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!

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Secret Agent Double-O Dino: THE SILENCERS (Columbia 1966)

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Out of all the James Bond-inspired spy spoofs made in the Swingin’ 60’s, one of the most popular was Dean Martin’s Matt Helm series. Based on the novels of Donald Hamilton, the films bore little resemblance to their literary counterparts, instead relying on Dino’s Booze & Girlies Rat Pack Vegas persona. First up was 1966’s THE SILENCERS, chock full of gadgets, karate chops, and beautiful babes, with sexual innuendoes by the truckload.

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Our Man Matt is a semi-retired agent of ICE (Intelligence and Counter-Espionage) living in a Playboy Mansion-style pad, and working as a globe-trotting photographer. He’s luxuriating in his bubble bath pool with sexy secretary Lovey Kravezit (“Lovey Kravezit? Oh that’s some kinda name!”) when former boss Mac Donald calls. Evil spy organization Big O (Bureau for International Government and Order) is once again plotting world domination, and the reluctant Helm is pulled back into service.

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Matt is teamed with his former partner Tina to thwart Operation Fallout, a nefarious plot to detonate nuclear bombs at Alamagordo and set off a war between the U.S. and Russia. The two spies are sent to Phoenix to retrieve a computer tape from operative Sarita, who works as the featured attraction at the Slayboy Club. Sarita is assassinated onstage, and the tape winds up in the hands of beautiful but klutzy Gail Hendricks. Matt thinks she’s an enemy agent, and they make their way to San Juan, where they’re captured. Tina turns out to be a double agent, and Matt must battle the odds inside Big O headquarters to stop Operation Fallout and defeat evil leader Tung Tze.

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All this serves as an excuse to surround Dino with gorgeous women and make with the double entendres in his smooth as Bourbon voice. Dean’s basically playing himself here, or at least his public image of a fun-loving, skirt chasing, boozy lounge lizard. His easygoing charm makes it work, and he has a ball as the ring-a-ding spy. Dean can be heard singing on the soundtrack whenever he’s thinking of girls, and there’s a funny moment when, while driving with Gail, Frank Sinatra comes on the radio crooning “Come Fly With Me”. “Oh, turn him off”, says Dean, “He’s terrible”. He switches the station and Dean himself is on singing his own hit “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometimes”. Martin smiles and says, “Now that guy can sing!”.

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All the women are appropriately attractive. Stella Stevens is the graceless Gail, an innocent caught up in the sinister skullduggery. She give a fine comic performance, and can take a slapstick pratfall with the best of them. A former Playmate of the Month, Stella’s seen to best advantage in the films THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (with Dean’s ex-partner Jerry Lewis), Sam Peckinpah’s THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE, and Irwin Allen’s THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. Daliah Lavi (Tina) was an Israeli actress featured in the spy spoofs THE SPY WITH A COLD NOSE and 1967’s CASINO ROYALE, as well as Mario Bava’s THE WHIP AND THE BODY. Beverly Adams (Lovey Kravezit) was in HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI, but was best known as the wife of celebrity hairstylist Vidal Sassoon. Nancy Kovack appears as counterspy Barbara, who tries unsuccessfully to knock off Helm. Kovack was a 60’s staple who acted in countless TV shows of the era (MAN FROM UNCLE, STAR TREK, BATMAN, etc), and played the ingénue in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and THE OUTLAWS IS COMING (The Three Stooges’ last feature), and retired from films after marrying conductor Zubin Mehta .

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Cyd Charisse gets “Guest Star” billing as Sarita, the dancing spy. The former MGM musical star gets to strut her stuff once again in both the movie’s opening credits (where she does a striptease number) and onstage at the Slayboy Club (her vocals are dubbed by singer Vicki Carr). It’s basically a cameo role, but it’s good to see the leggy Miss Charisse dancing onscreen again.

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The males are all Familiar Faces to movie fans, composed of a fine set of 60’s  character actors. Victor Buono plays villain Tung Tze, and though he’s about as Oriental as Dino, he’s always a welcome presence. Gruff James Gregory is ICE chief MacDonald, and Robert Webber , Roger C. Carmel, and Arthur O’Connell are various Big O bad guys. Director Phil Karlson, known for his tough films like KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL and THE PHENIX CITY STORY , shows his lighter side in this one and balances the comedy and action well.

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Producer Irving Allen was once the partner of Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who broke up when Cubby decided to bring James Bond to the silver screen. Allen wasn’t interested, and missed the boat on a franchise that’s still going strong today. After seeing the success of the Bond films, Allen jumped on the bandwagon and obtained the rights to the Matt Helm novels, adding more comedy to the mix. THE SILENCERS and its sequel MURDERER’S ROW were box-office hits, but the final two (THE AMBUSHERS and THE WRECKING CREW) didn’t do so hot, as the spy craze was ending. Martin declined to do a fifth (THE RAVAGERS) and Matt Helm went into retirement. Attempts to revive the character have failed, including a weekly TV series starring Tony Franciosa. The Matt Helm movies are a product of their era, with Dean Martin’s breezy style carrying the load. All the wink-and-a-nod sexual innuendoes seem innocent in today’s anything goes world, but the Matt Helm series is worth watching as artifacts of a time past, no classics but still entertaining.

