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Kansas City Confidential

Kansas City Confidential
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Phil Karlson
Produced by Edward Small
Screenplay by George Bruce
Harry Essex
Story by Rowland Brown
Harold Greene
Starring John Payne
Coleen Gray
Preston Foster
Neville Brand
Lee Van Cleef
Music by Paul Sawtell
Cinematography George E. Diskant
Edited by Buddy Small
Associated Players and Producers
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • November 28, 1952 (1952-11-28) (United States)
Running time
99 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Kansas City Confidential is a 1952 film noir crime film directed by Phil Karlson and starring John Payne, Coleen Gray, Preston Foster, Neville Brand, Lee Van Cleef and Jack Elam. The film was released in the United Kingdom as The Secret Four . Karlson and Payne teamed up a year later for 99 River Street, another noir, followed by a 1955 color film noir, Hell's Island.[1]

This film is now in the public domain.


Four masked robbers hold up an armored truck, getting away with over a million dollars in cash. Down-on-his-luck flower delivery truck driver and decorated former war veteran Joe Rolfe (John Payne) is accused of being involved in the heist and gets roughed up while being interrogated by the KC police.

Released due to lack of evidence Joe decides to track down the men who tried to frame him, both to clear his name and to exact revenge, and he digs up clues that lead him from Kansas City to Tijuana, and then to a tropical Mexican beach resort where Joe attempts to impersonate one of the heist guys who'd been shot dead in the TJ airport on their way to split up the money.

Joe doesn’t realize that the heist was concocted by a secretive mastermind ('Mr. Big') who is a disgraced former police captain who had planned the crime as revenge for being booted off the force, and to score some reward money by double crossing his own guys.

Things get complicated when Joe arrives at the resort with an intelligent and attractive young woman who has taken a serious shine to Joe, and who just happens to be the police captain's daughter.

Things start to heat up as the two other robbers get wise to Joe impersonating their dead partner and start to play rough.



Kansas City Confidential was the only film made by Edward Small's short-lived Associated Players and Producers, a company formed by Small, Sol Lesser and Sam Briskin.[2][3] It was the first of a thirteen movie deal Small signed with United Artists in 1952, with ten to be made in the first year.[4] John Payne said he owned 25% of the film.[5]

The movie was originally called Kansas City 117, the title based on a police code. Small bought the title Kansas City Confidential off John Gait and Lee Montgomery. It was the first contemporary crime drama Small made after a series of swashbucklers.[6]

Filming started June 4, 1952, and was partly shot on Santa Catalina Island, California which stood in for Mexico.[7]

The story begins in Kansas City, but most of the film actually takes place at a fictitious fishing resort in Mexico. Kansas City Confidential was director Karlson's second crime film; he also directed Scandal Sheet, also released in 1952, which proved to be a modest commercial success. Karlson was "a gifted filmmaker who had recently graduated from the Poverty Row studio Monogram"; the film starred John Payne, a "popular crooner of the 1940s who some say was working his way down from Technicolor musicals at 20th Century Fox"[3] but after his Fox contract expired produced several of his own films.

The plot served as inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.[8]


The film was popular enough to usher in a series of "confidential" films from Edward Small: New York Confidential, Chicago Confidential.[9]

Critical response

The staff at Variety magazine said, "With exception of the denouement, director Phil Karlson reins his cast in a grim atmosphere that develops momentum through succeeding reels. Payne delivers an impressive portrayal of an unrelenting outsider who cracks the ring.[10] Time magazine said the film "combines a 'perfect crime' plot with some fair-to-middling moviemaking.... Obviously, the 'confidential' of the title does not refer to the picture's plot, which is a very model of transparency."[11] Bosley Crowther of The New York Times was not a fan, writing that Kansas City Confidential "appears designed—not too adroitly—just to stimulate the curious and the cruel. The screen play by George Bruce and Harry Essex is an illogical fable of crime, the direction by Phil Karlson is routine and the leading role is bluntly acted by John Payne. Neville Brand, Jack Elam and Preston Foster do not shine in other roles, except as drab exponents of the violence that suffuses and corrupts this measly film."[12]

When the film was released in DVD format in 2002, film critic Gary Johnson said, "This is prime Karlson. It's brutal, hard-edged, and unflinching, but it's also livened by a distinct streak of optimism. Whereas some directors of film noir preferred the deterministic pessimism of Out of the Past and Raw Deal, Karlson tempered the surface cynicism of his films with an underlying sense of hope."[13] Dave Kehr of The New York Times gave MGM Home Entertainment's 2007 DVD release of the film an extensive review. He called the release an "immeasurable improvement over what had been available":[3]

Kansas City Confidential, an imaginative little noir from 1952, exemplifies the bread-and-butter UA film of the 1950s....Mr. Karlson, interestingly, concentrates on the story within the story: The leader of the gang is an embittered former police captain...who dons a mask when he interviews prospective collaborators whose names he has drawn from police files....The recruits are three young actors who would come to define menace in the 1950s and beyond: Neville Brand, Jack Elam and Lee Van Cleef, who here has his best role before For a Few Dollars More. Mr. Karlson’s filmmaking has few of the standard noir flourishes: the dark and brooding shadows, the bizarrely canted camera angles. Instead he works through gigantic close-ups and an unusually visceral treatment of bare-knuckle violence. With refinements, he would continue to pursue this theme (revenge) and this style, right up through his creative resurgence in the 1970s: Ben (1972), Walking Tall (1973) and Framed (1975).

Home media

Film Chest and HD Cinema Classics released Kansas City Confidential in high definition on Blu-ray and DVD in 2011.[14]

See also


  1. ^ Kansas City Confidential at the American Film Institute Catalog.
  2. ^ Drama: Kirk Douglas to Play Trapeze Artist Role Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 14 May 1952: B8.
  3. ^ a b c Kehr, Dave (July 10, 2007). "New DVDs". Critic's Choice. The New York Times. Retrieved July 8, 2011. 
  4. ^ Of Local Origin New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 16 May 1952: 18.
  5. ^ John Payne -- the Star Who Likes People: When He Isn't Making a Picture He's Out Meeting the Public and Winning Friends for Hollywood and for Himself Hopper, Hedda. Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963) [Chicago, Ill] 14 Sep 1952: c2.
  6. ^ Selznick Slates 'Gone' as Stage Musical; Payne and Donna Reed Costars Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 22 Sep 1952: B9.
  7. ^ Metro Officials Meeting on Coast: Schenck and Moskowitz Confer With Schary on Operating Practices and Economies By Thomas M. Pryor Special to The New York Times. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 03 June 1952: 34.
  8. ^ Hughes, Howard (2006). Crime Wave: The Filmgoers' Guide to the Great Crime Movies. London: I.B.Tauris. p. 186. 
  9. ^ 'Women Confidential' Set; Robinson Likely Loeb; Traubel Role Big Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 09 Jan 1957: C9.
  10. ^ "Kansas City Confidential (UK: The Secret Four)". Film review. Variety. November 28, 1952. Retrieved November 30, 2009. 
  11. ^ "The New Pictures". Cinema. Time. November 10, 1952. Retrieved July 8, 2011. 
  12. ^ Crowther, Bosley (November 29, 1952). "Kansas City Confidential, Starring John Payne and Coleen Gray, is Presented at the Globe". The New York Times. Retrieved July 8, 2011. 
  13. ^ Johnson, Gary. "Phil Karlson's Kansas City Confidential". film/DVD review. Images Journal. Retrieved November 30, 2009. 
  14. ^ Review

External links