. But rounding up the suspects and inhabiting their intimate world will prove crucial to his success.

Similar works

  • Asphalt Jungle
  • The Killing
  • Reservoir Dogs
  • The Thomas Crown Affair
  • The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3
  • The Dark Knight

Other films by Phil Karlson

  • Walking Tall
  • Scandal Sheet
  • The Phenix City Story
  • 99 River Street

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