Coleen Gray and John Payne in Kansas City Confidential (1952)


(director: Phil Karlson; screenwriters: from a story by Rowland Brown and Harold R. Greene/Harry J. Essex/George Bruce; cinematographer: George E. Diskant; editor: Buddy Small; cast: John Payne (Joe Rolfe), Coleen Gray (Helen), Preston S. Foster (Timothy Foster), Dona Drake (Teresa), Jack Elam (Harris), Neville Brand (Kane), Lee Van Cleef (Tony), Mario Siletti (Timaso), Howard Negley (Andrews), Ted Ryan (Morelli), George Wallace (Olson), Vivi Janiss (Mrs. Rogers), Helen Kleeb (Mrs. Crane), Paul Dubov (Eddie); Runtime: 98; United Artists; 1952)

“An action-packed film noir directed by Phil Karlson.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Warning: spoilers throughout review.

An action-packed film noir directed by Phil Karlson with a flare for showing off how violent it can be, but it’s hardly a credible story. It’s filmed in a semi-documentary style, as it opens when three masked men successfully rob a Kansas City bank of over a million dollars. They use a florist’ van to make their escape, where they meet the fourth member of the gang in another vehicle–the Mr. Big who set up the heist. He gives the three spending money and half of the king card to identify themselves when they will meet a month later to split up the loot. The only one who knows all their identities is Mr. Big, therefore no one can squeal. Mr. Big sends each of the three to a foreign country to await a wire which will inform them where to meet for the split.

The florist van used in the heist is the same as the one the hard-luck Joe Rolfe (Payne) is driving. When the cops stop the ex-con, war hero, they believe he was involved with the robbery, and when he’s in jail they work him over with beatings. But soon the duplicate van is found abandoned and they are forced to release him. A normal person would sue the cops for the way he was treated or just forget it, but Joe wants to clear his name of any suspicion. So he contacts someone (Dubov) who owes him a favor because he saved his life in Iwo Jima, and finds out from his underworld contacts that a gangster by the name of Pete Harris (Elam) fled to Tijuana, Mexico.

Joe tracks him down in a Mexican gambling casino, and beats the hell out of him to find out all about the heist (his M.O. is not too different from the cops). He makes himself the fifth partner, and decides to collect a share of the loot for all the trouble he was put through. He plans to fly with Pete to a fishing village called Borados, but at the airport the police recognize Harris as someone wanted for murder and they kill him in a shootout.

In Borados, Joe registers at the bungalow rendezvous spot as Pete Harris. He arrives with an attractive law student, Helen Foster (Gray), whose father Tim (Preston Foster) is an ex-police captain who was forced to retire and is embittered about the way he was treated by the police. This is a spot he comes frequently to on fishing vacations, and it also soon becomes obvious that he’s Mr. Big. The other two bank robbers are also obvious — Tony Romano (Lee Van Cleef) and Kane (Brand). They were chosen by Mr. Big because he knew them from his police days and used them for the diabolical plan he has in mind of turning them in to the police and collecting the lucrative reward. In this way he can make himself look good as a cop and also embarrass the other cops who kicked him off the force because they said he couldn’t cut it anymore. He knows the bank money is marked and can’t be used anyway, so he gets a cop who was an old friend of his to make the arrest and get credit for the big pinch.

But the trap goes wrong, as Joe spoils his plans and figures out he is setting the others up. Tony kills Kane and fatally shoots Tim. But before Tim croaks he tells the arresting officers Joe was the source of his tip and deserves the reward. He pleads with Joe to let him die with a good name and not be involved with the heist, in exchange he gives Joe his blessing to marry his daughter.

The film offers the noir conventions of storytelling by having the two embittered men changing places and their luck, as there seems to be little difference between the shady cop and the former felon.