Kansas City Confidential: The 1952 Noir Film Said to Inspire Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs

I saw a screening of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained at the New Beverly Cinema, the Los Angeles theater he owns. It was preceded by a solid half-hour of trailers for the various western and exploitation pictures that inspired it, from Take a Hard Ride to Mandingo. Even if you’ve only seen two or three Quentin Tarantino movies, you know that he not only uses cinema as his medium, but as his content as well. Any interview with the man — especially his first appearance on Charlie Rose in 1994, or for that matter, his most recent appearance last December — reveals that no living director has a more enthusiastic obsession with film itself. This gets him adapting, reimagining, transposing, paying all kinds of homage, and (alas, the inevitable term) remixing whenever he gets creating.

He makes his movies, in other words, by drawing upon his vast experience of watching movies — usually lurid genre pictures, from the beloved to the obscure, the in-their-way-masterful to the borderline incompetent. What a fun lesson in film history it would make to watch a similar series of source-material trailers before every Tarantino movie.

Most fans would expect such a pre-show for Reservoir Dogs, his 1992 heist-gone-wrong debut feature, to include Ringo Lam’s City on Fire, which stars Chow Yun-fat as an undercover cop embedded in a gang of thieves. It would also have Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, since Tarantino has said of Reservoir Dogs, “I did think of it as my Killing, my take on that kind of heist movie.” Should Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential also make it in? You can watch the complete 1952 noir crime picture, now in the public domain, and decide for yourself. Following the aftermath of a gang’s armored-truck heist, the film has received attention as a possible influence on Reservoir Dogs. “Mr. Karlson’s filmmaking has few of the standard noir flourishes: the dark and brooding shadows, the bizarrely canted camera angles,” writes New York Times critic Dave Kehr. “Instead he works through gigantic close-ups and an unusually visceral treatment of bare-knuckle violence. With refinements, he would continue to pursue this theme (revenge) and this style, right up through his creative resurgence in the ’70s: Ben (1972), Walking Tall (1973) and Framed (1975).” From fifties revenge crime noir to seventies revenge exploitation: talk about Tarantino’s kind of filmmaker.

Kansas City Confidential appears in our collection of 500 Free Movies Online.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

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