Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Going to Kansas City for Great Noir

          Finding a top-notch, unseen and true film noir in an era wherein the noir category seems ever-widening, to include any film with some element of crime, or any movie filmed in black and white (and some in color, for that matter), is a rare pleasure. The Film Detective’s gorgeous print on Blu-ray of masterful noir director Phil Karlson’s griping, pensive 1952 Kansas City Confidential offered one of the more satisfying late-night forays into noir I’ve had in some time, and really fits into the genre, with its story of a clever heist and the consequences that arise due to an innocent bystander being thrust into the center of the crime offering plenty of chances for a noir cast from Heaven to excel, in dark alleys and elsewhere, with a tight, efficient script, inspired direction and stunning cinematography by George E. Diskant featuring some of the sweatiest close-ups ever doing much to steer the film into the first-class cabin of noir treasures.

         Heading the cast as Joe Rolfe, a delivery man who serves as a blue-print for the “wrong place at the wrong time” noir hero, John Payne does a perfect job of gaining the audience on his side without them ever being too sure what his actions will ultimately be once he catches up to the bank robbers who inadvertently caused him to be framed for their hold-up. Although movie-star handsome to the nth degree, even in a sunny musical like Hello, Frisco, Hello Payne projected a lost dis-contentedness behind those beautiful-but-baleful eyes that allowed for plenty of audience intrigue, as in “what has this guy, who seems to have everything going for him, got to be so sad about?” Set in the clammy confines of Kansas City, the answer is “plenty,” and Payne is terrific in portraying Joe’s ever-increasing sense of impatience for justice after being fingered for the crime, then screwed over by the police. Payne stays terse, tough and vivid as the film progresses, but also laconic enough that you just can’t help rooting for him to gain some measure of reward, even if his gains may be ill-gotten, just to put a smile on his face.

         As the mastermind behind the heist, Tim Foster, Preston Foster does a fine job of suggesting the drive and intelligence needed for his namesake to pull the tricky assignment off, while struggling with the moral outcome of his actions. His conflicted character is also responsible for the creation of one of the cinema’s most memorable mask, used by the robbers to remain incognito during the robbery, both to the public and themselves, as there’s no hint of honor among this batch of thieves. The three henchmen Tim selects to pull off the robbery really push Kansas City into the noir stratosphere. Gaunt, nervous, bug-eyed Jack Elam (he gets a lot of those sweaty close-ups), playing Pete Harris, the weakest-willed of the bunch, nevertheless takes a backseat to no one in commanding attention. Elam, on edge near every moment, is great at suggesting the possibility Pete might completely lose it in any given scene, and one watches intently trying to guess what Pete’s actions and his outcome will be. Elam had something of a breakout year in 1952, with a small role in High Noon also counting among his nine screen efforts, and his standout work in Kansas City had to factor in Elam’s rise to fame as one of Hollywood’s most memorable bad guys for the next several decades.

         Neville Brand was also set to make his mark around this period, abet as a tougher character in Stalag 17 and Riot in Cell Block H. Although in those breakthrough roles Brand is forceful in a take-no-prisoners manner (while playing prisoners, of course), in his briefer appearance in Kansas City Brand does a terrific job in subtly conveying malevolence with calm detachment, illustrating how a still, largely silence presence can make a screen villain come across as more dangerous and evil than when showcasing more overt nastiness (Brand’s Boyd Kane would make a great partner for Louise Fletcher’s placid/acid Nurse Ratched). Finally Lee Van Cleef, with his second-to-none leer (and having a breakthrough year as well after High Noon put him on the map) projects his special brand of sinister intent with maximum impact, making him a worthy adversely to the calm-but-formidable Payne. Although early in his career, Van Cleef seems well-aware of his superior abilities as a villain, and he shows a full enjoyment of his colorful role throughout the film.  

       Although the lack of a femme fatale may be the chief noir element missing from the film, the always-engaging Dona Drake does show up as the flirty, opportunistic hotel employee selling souvenirs to gain a buck or twenty, while musing over the possibility of romance with the more attractive male clientele, which include Payne and Van Cleef (still managing to read as evil, if also kind of sexy, while flirting with the game Drake) once the chief players go South of the Border to meet up at the resort wherein Drake resides. From her early role as Mirhirmah, Bob Hope’s sidekick in Road to Morocco, Drake possessed a good-natured likability and showed an admirable ability to make an impact in small roles against some formidable costars. In Kansas City, Drake is great at conveying a sense of humor while vamping the men with coy seductiveness into buying her wares, and she’s as much fun to watch here as in her peerless campy turn as Bette Davis’ easily unimpressed, confrontational maid in 1949’s unforgettable Beyond the Forest

         In the primary female role, Coleen Gray shows up about halfway into the movie as Foster’s smart, friendly daughter Helen, who is working towards her Bar exam, and once again demonstrates she was a leading lady without equal, possessing a very fine touch onscreen. After making a substantial impact in 1947 in two all-timer noirs, Kiss of Death and (featuring probably her greatest role) Nightmare Alley, Gray spent the next ten years in more standard fare, finally ending up as The Leech Woman. Kansas City serves as a high point for Gray during this period, and it’s nice to see Gray get a chance to tackle a role outside of her earlier ingénue ones she played with distinction. In Kansas City, she’s allowed to show more force and intelligence as a lawyer-in-the making, while still remaining sympathetic and supportive towards Joe’s plight. I think Gray was so fully engaged and focused in her roles her ability was often overlooked, as she doesn’t overdo anything, remaining completely honest in portraying a character, similar to the direct, riveting approach found in Barbara Stanwyck’s work. One wishes Gray had been given richer opportunities to establish herself further, but thanks to her work in top-flight noirs, her reputation as a screen actor of skill and substance is secure.

      As for the film, it’s a must-see for any serious noir aficionado, with the peerless cast and Karlson’s pitch-perfect direction grabbing the audience at film’s outset and keeping them captivated prisoners throughout a briskly-paced 99 minutes. The Blu-ray box list no less than Quentin Tarantino as one of Kansas City’s admirers, citing the film as influencing his break-through Reservoir Dogs. This impressive bit of trivia indicates how substantially the movie’s profile as a highly regarded A-1 noir has grown over the years, and Kansas City offers entertainment value equal to any of the best noirs, whether classic or more Tarantino-ish in flavor.