Sunday, August 29, 2004

Kansas City Confidential

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 August 2004 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

Not much of Kansas City Confidential actually takes place in Kansas City. After the initial daylight bank robbery, the action shifts south of the border as Joe Rolfe (John Payne), an ex-con who wound up framed for the job, tracks down the actual crooks, and we're in noir territory.

Maybe not a full-on noir, though. The first half is cynical stuff, as the wrongfully accused Joe winds up losing his job and by the time he gets to Mexico, it's not about bringing the thieves to justice - it's about cutting himself in. After all, he was part of the plan, even if he hadn't known it. About halfway through, though, a possibility for redemption shows up, pretty law student Helen Foster, taking time out from her studies to visit her retired detective father Tim (Preston Foster) on his annual fishing trip, and finding herself attracted to Joe.

Hollywood still makes movies like this, but not quite in the assembly line fashion they used to; what used to be the life's work of a director like Kansas City Confidential's Phil Karlson, who would crank out two each year, is now something that a young director will do to show his chops before moving on to the big time. The end result is entertaining, though not touched by genius; a workman like crime story that offers its fair share of reversals, double-crosses, and mysteries. If it were published as a book, it would be solid pulp fiction.

Of course, you don't find pulps much any more. On bookshelves, the 200-page hard-boiled thriller has given way to slicker paperback versions of hardcover bestsellers. I don't say this as a complaint; whether you believe that the audience has grown more sophisticated or the people who gravitated toward pulps and B-movies now get their straightforward stories in other places - television, direct-to-video movies, videogames - they're still around albeit in a different form. And if we're honest, pretty much all something like Kansas City Confidential has over them is that these stories just look better in black and white.

It is fun, though. It unself-consciously gives the audience pulp basics - a hardened anti-hero, a good girl and a bad girl, even a mysterious masked villain masterminding a "perfect crime" that has a few more twists than the criminals initially realize. It's even got early roles for Jack Elam and Lee Van Cleef. When you break it down, Kansas City Confidential is an average B-movie. It's worth a watch if it just happens to show up on Turner classic Movies or PBS (as it did for me) and you enjoy the genre, but isn't a classic to seek out.

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