John Payne (centre) gets the shakedown from Kansas City police. Image: Mubi

Warning: Spoilers abound.

We may never know how many “heroes” throughout history were actually criminals, because you know the old adage: Steal your wealth, but buy Respectability.

These folks are celebrated in song, literature, and the naming of public buildings, but what if some of them were working against the system they claimed to uphold?

Look at the 1952 film noir, Kansas City Confidential (1952). This is a mean, violent film about a bank heist, a bystander wrongly accused, and a stunning double-cross.

The film opens with a man (Preston Foster) in an office, scrutinizing the activity surrounding the bank across the street. It’s 10:00 a.m., and the bank is preparing to open. Foster uses a stopwatch to time everything that Goes On, such as the arrival of a florist delivery van, the unlocking of the bank doors, and the security guards who arrive with bags o’ cash.

Foster has a printed-out blueprint of this busy street, on which he notes all the goings-on. This Attention to Detail is necessary when planning a robbery in Broad Daylight.

The actual heist will be be carried out by three criminals, all Known To Police, but not to each other. Each man is hired separately and is given a mask to disguise himself from witnesses and his accomplices. Only Foster knows who everyone is.

Later, after the Ruckus has died down, the four men will meet in Mexico to split the dough.

But Foster’s scheme is even more devious. Turns out he’s a former high-ranking police officer who wants to Get Even after being Fired. He’ll plan the robbery, then “solve” it to get his job back – and receive a cool $300,000 in reward money.

He’ll also be seen as a Hero.

Creepy robber masks. Image: Twitter

It’s a clever scenario, but we all know there wouldn’t be a movie if things didn’t go Wrong. What initially appears to be a lucky break for Foster turns out to be his undoing.

The robbers’ Get-Away vehicle is a fake delivery van, similar to the real one from the florist next to the bank. Naturally, witnesses confuse the two vans, and police arrest the poor schmuck driving the legit vehicle (John Payne).

Now, Payne is not an innocent man, although he’s innocent as far as the robbery is concerned, and he’s determined to Clear His Name. His shady contacts tell him about the gang’s rendezvous in Mexico and he Sets Off in Pursuit.

Although we’re giving away the end of this film, we won’t disclose the Middle, which is packed with didn’t-see-that-coming plot twists. After much beating-up and double-crossing, we arrive at the scene where Foster dies a hero’s death.

Foster alerts police and gives them the identities his fellow bank robbers – under the guise of Being A Good Citizen.

Also, he’s been shot. He’s dying and knows it.

But he has two things to protect: his daughter (Coleen Gray), and his reputation, although it’s unclear which is more important.

No matter! Even in his weakened state, Foster has the presence of mind to take credit for “solving” the bank robbery. In so doing, he ensures his daughter will inherit the $300,000 reward money. He also tells police that Payne is innocent in this matter.

And don’t forget his heroic legacy. Here’s a man who worked for the Public Good even though he no longer carried a badge. Whatta swell guy.

Payne falls in love with Coleen Gray. Image: IMDb

Kansas City Confidential received mixed reviews when first released. Variety said it had “a grim atmosphere that develops momentum”, while New York Times’s Bosley Crowther, unsurprisingly, called it a “measly film”.¹

The striking thing about this film is how modern it feels; director Phil Karlson keeps us on edge with unusual camera angles and aggressive close-ups. Although we know the plot resolution will meet 1952 movie standards (more or less), he places us in an environment where anything can happen.

The film was made by Associated Players and Producers and released through United Artists. While Associated never become a major Hollywood Player, it did produce this legendary noir, one that, they say, inspired Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992).

Kansas City Confidential is a film that keeps finding new audiences. We hope you’ll get the chance to discover it, too.


Kansas City Confidential: starring John Payne, Coleen Gray, Preston Foster. Directed by Phil Karlson. Written by George Bruce & Harry Essex. Associated Players and Producers, 1952, B&W, 99 mins.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

24 Comment on “Criminal Masterminds Who Die as Heroes

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