Arrow Video: Kansas City (1996) - Reviewed

In 1973 Kansas City, Missouri born legendary filmmaker unveiled his masterful modern-day set film-noir The Long Goodbye chronicling the criminal underworld visited upon by Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould).  A crime thriller with many twists and turns ahead, the film cemented Altman’s status as one of the pioneers of neo-noir, transposing the 1950s set story to the then-modern day 1970s.  Over twenty years later Mr. Altman would revisit the noir genre again, this time reeling the clock back to the 1930s in one of the director’s most nostalgia-driven pieces, the 1996 semi-autobiographical period noir Kansas City. 

Loosely based on a true story about a 1933 kidnapping and ransom incident involving the city’s chief manager, the ensemble crime drama/musical revue of sorts follows Blondie O’Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) desperately trying to rescue her deadbeat husband Johnny (Dermot Mulroney) from local gangster and Jazz club manager Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte).  Out of options, Blondie kidnaps laudanum-addict Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson) in an attempt to persuade her political husband Henry Stilton (Altman regular Michael Murphy) to cajole Seldom Seen into freeing her husband.

A ‘30s Depression-era set noir wrapped in a nostalgia piece chronicling Altman’s own upbringing in Kansas City, Missouri is an atmospheric, lush noir/musical characterized by the incorporation of real Jazz musicians into the Hey-Hey Club scenes, creating arguably the director’s most musical ensemble piece since Nashville.  Unlike some of Altman’s more challenging cross-cutting ensemble pieces with the overlapping dialogue and interlocking stories, Kansas City is fairly straightforward save for when the film loses itself in the wonderful music of the Hey-Hey Club.  At times the narrative thrust stops entirely for the music though the numbers are so captivating we don’t mind when Altman pumps the brakes to enjoy the music.

Jennifer Jason Leigh, just to get it out of the way, is one of the great actresses of our generation and her role as riff raff yet devoted Blondie echoes her rough-around-the-edges prostitute in the infamous Last Exit to Brooklyn.  Miranda Richardson also presents a surprising turn as a drug addict with more than a few secrets of her own.  Arguably stealing the show is Harry Belafonte as the gangster who reportedly improvised much of his own dialogue to pitch perfect effect.  An Altman regular himself, watching him in this film begs the question why he never worked with Martin Scorsese as his mobster exudes rich character and charm but also implacable danger.

Visually the film is a sumptuous period piece with acute attention to detail by production designer Stephen Altman and Oliver Stapleton’s 35mm cinematography adds a soft, warm glow to the Jazz club and interior decorum of the 30s sets.  Given just how much of the film takes place in the Jazz club, the film doesn’t contain a conventional score and our emotional responses are offset by the straight flow of Kansas City Jazz music.  Could there really be any other soundtrack for this film but the Jazz music so deeply infused within the city’s character?

Nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the big budgeted period noir epic opened to modest business despite receiving rave reviews and for years the film was filed away as one of the director’s more underrated offerings.  Making it’s blu-ray debut through Arrow Video, Altman fans can now dive back into the netherworld of 1934 Kansas City, a place rich with culture and music but also characterized by corruption and petty criminals trying to get a piece of the pie.  Not one of Altman’s strongest but certainly the one borne out of the director’s fondest memories of his youth.  It’s quiet charm sticks with you well after the picture has finished.

--Andrew Kotwicki