KC Confidential is close to a film noir, but I take issue with that classification. It’s too simple. Shadows, violence and the 40s-50s do not = noir. First, major tropes are missing (femme fatale, true high contrast cinematography). Second, it has much less of the dystopic, fatalist approach as most of the mid-late period classic noirs. Third, it’s detective, while adhering to many standards of that era, is not really investigating as much as seeking revenge. I’m of the opinion that noir is a much smaller classification than many popular theories, including Paul Schrader’s exhaustive catalog in his Notes on Film Noir.
That aside, this suspenseful revenge thriller is very well conceived by director Phil Karlson. Karlson effectively tells much of the story through a quiet, observational camera. Jack Elam shines as one of three nervous criminals waiting for the payout from a daring heist. His Pete Harris is sweaty, twitching and dead the moment we see him. It’s a shame he’s killed off, because he’s the most entertaining character to watch in the film.
KC Confidential is the type of film that gives the audience much more information than the characters within the movie have. We know who the mastermind is. We know who is playing whom. It’s this tactic by Karlson and screenwriters George Bruce and Harry Essex that actually allows the film to click along. The alternate route – full concealment – would quickly bog the converging plot points into convolution. There is still plenty of suspense, which exists because of the structure, much more in the how and the when than the who and the what.
One of the highlights of KC Confidential is how quickly and effectively the early heist is set up. Karlson wastes little time in over-description. A shot of a map layout gives us early exposition. As Tim Foster (the always excellent Preston Foster) recruits his group of low-lifes Karlson really only needs one scene to establish Tim’s technique, and then quickly moves into montage to push the narrative along. The heist itself is no Rififi. It takes all of about 3 minutes, which is appropriate. It’s close to real-time, but more importantly, it’s representative of the lack of witness view. Karlson, Bruce and Essex all fully realize that the robbery is not the dramatic highlight of the film, and that, in fact, it’s not complex to be. Were this same sequence to be shot more atmospherically with a series of angles indicating the unsuspecting policemen and public and the nervousness of the thieves it would feel false one the job was completed with such ease.