For something called Kansas City Confidential, this film spends a lot of time away from home. One of the memorable little tricks at play here, though, is how that turns out to have its own sneaky relevance to multiple aspects of the plot.
Kansas City Confidential, directed by Phil Karlson, involves a smooth, masterfully-handled robbery orchestrated by a man who knows what he’s doing. He hand-recruits three hardened criminals with nothing to lose–a wild-eyed and sweaty gambler (Jack Elam), a ladies’ man (Lee Van Cleef), and a tough guy with something of a chewing gum addiction (Neville Brand). They all have good faces, emotive yet believably guarded, but the mastermind equips them (and himself) with cloth masks, ensuring that he’ll be able to identify them but they won’t know him or each other. They’ll meet elsewhere, weeks later, and divide up the money. The complication in their plan is innocent-but-not-that-innocent patsy Joe Rolfe (John Payne), a truck driver who gets used as an unknowing decoy in the operation and loses his job because of it. Joe decides to get a little even by tracking down the robbers himself so he can clear his name and collect on the insurance company’s reward.
Thus begins a peculiar kind of cat and mouse game, one where the role of “cat” keeps shifting. Joe makes for an unusual central character–he’s innocent but somehow slippery, making it entirely believable that he might, at various points, be willing to settle for exactly what he tells the robber he wants: his own part of the cut, as payment for having been unwillingly involved in their game. That kind of Schrodinger’s morality shows up elsewhere in the film, too, as the crime’s mastermind turns out to have unexpected and unusual priorities… ones that arguably could have been better-served by tactics that didn’t have such a propensity for getting people killed.
Without being quite iconic in its own right–though consistently counted as a great example of film noir–the movie deals in icons, providing ideas and images that are both memorable and, more helpfully for the film’s place in history, easily stolen. (Most notably by Quentin Tarantino, for Reservoir Dogs.) The torn playing cards, the strange cloth masks, the cultivated anonymity among the robbers, etc. all linger even after that exact details of the plot have faded away.
Kansas City Confidential is available on Amazon Prime.