In the 1950’s film director Phil Karlson put out a series of solid crime dramas including, “Scandal Sheet,” “Five Against the House,” “Tight Spot,” “The Phenix City Story” and two works with John Payne, “Kansas City Confidential” and “99 River Street.” Karlson made his way up from Poverty Row working with the Dead End Kids (Live Wires and Bowery Bombshell) and Charlie Chan (Dark Alibi) to working on “B” features for the big Hollywood studios. In the 1960’s Karlson worked with Elvis (Kid Galahad), Glenn Ford (A Time for Killing), also a couple of Dean Martin’s Matt Helm films before hitting box office big time with the south’s version of Harry Callahan, “Walking Tall,” the story of Buford Pusser, a Southern lawman willing to break the law in order to fight injustice.
Phil Karlson made a string of crime films in the 1950’s that few could equal in volume and quality. One of his earliest and best is 1952’s “Kansas City Confidential,” a hard fisted noir thriller that never lets up in tension for its entire running time. Joe Rolfe (John Payne), is an ex-con, now gone straight, working as a florist delivery driver who is set up to take the fall for a $1.2 million bank robbery. The gang of four split up until the heat is off with plans to meet in Mexico where the money will be divided up. Through sheer perseverance, Rolfe pursues the robbers in order to clear his name; however, but after the death of one of the crooks, shot by the police, he decides to muscle himself in on a share of the money.
The film is shot in a straight forward style with a grittiness and hard hitting violence, rare for its time. It also has the good fortune to have three of the 1950’s nastiest looking criminal character actors, Jack Elam, Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef in the kind of roles they do best. Heading up the gang is Preston Foster, who plays Tim Foster, an ex-cop, gone bad, contemptuous that after twenty years on the force, his pension is so small. His plan included having his three heavies wear face masks at all times when they meet obscuring their identities from one another, lessening the chances one will squeal on the other if they should get caught by the law. Pete Harris (Jack Elam) is first, a nervous slimy looking gun happy thug. Next is borderline psychotic, the stone faced Boyd Kane (Neville Brand) and the last member is Tony Romano portrayed by the snake like Lee Van Cleef. It’s a rogue’s gallery of menacing ugliness.
The heist goes off as planned except that the cops pick up Rolfe as part of the gang. The truck used by the robbers was an exact replicate of Rolfe’s flower delivery truck and the police quickly come to the conclusion he was in on the job. He is eventually proven innocent however, not before one sadistic cop applies third degree tactics for three straight days in an effort to beat the “truth” out of him. Rolfe is enraged that he has been unknowingly used as a sap in the robbery. He sets out to find the criminals and seek revenge. He finds them in Mexico and assumes the identity of one of Pete Harris, after he is shot dead by Mexican police. With other gang members unaware Harris is dead, Rolfe manages to works his way into the gang posing as the dead gang member. However, it becomes complicated with the arrival of the gang leader, along with a woman, Helen (Coleen Gray), with who Rolfe begins a relationship. Helen, it turns out, is the gang leader’s daughter.
“Kansas City Confidential” was one of the most brutal films to come out of the U.S. at the time and not surprisingly met with some censorship problems. It also met with wicked condemnation from critics including The New York Times’ Bosley Crowthers whose review consisted of nothing but complaining about the seedy characters and the violence. Crowthers also found it extremely hard to swallow that there could ever be a police officer who would be so brutally sadistic in attempting to coerce a confession out of a suspect. “There is an obvious and sickening implication,” he writes,” that the Kansas City police are not only rough when they capture a suspect, but they exercise a wicked ‘third degree.’ There is one character in this little run-down, supposedly a plainclothes cop, who is as nasty and sadistic in behavior as the hero or any of the thugs. This, of course, does not lend a climate of hope or moral uplift to the film.”
The “one character” who is “supposedly a plainclothes cop” is no doubt a police officer. Mr. Crowthers inability to admit that this type of behavior sometimes exist is extraordinarily quaint.
John Payne who transitioned himself, career wise, from Mr. Nice Guy on screen played a similar role the following year in “99 River Street,” and again in “Hell’s Island,” two other edgy Karlson crime films and suitable follow ups to this film.
Phil Karlson made his way up from Poverty Row where he worked on the cheapest of low budget fare like “The Shanghi Cobra” and “Dark Alibi,” two Charlie Chan mysteries, and the Bowery Boys epics “Live Wires” and “Bowery Bombshell.” He was just moving into his golden age period with a series of films in the 1950’s that would cement his reputation as a fixture of classic low budget crime films. His works during this period included, “Scandal Sheet,” “99 River Street,” “Tight Spot,” “Five Against the House,” “The Phenix City Story” and “The Brothers Rico.” He would also direct the two part TV premiere episodes, later combined and released in movie theaters, called “The Scarface Mob” from the TV show, “The Untouchables.”
Karlson’s later work would vary in quality ranging from the soap opera like “The Young Doctors” with an eclectic cast that included Dick Clark and Aline McMahon, an Elvis Presley remake of “Kid Galahad,” two Matt Helm films, “The Silencers” and “The Wrecking Crew” featuring Dean Martin, the odd ball creepy horror fest about a young boy and his pet rat, “Ben” (sequel to Willard) and the red neck law and order anthem of the 1970’s, “Walking Tall.”
What I do not understand is why this film is so little known today. Director Phil Karlson put together a terrific little crime thriller. Based on a Broadway play called “Dead Pigeon” by Lenard Kantor, with a screenplay by William Bowers, “Tight Spot” stars Ginger Rogers, Edward G. Robinson and Brian Keith. Playwright Kantor used as inspiration for his play the true life incident of Senator Estes Kefauver’s strategy in intimidating Virginia Hill to testify against Bugsy Siegel.
The film shows its theatrical roots by being about 90% confined to a hotel room where Sherry Conley (Rogers) a convict is being held in protective custody as a witness in the exportation trial of a mob leader named Costain (Lorne Greene). Detective Vince Striker (Keith) has been assigned to guard Conley along with women’s prison matron, Willoughby (Katherine Anderson). Lloyd Hallet (Robinson), the D.A. is trying to convince the hard case Conley to testify against Mafia chief Costain. She is their last chance to get him after their star witness was gunned down on the courthouse steps in the first scenes in the film. Conley is an uncooperative hard case who keeps refusing to testify until Willoughby is killed by one of Costain’s henchmen. Striker who it turns out, is a crooked cop informing for Costain sets up Conley to be killed by leaving a bathroom window open for one of Costain’s gunmen to enter and kill Conley. Nervous and also realizing that during their time together he has feelings now for Conley, Striker burst into the bedroom as the assassin is entering killing the gunman but getting shot himself. Though too old for the role, Ginger Rogers comes off terrific as the tough wrongly convicted convict Sherry Conley. Edward G. Robinson is his usual steady self, giving a fine performance, as do Brian Keith and Lorne Greene, old Pa Cartwright himself, playing the mob leader on the verge of exportation. Phil Karlson, one of the “B” movie kings, keeps the film moving nicely though it does bog done a bit with too much dialogue at some points, but overall, this is a sharply written well acted and directed movie that should be seen by more folks. The film was released on VHS years ago but has not been released on DVD release. Try to catch it the next time it is on TCM.