Edited by Solomon on 8/4/2015, 4:24 am
"Kansas City" (1996) is a good neo-noir that I recommend, but most viewers will have to contend with the irascible and grating lead character played by Jennifer Jason Leigh.
The movie has a number of strong points. One of them is the Harry Belafonte character who has rich dialog. He's an underworld figure who owns a dive in which the famous 1930s Kansas City jazz is performed. He can be and is brutal toward those who cross him. But before the climactic violence, he is heard ruminating and expounding pointedly on such subjects as ofays and their greed. This performance is alone worth the price of admission.
Then there is the visual feast and especially the feeling that this imparts of being there in the heyday of Kansas City jazz to "see" and "hear" the greats perform in the setting of the mid-1930s in a nightclub where black people dance, gamble and where youngsters and those of lesser means can sit up in a balcony and take in the music. The moment that we hear "Tickle Toe", Lester Young's composition, our imaginations kick in and we are there. We can hear all this material at any time played by the original artists, and I've listened to this particular music countless times. But it's still great fun to see skilled contemporary musicians recreate the spirit of the players of that time and their music. At one point we view the contrast between the Illinois Jacquet and Lester Young styles in a battle of the saxes. At all times we see the musicians playing head arrangements without written music. We see stand-ins for Mary Lou Williams, Bill Basie, Jo Jones and Walter Page.
Another strong point is the production and set design. Yet another is the way in which the movie depicts the black people, the black area of town, the white attitudes, and the political vote-buying and violence of the time. All of this felt genuine. It was neither condescending nor preachy nor romanticized. It didn't go to excess.
The ending of the story is a strong point. Without revealing it, I will only say that an unhappy ending of the type shown makes a great deal of sense if one thinks about it. The ending depends critically on the character arc of the kidnapped Miranda Richardson and what she has to contend with. She does not have much explicit dialog to explain herself, but she does a marvelous job in the role nonetheless.
The story itself is intriguing. Leigh's husband (Dermot Mulroney) has robbed a gambler en route to Belafonte's club for an annual event. Belafonte has found out, captured Mulroney and is pondering the precise kind of brutality that will be the fate of Mulroney. Leigh kidnaps the wife (Miranda Richardson) of a big political honcho (Michael Murphy) who is on his way to Washington by way of Chicago. She wants him to exert pressure to free Mulroney from Belafonte. As is typical with an Altman movie, disparate pieces come together as the movie proceeds.
Richardson gives a nicely-shaded performance as a childless woman hooked on laudanum. The smaller parts are filled out quite well. It is the performance of Leigh in the lead that may turn off many viewers, and one has to overcome this obstacle in order to accept the story. Leigh wears heavy white powder makeup, and she will go peroxide blonde later in the film. This is to emulate Jean Harlow. She acts and talks tough, which is her idea of imitating her idol, Jean Harlow. She gets very upset when Richardson says that Harlow looks cheap in "Hold Your Man". For most of the picture, she's bossy, irritating and snarling. But this is because she knows that the situation for her husband is desperate, she has little leverage, and she has to keep Richardson in line and pressure the big-wigs.
I didn't find it all that difficult to go with the flow once I understood Leigh's character. How else could she have played it? She couldn't play it as being sweet and gentle, or else she wouldn't have come up with a kidnapping and be waving a gun. She couldn't play it as intrinsically mean, murderous and nasty because her whole character is deeply allied with her husband. She had to play it as someone in a desperate corner who as one of the powerless masses has to rise to the occasion. Leigh's character has to imagine herself as a tough Harlow heroine.