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 9: Film Noir Festival Redux

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Welcome back to the decadently dark world of film noir, where crime, corruption, lust, and murder await. Let’s step out of the light and deep into the shadows with these five fateful tales:

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PITFALL (United Artists 1948, D: Andre DeToth) Dick Powell is an insurance man who feels he’s stuck in a rut, living in safe suburbia with his wife and kid (Jane Wyatt, Jimmy Hunt). Then he meets hot model Lizabeth Scott on a case and falls into a web of lies, deceit, and ultimately murder. Raymond Burr  costars as a creepy PI who has designs on Scott himself. A good cast in a good (not great) drama with a disappointing ending. Fun Fact: The part of Scott’s embezzler boyfriend is played by one Byron Barr, who is not the Byron Barr that later changed his name to Gig Young.  

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THE BRIBE (MGM 1949, D:Robert Z. Leonard) Despite an A-list cast, this tale of a G-man (boring Robert Taylor ) assigned to break up a war surplus smuggling racket is as tedious as Taylor’s monotone voice overs. Agent Rigby is sent to the island town of Carlotta, off the coast of Central America, to crack the ring responsible for illegally selling airplane engines. He falls in love with married nightclub singer Ava Gardner (who can blame him?), whose booze soaked hubby (John Hodiak) is a major suspect. The oppressive heat in Carlotta seems to make the film’s players sluggish, like the movie itself. Obvious bad guys Charles Laughton and Vincent Price engage in a ham-slicing contest, with a slight edge going to Laughton here. Fun Fact: I couldn’t watch this without being reminded of the superb noir send-up DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, which borrows some of this movie’s names (Rigby, Carlotta) and many of it’s scenes. Watch that instead of  THE BRIBE, it’s a lot more fun!

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THE WINDOW (RKO 1949, D: Ted Tetzlaff) This taut little thriller became a major hit for RKO, and child star Bobby Driscoll won a special Oscar for his performance as a 9 year old who likes to tell tall tales witnessing a murder. No one believes him, not his parents (Arthur Kennedy , Barbara Hale) or the cops, and he’s punished by Mom and Dad. Dad works nights and Mom’s called away to visit her sick sister, so little Tommy gets locked in his room overnight, and the killers who live upstairs (Paul Stewart, Ruth Roman) come to get him. The chase through an abandoned building is gripping, and former DP Tetzlaff (MY MAN GODFREY, NOTORIOUS) ratchets up the suspense. Filmed on location in NYC (a novelty in those days) and based on a Cornell Woolrich short story, THE WINDOW is unique, entertaining, and well worth watching. NOT SO FUN FACT: Disney star Bobby Driscoll (SONG OF THE SOUTH, TREASURE ISLAND, voice of PETER PAN), unable to shake the child star label, became a hopeless drug addict, drifting through a life of arrests and addiction. In the mid-60’s, he was briefly associated with Andy Warhol’s Factory group of underground filmmakers. Sometime early in 1968, he died alone in an abandoned New York tenement house. The body wasn’t identified, and Driscoll was buried in a pauper’s grave. His mother, seeking Bobby in 1969, asked the police for help, and through fingerprints he was finally ID’d. Bobby Driscoll was 31 years old.

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THE HITCH-HIKER (RK0 1953, D: Ida Lupino) Fear is the theme of this dark, disturbing psychological tale based on the true story of serial killer Billy Cook. Director Lupino cowrote the script with producer hubby Collier Young, about two pals on a fishing trip (Frank Lovejoy, Edmond O’Brien) who pick up a hitchhiking killer (William Tallman), and are taken hostage and forced to do his bidding. Extremely tense drama enhanced by Nicholas Musuraca’s camerawork, and a chilling performance from Tallman as Emmett Myers, as cold-blooded a killer as there is in noir. His deformed, unblinking dead eye will give you nightmares! O’Brien is also outstanding here, as usual. Fun Fact: Tallman is of course best known to audiences as perennially losing DA Hamilton Burger on TV’s long-running PERRY MASON, where he was outwitted every week by noir icon Raymond Burr.

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THE PHENIX CITY STORY (Allied Artists 1955, D: Phil Karlson) Another true story, this one of corruption in a small Alabama town ruled by gambling, prostitution, dope peddling, and murder. The unique prologue features real-life newsman Clete Roberts interviewing some of the locals, including the widow of slain Attorney General candidate Albert Patterson. Then the story unfolds, as Patterson (John McIntyre) refuses to get involved in the efforts to clean up the town. When son John (Richard Kiley) returns home, he does, and finally the older man relents, after the violence escalates to include the murder of a child, and a family friend. That violence is shockingly brutal for the era, and realistically handled onscreen by director Phil Karlson, who’d later helm another Southern crime tale, WALKING TALL. Screenwriters Crane Wilbur (HOUSE OF WAX) and Daniel Mainwaring (OUT OF THE PAST, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) pull no punches, and supporting actors Edward Andrews, Kathryn Grant (the future Mrs. Bing Crosby), James Edwards , Jean Carson (one of the “Fun Girls” from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) and John Larch are all top-notch. Don’t miss this one! Fun Fact: This is one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite movies, and there are plenty of examples of it’s influence on his films to keep an eye out for here!

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