Kansas City Confidential [1952]

Tightly plotted and perfectly cast, Kansas City Confidential is film noir at its finest. An obvious influence on Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, this riveting 99-minute potboiler builds its escalating suspense on the fate of reformed ex-con Joe Rolfe (John Payne), whose floral delivery truck matches a duplicate truck used in a Kansas City bank heist. Joe's been randomly framed by disgruntled, double-crossing ex-cop Tim Foster (Preston Foster) who masterminded the robbery, and in an effort to clear his name, Joe follows a trail of suspicion to a Mexican hideaway, where Foster's accomplices (a sublimely hardboiled trio played by Lee Van Cleef, Neville Brand, and Jack Elam) have gathered to split their $1.2 million haul. Under Phil Karlson's skillful direction, this nerve-twitching scenario unfolds as a clever case of hidden and assumed identities (having worn masks during the heist and getaway, none of the robbers knows the others' identities), and Payne gives a smart, sweaty-browed performance as a hard-luck case who finds time for romance with Foster's daughter (Coleen Gray) as he struggles to turn his fate around. For noir lovers, this movie's pure bliss as Brand, Van Cleef, and especially Elam fill the screen with slimy greed and infectious mistrust. As an iconic example of gritty film noir, Kansas City Confidential remains exciting, unpredictable, and thoroughly entertaining. --Jeff Shannon

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