Thursday, June 29, 2017

Review - Kansas City Confidential

June 29, 2017

Kansas City Confidential – US, 1952

The first ten or fifteen minutes of Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential are about a criminal mastermind’s attempts to recruit a small band of criminals for a very lucrative heist, and the set-up has enormous potential. The recruiter wears a mask when he speaks to them, so they never know his identity, and when they are all in the same room, they all wear masks so that they are not aware of each other’s identity and therefore cannot rat anyone out if they’re caught. The robbery is a success, and the thieves scatter across the globe, each one given half a card as proof of their involvement in the heist. From here, the film has a clear and potentially lucrative storyline – follow the criminals. Follow them to new countries, limited job options, and limited supplies of money. Follow their increased anxieties, their growing worries, their possible descents into paranoia. The scenario has the potential to be fascinating, to be a cautionary tale on the psychological risks associated with crime. Of course, this is not the direction the film chooses to take.

Instead, the film shifts focus. Instead of tracking the movements of those involved in the crime, it begins to focus on a floral deliveryman named Joe Rolfe (John Payne), who just so happens to deliver flowers at the same time as the robbery and whose delivery truck matches the one used in the crime. This makes sense, as one of the things noticed by the mastermind of the crime was that the same delivery van arrived at exactly the same time every day. Joe is soon arrested and suspected of being involved in the crime. After enduring a few days of physical punishment by overzealous officers, he is ultimately cleared and released. But of course, that’s not the end of his involvement in the story. In movies, it never is. No, Joe has to get even with those that framed him, so off he goes to Mexico in search of one of the criminals because, as you know, criminals always let someone know when they are going into hiding.

So essentially, the film becomes another of these tales of regular guys rushing off to clear their name by finding the true criminals, a la Hitchcock’s Sabotage and Young and Innocent, Annabel Jankel’s 1988 D.O.A., and 1993’s The Fugitive. The problem with many films like these films is that the lead character is simply not a believable detective, and that is sadly the case with Joe Rolfe. The character is a veteran of the Second World War who dabbled a bit in crime before deciding to straighten his life out. There is nothing in his resume that would lead anyone to conclude he could run an investigation or recognize clues, so to be believable the clues must come to him. This may be why Joe’s investigation seems to be limited to being in the right place at the right time and asking the correct questions to witnesses who never consider concealing anything from him. It also helps that he has the physical prowess to back up his words and creates a certain level of intimidation in those he is questioning. However, he’s also a bit of a drab individual, and for most of the film, it is hard to get behind him, especially when he indicates that he is more interested in getting a piece of the pie than clearing his name.

There are occasional moments in Kansas City Confidential that resonate. After putting on a brave face to a man who pulled a gun on him, we see Joe step out of the man’s view and give the kind of emotional release that audiences can fully understand. Being brave often involves the suppression of fear and panic, and it is only when a danger has passed that those feelings manifest themselves. There’s also a nice moment when Joe, just released from prison, sees his face on the cover of a morning newspaper, and his reaction is clear and justifiable frustration. I also appreciated how the film portrayed the mastermind of the crime as a man putting on a brave front, yet also grappling with family matters and wanting to be both a master criminal and a respectable father figure. However, the film errs when it introduces his daughter as Joe’s potential love interest. For one, Joe is anything but warm and friendly; for another, the film does not devote enough time to establishing their budding emotional connection.

Were he able to read my review, Roger Ebert would likely remark that I’m criticizing the film for what it isn’t and not what it is, and he’d have me there. Admittedly, I enjoyed the beginning of the film and its potential much more than what actually follows, for in introducing and focusing on Joe, the film goes where far too many subpar films have gone, and it does so in a way that does not elevate it above those earlier (or later) efforts. The film moves along at a standard pace, building in intensity and leading to a crowd-pleasing finale. It is certainly watchable, and fans of the genre will likely find elements in it to praise. To me, there were simple too few of them, and what there was, was just not enough to warrant a recommendation. Perhaps that’s why what could have been was much more interesting to me than what was. (on DVD)

2 and a half stars

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