The Perfect Crime Film: KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (United Artists 1952)

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My friend Rob suggested I review KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL awhile back, and I’m sorry I waited so long. This is a film noir lover’s delight, packed with tension, violence, double-crosses, and a head-turning performance by John Payne in the lead. Made on an economical budget like the same year’s THE NARROW MARGIN , director Phil Karlson and George Diskant create a shadowy, claustrophobic atmosphere brimming with danger at every turn.

I knew Payne mainly from his 40’s musicals and his idealistic lawyer opposite Maureen O’Hara in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, but he’s a revelation here as Joe Rolfe, a florist truck driver who’s set up as a patsy by a gang of armored car robbers. He can dish out (and take) beatings with the best them, and delivers the tough-talking dialog with aplomb. KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL helped Payne shed his lightweight image, and he went on to do other dark crime films and rugged Westerns. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for them!

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The plot isn’t overly complex: ex-cop Tim Foster. aka ‘Mr.Big’, hires three hoods to commit “the perfect crime”, a meticulously planned robbery in broad daylight. He insists all four of them wear masks so no one knows the other’s identity except himself. Timed to the last second, the caper goes off without a hitch, and Foster gives the goons each a torn-in-half king playing card, telling them he’ll contact them after the heat dies down to split the loot. Rolfe is grilled by the police, but ultimately let go when his alibi checks out.

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But he’s lost his job, and the now destitute Rolfe discovers there’s a 25% reward for finding the missing $1.2 million stolen in the robbery. Getting a hot tip from his bartender buddy, Rolfe flies to Tijuana and shadows Pete Harris, a degenerate gambler who may have been involved. He confronts Harris and beats the truth out of him, and is about to accompany the crook to Barados when Pete’s gunned down by the Mexican police at the airport. Rolfe then decides to impersonate Harris, since the gang have never laid eyes on one another.

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There he encounters Tony Romano and Boyd Kane, and after a suspicious Romano tosses his room, learns the pair were in on the heist. Foster is also at the resort, and we learn why he planned it all: after being forced to retire for backing the wrong politician, Foster plans to swerve the crooks and collect that  reward himself. Complicating things is Helen, Foster’s law student daughter, who arrived on the plane with Rolfe and is romantically interested in him.

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The violence is both realistic and graphic. I found the scene where Rolfe has Romano in a stranglehold, shoving a pistol under his chin, particularly brutal. Editor Buddy Small, son of producer Edward, keeps things tight, and Diskant’s black & white photography shows why he was one of the great noir cinematographers. Phil Karlson learned his craft directing Charlie Chan and Bowery Boys entries at Monogram, and made some solid 50’s noirs, including the ferocious THE PHENIX CITY STORY . He later remade KID GALAHAD with Elvis Presley, did a pair of Dean Martin/Matt Helm flicks, and the classic 1973 WALKING TALL. His career is well worth a look for film fans.

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KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL costars four of the screen’s baddest bad guys. Veteran Preston Foster gives heft to the role of Mr. Big, Jack Elam plays the chain-smoking Harris, oily Lee Van Cleef is womanizer Romano, and Neville Brand is chilling as the gum-chewing Kane. Pretty Coleen Gray rounds out the cast as Foster’s daughter Helen. Some of the plot elements here were reworked into Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut RESERVOIR DOGS; much as I liked that film, I think KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL surpasses it. Thanks for the recommendation, Rob!

Hammer Time!: KISS ME DEADLY (United Artists 1955)

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Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels have long been one of my favorite Guilty Pleasures. Spillane’s books were the literary equivalent of knocking back shots of Jack Daniels with no chaser. The misanthropic Mike Hammer’s Sex & Violence filled adventures are rapid paced, testosterone fueled trips through a definitely un-PC world where men are men, women are sex objects, and blood and bullets flow freely through a dark, corrupt post-war world.  Spillane turned the conventional detective yarn on its ear and, though critics hated his simplistic writing, the public ate up his books by the millions.

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The film version of Spillane’s KISS ME DEADLY turns film noir on its ear from its opening shot of Christine Bailey (a young Cloris Leachman) running down a lonely highway, almost getting run over by Mike Hammer. The PI picks her up and the opening credits roll backwards to the strains of Nat King Cole crooning “Rather Have The Blues”. This beginning set-up lets us know we’re not about to see a routine mystery yarn, but something wildly unique courtesy of a promising young producer/director named Robert Aldrich .

