On the surface, Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential appears to be a standard noir. Three criminals are blackmailed into a heist job by a burly and considerably aged Preston Foster. They’re each instructed to wear masks during the robbery. Without knowing each other’s identities, the police won’t either. It truly is the perfect crime, executed flawlessly. They all elude capture. The one person who is arrested is Joe Rolfe (John Payne). He makes a humble living as a truck driver for a florist shop, but his truck is mistaken for the getaway vehicle. He’s subject to unfair questioning by the police and also loses his job. But after his release, he’s determined to clear his name and uncover the real crooks.
Kansas City Confidential is a grimy film. Black and white noirs are studies conducted in shadows. Underground, alleyways, seedy nightclubs, rain slicked streets. All the dirt and grime is in the spotlight here. Joe (John Payne) plunges headfirst into the lair of criminals, eventually traveling to Mexico.
This film is well acted, boasting a particularly impressive performance by Preston Foster, who I’ve never had a strong opinion about. John Payne trades in that genial good guy image for a tough guy with a lot more teeth in his characterization.
I was reminded of another Karlson crime film while watching this one, The Phenix City Story (1955). Both are relentless in their depiction of violence and corruption. The masks also reminded me of the sinister clown one worn by Sterling Hayden in Stanley Kramer’s The Killing (1956). The masks here are just as unsettling, with hollow eyes gazing out from those slits.
While not the most inventive of noirs, Kansas City Confidential is a compelling saga anchored in its gritty realism.