Noir is so often about the grisly jaws of fate locking themselves around the main character and Joe Rolfe (John Payne) of Phil Karlson’s “Kansas City Confidential” is no different. Those jaws get ahold of him pretty good. The difference, however, is that when they do, he slips out of them and turns the tables on fate, perhaps plartly because for all his baggage and orneriness the cruel world realizes it owes him one. He’s a floral deliveryman glimpsed in the opening scene, unwittingly being watched by Tim Foster (Preston Foster), an ominous, intelligent thug who has plans to rob an armored car with three ex-cons he knows he can enlist because their respective situations make it virtually impossible for them to say no. But Foster’s master touch is marking Joe as the involuntary patsy, making it seem as if the latter's delivery truck is the getaway car. And as Foster goes about putting his plan into place, Joe disappears from screen, a nice touch that underscores how Joe isn’t even aware of the plans being drawn against him.
Sure enough, when the job gets pulled and Foster and his gang get away, making haste for Mexico, Joe is down to the police precinct where Payne gives his character the air of fatalistic menace, like he knew it was coming all along, acting not incredulous at his arrest but irate. He would rather fight the cops then prove his innocence. Still, his innocence is eventually determined and Joe is released. But rather than simply ease back into his old life and wait for the other shoe to fall again, Joe decides to get his, going after the four men responsible, following them to points south and killing and assuming the identity of Peter Harris, played wonderfully by Jack Elam with sweaty, strewn hair and a sweaty face, who is one of those guys who just doesn't stand a chance when it is time to pay the piper.
Joe then tracks Foster and the other two, Boyd Kane (Neville Brand) and Tony Romano (Lee Van Cleef, marvelous), to the resort town of Barados. Foster has planned it so that he knows the other men but they don’t know him, and yet when he sees Joe rather than Harris, he knows trouble will emerge. And so it does, as each of these four men are not about to sit back and let someone else double cross them, leading to all manner of advance double crosses. There are so many re-arrangements of the upper hand that you start to see the end coming from, as they say, a mile away, and that is just fine. Because the ultimate twist becomes less about surprise than the decision that Foster has to make.
This is tied back to our fifth and final main character - Helen Foster (Coleen Gray), the daughter of our gang leader himself. She is an aspiring lawyer who has flown down to Barados to surprise her dad, only to wind up traveling alongside Joe and becoming smitten. If the film has a flaw, it is that film forgoes this meeting sequence. We are simply meant to assume their love is a given, which robs it of immediacy and makes it feel more like a story device. Even so, Helen herself never quite feels like a story device because, to the credit of the George Bruce/Harry Essex screenplay, she is fairly fleshed out.
She is an aspiring lawyer, meaning she has wits, and she uses those wits to aid Joe when he needs it. She also is only briefly kept in the dark about the truth involving Joe, allowed to ferret out what’s up early on, and not simply giving in or walking out. No, because Joe is set up as an innocent man her affection for him in light of what she learns still manages to make some sense. And so her decision to help Joe, and to enlist her father to help Joe, not knowing who her father really is, becomes the most affecting part of the film.
If Preston Foster exudes menace in the early going, he convincingly dials it back for many of the scenes in Mexico, often coming across like the jovial fisherman he claims to be. And even if you know all his deepest, darkest secrets, you still believe the love for his daughter is true. And keeping his dirty secret hidden from his daughter becomes paramount, more so even than who gets the money, though that still matters, and Foster finds himself forced to beg Joe for help.
And Joe’s decision to give that help stands out as something more than a requisite happy ending. The cruel world, after all, has finally shown favor and so he decides to pay it forward.