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DVD review: 1952 thriller ‘Kansas City Confidential' is back with a vengeance

Gene Triplett Published: March 26, 2011
Julliard-trained singer John Payne started out in the frothy Fox musicals of the ’30s and ’40s starring opposite the likes of Alice Faye and Betty Grable before his boyish face hardened with age, making him better suited to the kind of tough guy role he plays in director Phil Karlson’s 1952 noir nugget, “Kansas City Confidential.”

Reportedly the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” this low-budget programmer features Payne as ex-con Joe Rolfe, a florist’s deliveryman who is set up as an unwitting decoy and framed for a million-dollar armored car robbery engineered by a bitter ex-cop (Preston Foster). Arrested while the real robbers get away clean, Rolfe takes a brutal beating from interrogating detectives before he’s turned loose for lack of evidence.

Fired from his job due to the bad publicity, Rolfe learns from underworld sources that at least one of the heisters is hiding out in Tijuana, Mexico. It’s there that he finds chain-smoking, habitual crapshooter Pete Harris (a convincingly nerve-wracked Jack Elam), and learns that Harris has been summoned to a Mexican fishing resort to meet with his three accomplices and split the loot. It’s there that Rolfe faces off with womanizing dandy Tony Romano and bubblegum-chewing Boyd Kane (respectively, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand at their menacing best), the ex-cop mastermind, and just to complicate things, the ex-cop’s innocent daughter (Coleen Gray), who blunders into the mess and causes her crooked father to become painfully conflicted while Rolfe falls in love — perhaps to his detriment.

It’s a thriller that “hits with bullet force and blackjack fury,” just like the original poster claims, and the exaggerated shadows of this rip-roaring black-and-white rarity look even darker in Blu-ray. Karlson was known for helming other cult favorites including “The Phenix City Story,” “Scandal Sheet” and the original “Walking Tall.”

— Gene Triplett