“I know a sure cure for a nosebleed: a cold knife in the middle of the back.” Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential falls into that rarefied early-‘50s cycle of noir, which benefited from B directors who had learned how to quickly dispense with the genre conventions and deliver brutal action and lurid innuendos. There was no time for the mannered wisecracks of guys like ex-singer/dancer Dick Powell, who always seemed like their mind was on the next manicure. The new generation had its own ex-singer/dancer leading man, but John Payne (99 River Street, Slightly Scarlet) had a tougher mug and a terser delivery. Along with an oval-shaped head and high hairline, Payne also shares with Kevin Spacey an arrogantly dead stare. It’s the kind of face that’s hard to trust, and Preston Foster’s embittered ex-cop counts on that when he frames deliveryman Payne for an armed holdup. The real culprits, in a proto-Tarantino flourish that’s as surreal as it is functional, are a suited trio wearing identical felt masks with slits for eyes, mouths, and ears. Only Foster, who’s assembled them, knows each of their identities; as in Reservoir Dogs, they never learn each others’ names. But, as with Payne, it’s the faces that count, and this is a rogue’s gallery for the ages. Jack Elam, with a lazy eye and a sneer that make him look like he crawled out of an EC horror comic, sweats profusely and chain smokes discarded cigarette butts from an ashtray. His jittery face never quite fits into the frame. Neville Brand, his big lips pushed outward by an impressive collection of teeth, looks like a particularly WASPy hulk. And Lee Van Cleef, more than a decade before Clint Eastwood would dub him Angel Eyes, is a pure slit-eyed snake. These charged visages meet up in Borrados, Mexico (Kansas City is but a memory after 20 minutes), where there are so many different layers of unspoken identity confusion that it feels more like a screwball comedy. Upping the ante is Foster’s law student daughter, a daddy’s little girl who—rather touchingly—plays Ione Skye to his John Mahoney. But Karlson’s less interested in banter and romance than he is in slaps and chokeholds, so the men settle their differences until they number exactly one.
The sound is as clear as day and the image is out of this world-perhaps the best-looking transfer any noir has ever received on DVD . The grain is smooth and film-like and contrast is exceptionable, with no evidence of crushing or artifacts. The image is especially awe-inspiring given the mediocre treatment bestowed on Fritz Lang's The Woman on the Window by MGM.
A rare opportunity to see B-picture rawness in an A-level presentation.