Film noir is a very particular genre of motion pictures. Mainly, it refers to the stylish approach to crime dramas often ripe cynicism and/or sexual attitudes. Scholars will tell you that it’s an ‘Americanization’ of German Expressionist cinematography (hat tip: Wikipedia), but I tend to see it more of a visual response to hard-boiled fiction that emerged as a particular unique writing style from the early 20th century. However you define it, it’s often times depicted by characters who are always operating from their own hidden agendas. Terrific examples of film noir in film include Howard Hawks’ 1946 THE BIG SLEEP (one of my personal favorites); Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 OUT OF THE PAST; and Phil Karlson’s 1952 KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, recently released on Blu-ray by Film Chest, Inc. (Note: the film now belongs in public domain.)
A former cop forced into retired, Tim Foster (played by Preston Foster), conspires to pull of the ultimate heist: he recruits three bad guys – played by Lee Van Cleef, Neville Brand, and Jack Elam – to aid him in a bank heist only the pretense that no one (except him) will know the other’s identity (all men are provided masks). Anonymity means that no one can turn on the other. However, Foster’s secret plan is to lure the criminals to a secret location where he’ll double-cross them by surrendering all of them to police in a bid to get his job back with the force. However, Foster’s plans encounter a snare when the patsy they’ve framed – Joe Rolfe (John Payne) – turns out to be an ex-con with nothing to lose! He hunts the men to their secret rendezvous with hopes of getting his share of the loot!
CONFIDENTIAL has aged remarkably well. At just under 100 minutes, the film is fairly tightly edited with most sequences revolving around the central plot – Rolfe’s attempt to get his part of the bank heist while also turning the tables on those who framed him – though there is a romantic subplot involving Foster’s daughter, an aspiring law student (Colleen Gray), that more than stretches the bounds of believeability. Payne and Foster remain the main focus consistently, though neither is fully aware of the other’s hidden designs until the last quarter of the picture. Van Cleef and Brand make terrific baddies – the kind of guys most true noirs are replete with – two short fuses just waiting for a chance to flex their muscles. There are a couple of other small players who also fill out the noir bill because they’re running their own scams – fairly successfully – in the most benign pursuits available to them. Everyone here has something to hide, and it’s a bit of surprise that the film still manages to pack in a (somewhat) happy ending despite all the double-crosses; if anything, it’s that (somewhat) happy ending that feels out of place here, certainly not the performances or the story.
CONFIDENTIAL has been restored by Film Chest, and the disc comes with a brief demonstration of the old look versus the updated look. Much of it is very minor – some darks pop much better in the Blu-ray restoration, and there’s a marked improvement in graininess throughout. There’s also the movie trailer and Spanish sub-titling available for those who need it. The disc includes a postcard bearing the original movie art, and, if you’re a noir purist, this is definitely one worth adding to your collection. I would’ve liked a commentary track by a film historian or studio executive; I think the experience of these older classics is greatly enhanced by a scholar highlighting what impact the film had … but, alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at HD Cinema Classics provided me with a DVD screener for the expressed purposes of completing this review.