Kansas City Confidential

D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

Director Phil Karlson created some of the finest crime thrillers of the '50s, but he has never received the same attention as Samuel Fuller or Robert Aldrich or Anthony Mann. Key Karlson films such as Scandal Sheet, 99 River Street, The Phenix City Story, and The Brothers Rico have languished in studio vaults and are not currently available on home video. Luckily, however, Karlson's Kansas City Confidential has been an exception. It has been released on VHS in various editions. And now, thanks to Image Entertainment, Kansas City Confidential (1951) comes to DVD.

This is prime Karlson. It's brutal, hard-edged, and unflinching, but it's also livened by a distinct streak of optimism. Whereas some directors of film noir preferred the deterministic pessimism of Out of the Past and Raw Deal, Karlson tempered the surface cynicism of his films with an underlying sense of hope. People will die during the course of his dramas, and good people will be pulled toward corruption. Likewise, the pervading corruption in Karlson's films can be stifling, but through it all Karlson's movies are about defeating daunting odds and eliminating corruption. The Phenix City Story is the classic example of Karlson working in this mode. It's about a town rife with corruption and the effort to cleanup the town. Tellingly, Karlson would return to these themes near the end of his career in Walking Tall.

Kansas City Confidential gives us Preston Foster as a former police detective who manufactures a crime -- a bank heist -- so that he can nab the culprints and take the reward money. He hires a crew of thugs (a trio of great supporting actors: Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef, and Neville Brand) -- but he insists on anonymity. He wears a mask when he hires each gang member, and during the preparation for the heist, as well as the heist itself, they must all wear masks. This way no one (except Foster) can identify the gang members.

John Payne becomes the fall guy. He's an ex-con now driving an armored bank truck (how he got a high security job like this is hard to say). The heist sets up Payne as the decoy and while the police arrest him and interrogate him, the real culprits go scot-free. True to form, in these scenes, Karlson focuses on the brutality of the police. These are tough, uncompromising scenes. At one point, a detective volunteers to stay the night interrogating Payne, indicating he'll relish the opportunity to beat a confession out of Payne. Eventually, Payne is released and now he carries a big grudge. He knows he was set up and he wants to exact revenge. This means tracking down the robbers to Mexico, where they're meeting to split up the loot.

John Payne was never one of the more magnetic Hollywood stars. He scored in Miracle on 34th Street, as well as several Twentieth Century Fox musicals where he played second fiddle to Betty Grable or Alice Faye, but he lacked the charisma to become a major star. If truth be told, he was a bit bland. In Kansas City Confidential, however, the blandness actually works in his favor. He becomes an "everyman" type of character (albeit one with a tainted past) who must ferret out the forces of evil and confront them in order to live a normal life. He isn't a formidable power. He's no Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum. So the outcome is difficult to predict. Will we have the strength to overcome Foster and his thugs? And this gives the movie an added sense of suspense.

Coleen Gray rounds out the cast as the love interest. She plays a lawyer (studying for the bar exam) vacationing in Mexico -- who also happens to be Foster's daughter. She meets and falls for Payne while he's biding his time before acting against the thieves. Gray also appears in one of the disc's extras: Eddie Muller (author of Dark City) interviews her and she confesses she thought her character was too sparkly.

Image Entertainment's disc also features a selection of stills and posters and brief bios on the major players. The video transfer was culled from a release print that shows wear, but the image quality is acceptable. Bright areas are slightly burnt out, but the effect isn't distracting. This is a major release for lovers of '50s crime dramas and film noir.


Kansas City Confidential is now available on DVD from Image Entertainment. Special features include a stills and lobby card gallery; cast and crew bios and noir filmographies; an exclusive interview with star Coleen Gray; and a rare trailer for director Phil Karlson's 5 Against the House. Suggested retail price: $24.99. For more information, check out the Image Entertainment Web site.