The script by A.I. Bezzerides is as convoluted as a Spillane novel, though he changed much of the original book, much to Spillane’s displeasure. I’ll try to capsulize the goings-on without writing a novel myself: Mike Hammer picks up hitchhiker Christine Bailey, whom he discovers has escaped from an insane asylum. “Get me to that bus stop and forget you ever saw me”, she says. “If we don’t, remember me”. They don’t, as Hammer’s car is cut off, the pair are kidnapped, Christine’s murdered, and Hammer wakes up in a hospital bed surrounded by his girl Friday Velda and police pal Lt. Pat Murphy.

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When he’s released, Hammer’s grilled by members of the Interstate Crime Commission, some bigwigs from Washington looking for clues. They know all about him: he’s a third-rate shamus who specializes in divorce cases, “a bedroom dick” who uses Velda for tawdry set-ups. Pat warns Hammer to forget the whole thing and revokes his PI and gun licenses so Hammer won’t go taking the law into his own hands.. fat chance of that! When Mike Hammer finds a thread, he pulls at it until he finds a string, and with the big boys from D.C. interested in this thread, he knows bigger things are at the end of the string.

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That string leads Hammer to murder, kidnapping, torture, and brutality as he bulls his way forward, searching for “The Great Whatsit”. It’s Hitchcock’s McGuffin, Sam Spade’s Maltese Falcon, Kane’s Rosebud, the device that the plot revolves around. Velda describes it perfectly: “Does it exist? Who cares! Everyone, everywhere is involved in a fruitless search for what?” In KISS ME DEADLY, it’s a mysterious suitcase, hot to the touch, containing radioactive nuclear material everyone’s after, with “deadly” consequences.

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But it’s not the what that matters, it’s how Hammer gets there. The violence in this movie comes swift and savage, and is surprising for a 1955 release. The scene where Hammer’s followed by a thug, who he takes out, is shocking in its brutality. Aldrich pulls no punches, with one ferocious scene after another. The film was cited by the Kefauver Commission for corrupting the morals of America’s youth, prompting Aldrich to launch a letter-writing campaign in favor of free speech for independent filmmakers. Bravo, Mr. Aldrich!

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Ralph Meeker plays Hammer as the ultimate anti-hero, a penny-ante goon bulldozing his way through the mean streets of LA. Meeker rose to fame in the original Broadway production of William Inge’s PICNIC, and soon landed in Hollywood. Never a major star, he nonetheless added a macho presence to tough films like BIG HOUSE USA, Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY, SOMETHING WILD, Corman’s THE ST. VALENTINE DAY’S MASSACRE, and THE DETECTIVE. He also worked again with Aldrich in a small role as the Army shrink in THE DIRTY DOZEN  . Besides the excellent TV version played by Stacy Keach, Meeker is my favorite of all the screen Hammer, and that includes author Spillane, who played his own character in 1963’s THE GIRL HUNTERS.

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The movie features the film debuts of both Leachman and Maxine Cooper, who makes a sexy Velda. The other main female character here is Gaby Rodgers as the mysterious Lily Carter, who’s not what she seems. Gaby only made one other film before this, an indie called THE BIG BREAK, and did some TV appearances, but never appeared on the big screen again. It’s too bad, because she’s a standout as Lily, and would’ve added greatly to some films of the era. In real life, Gaby was married to songwriter Jerry Leiber   , who penned rock’n’roll classics like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” with partner Mike Stoller. As of this writing, Miss Rodgers is still with us at age 88.

Tough guy actors abound in KISS ME DEADLY, including Albert Dekker as the sadistic Dr. Soberin, Paul Stewart as mobster Carl Evello, and a pair of Jacks- Jack Elam  and Jack Lambert as Evello’s hoods. Other Familiar Faces are Wesley Addy, Fortunio Bonanova , Nick Dennis, Juano Hernandez, Paul Richards, Percy Helton , Leigh Snowden, and Strother Martin in a small role as a witness to murder. Frank DeVol’s music score hits all the right notes, and DP Ernest Laszlo’s photography keeps things dark and moody.

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The only quibbles I have with KISS ME DEADLY are strictly as a Hammer purist. Moving the action from Hammer’s New York City base to Los Angeles seems sacrilegious, and having him use Velda for his sordid set-ups with suckers makes Hammer look like a douchebag. But I suppose I’ll have to grant Aldrich and Bezzerides their artistic license here, because for the purpose of this film it all works. KISS ME DEADLY is like a cinematic punch in the face, and the best Mike Hammer adaptation ever, despite my quibbles. I just wish I’d have kept all my Mickey Spillane paperbacks, because viewing this film and writing this post makes me want to dive back into the Sex & Violence-filled world of Mike Hammer once again!

 

How The West Was Fun: SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! (United Artists 1969)

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SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! is played strictly for laughs. It’s broad performances and slapstick situations won’t strain your brain, but will give you an hour and a half’s worth of escapist fun. Easy going James Garner has the lead, with solid comic support from Joan Hackett, Walter Brennan, Harry Morgan, and Jack Elam. Director Burt Kennedy made quite a few of these, and this is probably the best of the bunch.

