When one sits down and watches Phil Karlson's Kansas City Confidential for the first time (as this critic did just the other night) one wonders why they had never crossed paths with such a film years ago. Tough and gritty, as any good film noir should be, but not as slick as many in the genre, Karlson's 1952 film (which was the film that catapulted the director to...well, to mid-level respectability at least) nonetheless is a taut thriller full of everything the genre held so dear. Granted, Karlson's film doesn't have the usually ubiquitous femme fatale (the only female role here is simply a nice girl who falls for the protag) but it does have the tension, the fear, the danger that goes with what a good noir should be.
Coming at the near tail-end of the world of film noir, Kansas City Confidential (which ironically or not, takes place mostly in the sweaty heat of Mexico - K.C. becoming but a memory about twenty minutes in) does what Karlson does best as a director - efficient, tough guy drama with a left hook that comes out of a literal nowhere. Playing as some sort of Tarantino precursor (Q.T., with his self-mocking mantra of "I steal from every movie ever made" had to have seen this film at some point in his early cinephiliac days) Kansas City Confidential is the story of an elaborately-staged armed robbery where its three thugs-for-hire wear masks so not to reveal their identities to one another (Reservoir Dogs had fake names such as Mr. Orange, Mr. Blonde and Mr. Pink in place of the masks, but the reasoning, if not the motif, is the same).
Known only to the big boss (he too wears a mask so his underlings cannot finger him) the three hoodlums are told to take it on the lam until the heat dies down. Meanwhile Joe, a hapless ex-con, played by rough and tumble John Payne (in the essential anti-hero role), is framed for the crime and after his release (on lack of evidence, which still doesn't stop the police brutality that comes his way) he too takes it on the lam, but with the goal of finding who framed him, and theoretically making them pay in that rather blunt and brutal noirish manner. Eventually the criminals are all called together (along with Joe tagging along in what he mistakenly believes to be incognito) for the final payoff, but of course no one is shooting a straight deal here.
Tersely written (as was the usual M.O. for most noir since they were usually B-pictures with very low budgets - even at MGM, where this one was made) and succinctly acted by all (Lee Van Cleef, a leering snake-eyed rogue more than a decade before being dubbed 'Angel Eyes' and jittery, shaky, pop-eyed Jack Elam are fascinatingly nuanced in two of their earliest roles), Kansas City Confidential may not belong in that realm of great (and predictably listed) noirs such as The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, but with its bravura tagline of "Exploding! Like a gun in your face!", Karlson's underrated film noir, doing exactly as it says (Karlson's action would never have any sort of lead-in, just suddenly it would explode, and just as suddenly it would cease) is still one of the better noirs ever made.