Last summer, TCM hosted a special theme on their channel called Summer of Darkness, where they dedicated 24 hours every Friday in June and July to film noir. I watched a ton of noir movies I hadn’t seen before thanks to that festival, and for the Film Noir Blogathon I’ll be covering two films that grabbed my attention a year ago: Kansas City Confidential and 99 River Street, both directed by Phil Karlson and starring John Payne.
KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952)
A mysterious man (Preston Foster) contacts a trio of criminals (Neville Brand, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam) to lead an armored car robbery. The four men wear masks and remain strangers to each other as they plan out their heist, and make arrangements to reunite in Mexico to divide the money among themselves. Joe Rolfe (John Payne), a floral truck driver they framed to take the heat, is soon released by the police for lack of evidence against him, and instead, they offer him a reward if he can help recover the cash. He agrees, and when one of the thieves dies, Rolfe assumes his identity to catch the crooks.
While Kansas City Confidential incorporates many film noir elements, Phil Karlson’s film often didn’t hide in the shadows, and instead opted for close-ups of the characters and indulges in violence. The film has a very brutal and cynical surface, but it also had a sense of hope underneath it all, something that Karlson often integrated into his crime films. This couldn’t be more perfectly embodied by the film’s lead actor John Payne, who was primarily known for musicals and lighthearted comedies before transitioning into tough-guy roles in westerns and film noir. Payne had the physique to believably play a guy that could put up a good fight, but he also infused an everyman attitude that made it easy to gain audience sympathy for his troubles.
Kansas City Confidential was one of the first to start a trend of crime exposé movies where corrupt authorities were taken down and justice was served by men striving to do better. The film’s intricately planned bank heist also inspired a number of other crime films, like the 1956 film The Killing and the 1992 film Reservoir Dogs. Both Kansas City Confidential and The Killing also feature actress Coleen Gray as the love interest to the film’s leading man.
99 RIVER STREET (1953)
Former boxer turned cab driver Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) is having a bad night. First, he discovers his wife Pauline (Peggie Castle), who’s bitter over the state of their living conditions, has been cheating on him with jewel thief Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter). Later he’s approached by friend and aspiring stage actress Linda James (Evelyn Keyes), who says she needs his help with a deadly situation at the theater. To make an already terrible night worse, Ernie is then framed for Pauline’s murder by her lover. Now Ernie must catch the real criminal before the police catch up with him.
After a successful first outing, director Phil Karlson and star John Payne reunited for 99 River Street, again harnessing themes of revenge and redemption as they did in their previous film. With a gritty atmosphere filled with equally grimy characters, this is a more hard-boiled film than Kansas City Confidential, though the two films do walk a fine line between stylish film noir and straight crime drama. 99 River Street takes a number of twists and turns along the way, but the film keeps up its momentum until the end, chronicling one eventful evening in an unlucky man’s life.
Both Karlson and Payne had a hand in writing for the two films, though their work was uncredited. Because of their efforts in helping develop the stories, the films they made together feel more realistic in their approach, even with a few melodramatic elements added in. They reunited once more for the 1955 Technicolor film noir Hell’s Island, and again did uncredited work on the screenplay for it.
Aside from sharing a director and star, both Kansas City Confidential and 99 River Street also share a lot of the same plot elements, such as a protagonist (who happens to be a driver in both films) being framed for a crime he didn’t commit and seeking revenge on the people who did him wrong. Despite the similarities, both films are able to differentiate themselves from one another and are great but underseen noir films that are definitely worth rediscovering.
I wrote this entry as a part of The Film Noir Blogathon, where bloggers are writing about movies from one of the most popular genres of the classic era. Click the banner below to read more terrific posts!
16 thoughts on “Film Noir Double Feature: Kansas City Confidential and 99 River Street”
99 River Street sounds really intriguing. Kansas City Confidential is also on my watch list.
Hi Keisha! A great post…cool that you covered a Karlson-Payne doubleheader! I love both of these films, and they really made me appreciate John Payne as an actor; I thought he did great work in both, and I especially loved how he played his character in ’99 River Street’: controlled anger until he’s pushed too far, and then that anger is unleashed. And I had no idea that Payne and Karlson worked together again, in ‘Hell’s Island’…thanks for bringing that to my attention!
(And by the way, the link to your site – and your review – over at Midnite Drive-In’s lineup of blogathon participants doesn’t seem to be working)
Ah thanks for letting me know, I’ll try to get that sorted out over there.
Thanks Todd! I love John Payne in his lighter roles, but seeing him in these two movies really made me appreciate him as an actor too. I have yet to see Hell’s Island, I’m very curious to see it after the great work Payne and Phil Karlson did on their other two films.
I’ve been wanting to see 99 River street for a very long time- Kansas City- still not sure- but definitely 99- I’m just so interested to see it!
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed 99 River Street, a very compelling little film noir. Hope you get a chance to see it soon!
And I bet Neville Brand was just as sick and sadistic in Kansas City Confidential as in every other role I ever saw him play…. Enjoyed the review.
That he was, he and the two other actors that rounded out the trio of criminals made for really great villains in Kansas City Confidential and other movies. Thanks again for hosting such a great blogathon!
Wonderful review! Interesting take on a not-so-well known actor-director partnership.
Thank you Carol! Their films are evidence that they really made a great team.
Great read! Thanks for the introduction to 99 River Street. It sounds compelling.
Carol (in the comment above) made an interesting point about the Phil Karlson / John Payne partnership. I never thought about that before, but it might be interesting to explore the stories behind those collaborations some time…
After putting this post together I’m curious to know more about their partnership too, they seemed to gel really well together!
These sound very cool! I mean, how can you go wrong with Neville Brand, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam — three of the baddest of the bad guys you can get. And I’ve always wanted to see Brad Dexter in something besides The Magnificent Seven — I will definitely be trying to find and see these! Thanks for bringing them to my attention.
They really make a sinister trio! And I hope you get a chance to watch both films soon, glad to have brought more attention to them.
During the Summer of Darkness I also watched Kansas City Confidential, but 99 River Street has escaped me. I was really thinking it has things in common with The Killing, so it was nice that you pointed that out in your review!
Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