If Phil Karlson’s 1952 noir KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL were a meal, it would consist of a plate full of spice but no meat. The film provides a warning to would-be filmmakers that colorful characters and imaginative camera angles are no substitute for a solid story.
The core of the film is a million dollar bank robbery engineered by an embittered ex-cop. Three appropriately sleazy (but none-too-bright) thugs are hired to carry out the robbery, and an innocent floral delivery driver with a previous criminal record gets framed for the heist. After surviving a spell of brutal police interrogation, the delivery driver is cleared but he has already been fired from his job and cannot get employment elsewhere. Thus, he takes it upon himself to track down the real miscreants in Mexico.
To its credit, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL has the best villainous trio put on film: Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand brilliantly overplay their roles with a wealth of ticks, furrowed eyes, clenched jaws and thick perspiration beads. (Karlson constantly frames them in harsh close-ups.) These guys are so much fun to watch that it is easy to root for their bad boy antics in fact, it is much too easy, since stolid John Payne (the one-time light leading man of the Betty Grable musicals) is badly miscast as the delivery man who turns into a stolid tough guy in order to break the case.
But as the film unwinds, something fairly awful happens the viewer quickly realizes that nothing on screen makes any sense. Between the excessive schematics of the heist and the inconsistencies of the character development (including an out-of-nowhere love story), the film quickly degenerates into pulpy nonsense. While some of it is entertaining, it ultimately becomes tiresome and a climactic shoot-out in a tight yacht cabin only emphasizes the production’s too-low budget.
Reportedly, Quentin Tarantino used this film as the inspiration for RESERVOIR DOGS. Clearly, Tarantino learned from Karlson’s mistakes.