A down-on-his-luck ex-GI finds himself framed for an armored car robbery. When he's finally released for lack of evidence--after having been beaten up and tortured by the police--he sets out to discover who set him up, and why. The trail leads him into Mexico and a web of hired killers and corrupt cops.
Like most films noir, "Kansas City Confidential" is a thinly veiled homage to Greek tragedy. The typical tragic motifs appear early on: a rousing orchestral arrangement, acting verging on histrionics, and a hero (literally, he saved a man’s life at Iwo Jima) who has been thrust into an untoward fate. For an added touch of theatricality, the characters even wear masks during their heist.
We are introduced to the "Big Man" (Preston Foster), Pete Harris (Jack Elam), Tony Romano (Lee Van Cleef), and Boyd Kane (Neville Brand) before we meet the protagonist, Joe Rolfe (John Payne); thus, we are implicated in the murky morals of the first characters we meet. It is not clear whether Rolfe will become a main character until he gets released from prison and learns that he was framed for the bank robbery led by the four antagonists. When we learn that Rolfe is war hero who saved his friend’s life in Iwo Jima, it is then that we fully realize he is the hero of the story. His bad fortune is a typical tragic turn and his resultant desire for revenge against the men who framed him sets the rest of the story in motion.
The narrative is quite complex and at times a little too neat to be believable. The plot twists at times were "too cute by half" as well (e.g. the reveal of Helen’s identity). Nevertheless, the storyline is well crafted and left me wondering how Rolfe was going to get out of his next jam and if he would indeed end up getting the revenge he so strongly craved. After all, tragedy does not always end well for the hero. Once I suspended my disbelief, I thoroughly enjoyed the film’s twists and turns and found the ending to be satisfying.
The cinematography is exactly what you would expect from a film noir. Lots of high contrast lighting is paired with extreme close ups and high/low angle shots. These techniques are predictable though effective in conveying a tense mood. The acting at times is over done yet appropriate. The actors here are not unlike the actors in Greek tragedy who had masks with exaggerated features and would amplify their physical actions on stage to communicate their emotions. The perfect example of this over acting comes from Jack Elam, who, as Peter Harris, has a constant look of suspicion and terror on his face. His wandering eye adds to his character’s sketchy persona. Lee Van Cleef exudes a smarmy charm while Neville Brand peers menacingly and smacks away at his bubble gum like his life depends on it.
Keeping with the Greek tragic theme is the discovery of the Big Man’s identity at the end of the film. The Greek term anagnorisis literally means "to recognize" and was used by Aristotle to describe the hero’s major discovery or realization. Throughout the film Rolfe makes several discoveries about the different personae; these characters make realizations about Rolfe too, either correctly or not. Helen, Rolfe’s love interest, states that "people rarely look like what they are," which is arguably the main theme of this film. Each character has a mask, literally or figuratively, and a dual identity that they carry with them, even Rolfe.
Overall, I recommend the film. If you can get over the incredulous events of the story and revel in the high drama you will enjoy "Kansas City Confidential."
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