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While burying an itinerant drifter, the townsfolk of Calendar, Colorado discover a mother lode of gold. The subsequent boom turns Calendar into a lawless, rowdy town that can’t keep a sheriff alive long enough to tame it. The town elders also can’t get their gold through without paying a 20% tribute to the mean Danby clan. Enter our hero Jason McCullough (Garner), who applies for the sheriff’s position “on a temporary basis…I’m on my way to Australia”.  Jason is a crack shot and fast on the draw, but prefers to use his brains over his gun. He locks up Danby brother Joe, much to the consternation of Old Man Danby.

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Mayor Perkins gives Jason free room and board to stay in town and clean it up. He’s got a klutzy daughter named Prudy, who first discovered the gold, and keeps getting into embarrassing predicaments whenever Jason’s around. Jason hires “town character” Jake as his deputy after Jake backs him up in a saloon showdown. After several attempts at killing Jason fail, the Danbys gather all their relatives to descend on Calendar. Mayor Perkins and the townsfolk cower in fear, and Jason has only Jake and Prudy to rely on in the frenetic final confrontation with the Danby clan.

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Credit director Burt Kennedy for his homages to the films of John Ford in this. Of course there’s triple Oscar winner Walter Brennan, lampooning his role of Old Man Clanton in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. There’s another nod to CLEMENTINE with Garner sitting on the porch, leaning his chair back and trying to put his feet up a’la Henry Fonda. Ford regular Danny Borzage has a bit as the accordionist at the drifter’s gravesite. And that climactic gunfight has echoes of the OK Corral, only with a much more humorous outcome.

Burt Kennedy got his start writing for John Wayne and Randolph Scott before penning and directing the 1965 hit THE ROUNDERS, starring Fonda and Glenn Ford. Some of Kennedy’s other sagebrush spoofs were THE GOOD GUYS AND THE BAD GUYS (1969, with Robert Mitchum), DIRTY DINGUS MAGEE (1970, featuring Frank Sinatra), and the TV movies ONCE UPON A TRAIN and WHERE THE HELL’S THAT GOLD? (both 1988) starring singer Willie Nelson. There was also a sequel of sorts, 1971’s SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER, reuniting Garner and Elam. He also made some serious Westerns, like WELCOME TO HARD TIMES (1967), HANNIE CALDER (with Raquel Welch, 1971), and Wayne’s THE TRAIN ROBBERS (1973). Kennedy wrote the screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART (1990), and directed his last film SUBURBAN COMMANDO (with Hulk Hogan) in 1991.

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Besides Garner doing his laid-back thing, the rest of the cast also gets into the silly spirit. Joan Hackett was an underrated actress who never really got her due, adept at both comedy and drama. Some of her films were THE GROUP (1966), WILL PENNY (1968), and her Oscar nominated role in Neil Simon’s ONLY WHEN I LAUGH (1981). Harry Morgan brings his comic expertise as Mayor Perkins, while vets Henry Jones, Walter Burke, and Willis Bouchey are the other town fathers. Brennan is fine as always, and a young Bruce Dern shines as his deadly but dumb son Joe.

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The standout here is Jack Elam. After many years of  playing gunfighters, gangsters, and goons, Burt Kennedy gave Elam a chance to show his comic side, and the old rascal nails it. His Jake is a simple-minded, reluctant deputy, and the perfect comic foil for sharp sheriff Garner. Elam even gets to break the Fourth Wall at film’s end to deliver the movie’s punchline. Elam went on to be a go-to comic sidekick for the rest of his career, passing away in 2003.

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! doesn’t blaze any new Western trails and probably won’t make anyone’s Must See lists. It will make you laugh, though, and it’s fun to watch genre vets like Garner, Brennan, Morgan, and especially Jack Elam go through their comic paces. Recommended for one of those days when you need a good chuckle to chase the blues way.

CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt1: Five Films from Five Decades

I record a LOT of movies. Probably around ten per week, more or less. And since I also have to do little things like work, exercise, cook, clean, breathe,  etc etc, I don’t always have time to watch  them all (never mind write full reviews), so I’ve decided to begin a series of short, capsule reviews for the decades covered here at Cracked Rear Viewer. This will be whenever I find my DVR getting cluttered, which is frequent! I’ll try to make CLEANING OUT THE DVR a bi-weekly series, but there are no guarantees. Monthly is more realistic. Anyway, here are five films from the 1930s to the 1970s for your reading pleasure.

Continue reading CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt1: Five Films from Five Decades