'Kansas City Confidential' in Classic Cool Context

This Saturday at 9 p.m., KCET brings you an under-the-radar, yet expertly crafted noir crime thriller in 1952's "Kansas City Confidential," which was the only movie ever made by production company Associated Players and Producers, and directed by Phil Karlson. John Payne plays an ex-G.I. with a criminal past on the search for the men who framed him for an armored truck robbery. This is the latest entry in KCET's "Classic, Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, two newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received "Kansas City Confidential" on November 11, 1952.

A typical film noir is often constructed around a heist. This is a prime plot tool for crafty screenwriters because a good heist requires a lot of people working together to pull it off. This can make for riveting scenes where the audience learns how the heist is conceived, who's brought in to pull it off, and finally, what surprises await our protagonists along the way.

Check out the cast of characters from John Huston's classic 1950 caper noir, "The Asphalt Jungle":

But writers George Bruce and Harry Essex took a slightly different tack with their script for "Kansas City Confidential." They, along with Karlson, created a movie where the most important element of the heist is not its execution, but rather its aftermath, and the lengths to which a man would go to clear his name.

Take a Closer Look Back

John Payne's character, Joe Rolfe, is a military veteran trying to get his life together. Plagued by gambling troubles, the character's backstory is a stark reminder of an America only seven years removed from World War II and in the midst of the Korean War, and the thousands of mentally and physically wounded soldiers struggling to build or rebuild their lives back home while transitioning back into civilian life.

Los Angeles was of course home to a great number of those returning vets, and the point of re-entry for many others that arrived back from war via the Long Beach Naval Operating Base, which was decommissioned in 1997.

TO LOOK THEIR BEST--Fireman 1st Class Samuel E. Adolt, 19, sees something new on destroyer: Marion Koopman, left and Margaret Williams, prettying up -- via UCLA's Los Angeles Times archive

And to understand the significant battle that still awaited many of those soldiers, here's a segment from the HBO documentary "Wartorn," about WWII vets describing their horrifying battles with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder:

And in our protagonist Rolfe, we meet a soldier who has finally found some stability, only to have it shaken to its very core as the pawn in a criminal heist. And with the country at war once again, audiences were sure to sympathize with a man who fought to defend it on his quest to uncover the goons responsible for trying to ruin him.

Rolfe's journey takes him to Tijuana, Mexico, where he discovers the thieves are gathering. Once there, Rolfe turns to the one man he knows he can count on, the only other person who knows what he's been through: the friend who saved his life during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

This is a portion of the human toll during the Battle of Iwo Jima:

"The power of the invasion armada in the background stands out in ironic contrast with the scene on the Iwo Jima beachhead. Marines of the Third division, covered with their ponchos, lie on the beach they gave their lives to win. The battle still rages miles away." Via National Park Service archives, via Wikimedia Commons.

Speaking of Mexico, the country and its emigrants to the United States were also in the news in 1952. Less than a year earlier, the LAPD was rocked by the "Bloody Christmas" scandal in which police officers severely brutalized five Latinos and two white men. The incident caused a storm in the Mexican-American community, which lobbied for a proper investigation.

The corruption of LAPD officers and officials during that era is well documented, and the incident was immortalized in the 1997 film "L.A. Confidential."

Also riling Mexican-Americans that year was the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act that set quotas on the number of immigrants from certain countries and "greatly expanded the grounds on which un-naturalized aliens could be expelled from the country," according to author David Gutierrez in his book, "Walls And Mirrors."

In this photo, a group of undocumented Mexican migrant workers awaits deportation in 1950:

"Kansas City Confidential" came out seven years before another noir thriller set in Mexico: Orson Welles' masterful "Touch of Evil," in which Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh venture south of the border in this memorable opening tracking shot, a staple of film-school curriculums around the world:

"Kansas City Confidential" also stars Coleen Gray, Lee Van Cleef, Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef playing Tony Romano. Incidentally, a real-life Tony Romano sued the producers of the film for $600,000 for the "public scorn and ridicule" he suffered as the result of being portrayed as a gangster. The outcome of the lawsuit is unknown.

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No, Lee Van Cleef played the character named Tony Romano. I'm assuming it was this Tony Romano who sued.


M. Bouffant, thanks for spotting that mistake. It has been corrected.