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Ben Mankiewicz - TCM Host
Remind Me

Ben's Top Pick for March

Kansas City Confidential (1952) - March 10

Since TCM launched Noir Alley last year with The Czar of Noir Eddie Mueller, the reaction I've heard has been two-fold. One, our audience craves noir the way a two-bit junkie rat needs a score. Clearly, it's hard to be drawn to classic movies without simultaneously being attracted to noir. Noir is classic Hollywood's mistress. And you just can't say no to her.

But then there's the second reaction. Since its inception, Noir Alley has aired at 10am ET on Sundays, so 7am on the coast. Because nothing goes with family, church and brunch quite like murder, duplicity and betrayal.

So this month, we're making a change, you see? We're keeping Noir Alley at 10am Sunday, but we're adding a showing Saturday night at Midnight, a time more suitable for cops on the take, criminals on the make, and gamblers groaning about the rake.

In honor of our double shot of noir, TCM is dedicating Saturday night on March 10 to a double feature of noir films before Noir Alley premieres at its new time. From this night, my month's pick is Kansas City Confidential, a sordid tale of revenge, greed, double dealing and murder. It's about designing a perfect crime--a bank heist involving three crooks already wanted by the cops. But the twist is a beaut. They each wear masks, so aside from the mastermind who put the robbery together, nobody knows his partners in crime. And if you don't know names or faces, you can't sell anybody down the river.

That's where John Payne comes in. He's neither cop nor criminal. He's just the unlucky sap driving a florist's delivery truck - and the police think he's the getaway driver. Wrong place, wrong time and wrong end of a cop's fist trying to beat a confession out of him.

Payne ends up in Mexico trying to find the real thieves, played by a trio of reliable movie thugs. Reliable isn't strong enough. If you needed cinematic sinners, you couldn't do any better than Lee Van Cleef, Neville Brand and Jack Elam. The movie gets pretty violent for 1952 and excessively sweaty for any era. Payne, Van Cleef, Brand and Elam sweat so much, I stopped the movie to shower before the third act.

The New York Times didn't pay much heed to the perspiration, but the Times took issue with the persistent violence. "An uncommon lot of face slapping, stomach punching and kicking in the groin," wrote the Times.

Director Phil Karlson, who made a string of semi-documentary noirs in the '50s, dismissed all the criticism, as he should have. "The film was so far ahead of itself," said Karlson, "that I say these pictures have been copied and recopied so many times."

The Times also savaged Kansas City Confidential for its implication that police officers might be corrupt and abusive. Within a decade and a half, police corruption had been exposed in cities and towns all over the country--and rogue cops had become its own subgenre of movies.

I guess times change - they sure do for Noir Alley, now with an additional screening at midnight Saturday, followed by the encore Sunday morning, because revenge, like orange juice, is a drink best served cold.

by Ben Mankiewicz