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!