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Kansas City Confidential (1952)

Film noir from the 1930s, '40s, and '50s is maybe my favorite movie genre, or at least it's my favorite genre tonight. If noir is new to you, here's a very brief introduction: noir means black in French; "film noir" was (usually) filmed in black-and-white with ample shadows and minimal budget, and deals in 'dark' themes — the corruption of ordinary people.

It's the 'ordinary' aspect that appeals to me. Instead of good/evil naïve/cynical brave/coward, characters in noir tend to have shades of grey, like you and I — so even in their quaint world without computers and cell phones, the people seem real. In tonight's movie, for example, the good guy has some bad in his past, and the bad guy has some genuine good. Furthering the feel of reality, we also see at least three cops breaking the law, but that isn't mentioned in the dialogue; it simply goes without saying.

Kansas City Confidential (1952) opens with Jack Elam and Lee Van Cleef being recruited to join a masked gangster who's planning a million-dollar robbery. They'll be wearing masks not only during the crime, but also while planning the heist and making their escape. The mysterious masked mastermind explains why they need to always keep their faces hidden:

"It's a pat hand only because nobody can rat on you. You can't even rat on each other, because you've never seen each other without those masks. I've made you cop-proof and stool pigeon-proof, and it's going to stay that way." The criminals' masks, by the way, are a bit spookier than the COVID masks Americans have been wearing lately.

After the robbery, we meet John Payne, an ex-con who's suspected of being one of the bad guys. He's arrested, beaten by the cops, smeared in the media, and fired from his job, and he's understandably getting grumpy about all this. "I know a sure cure for a nosebleed — a cold knife in the middle of the back." You can watch Kansas City Confidential for free (and without commercials, if you have a good ad-blocker).

Warning: Old movies like this are a memento from a different era, so of course you'll sometimes see flashes of racism, sexism, and an 'absenteeism' — often there are no black or otherwise ethnic characters, even in the background. Much of Kansas City Confidential, despite the title, takes place in Mexico, but it wasn't actually filmed there, so the movie's Mexicans look like white guys with a dab of greasepaint and a fake accent, and one of them sings "La Cucaracha."

 

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