Involving a pair of kidnappings in the 1934 criminal underworld, Kansas City places us in a world with a distinct atmosphere where Jazz is plentiful and the feeling that anything can happen is around every corner. Robert Altman crafts a distinctive world surrounding the 1930’s Jazz scene. And does an excellent job with music that represents the specific era in American life. The clothes, language, cars, building structures, and mannerisms, are all period and finely manicured to an authentic detail and touch.
Much like Altman did in McCabe And Mrs. Miller, he creates a world of immense size and scope, placing us in something dream-like yet still feeling grounded. Blondie O’Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) takes matters into her own hands by kidnapping the wife (Miranda Richardson) of a political boss named Henry Stilton (Michael Murphy). She does this in response to her own husband, petty thief Johnny, being kidnapped by local gangster Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte).
Johnny gets fingered by his partner, who Seldom caught up with. And in addition to being caught by Seldom’s men, he does so while still having black face on, used in the crime. Blondie hopes that her dire actions will lead to Stilton being sprung to action to free her lowlife of a husband. Blondie plans on utilizing the information that Mrs. Stilton is addicted to laudanum to blackmail her husband to ensure she gets her husband back in one piece. We see her try to negotiate with Seldom which ends in her being thrown out of the lounge after striking him in anger.
Altman does a wonderful job filling these scenes in with extraordinary live music performances, and the detail of the bar, tables, and other associating accouterments. Once Stilton is notified of his wife’s kidnapping we see the political wheels start shifting in motion as to how people can take advantage of the situation. As the two women spend more and more time together they grow closer and more fond of one another.
There is an escalating feeling from the very start to the end that there is something amiss or off about Mrs. Stilton, or that she is hiding something. One of the harshest scenes in the film involves an assault, which can be seen going on in the background while Seldom carries on a very casual conversation with the driver of the car. We see the gang of men eventually walk away as a few stray dogs sniff at and surround the body.
Another big story-line is the political machine of 1930’s metropolitan cities and the corruption involved regarding electing the “right” candidates. This is symbolized mostly through Johnny Flynn played wonderfully by the versatile Steve Buscemi. Crime and democracy used to go hand in hand in this country, and it’s beautifully shown on display by Altman here, in a way that reminds us where we’ve come from.
Kansas City does a great job of showing the environment of America and the ways we’ve changed and haven’t changed. Things have been updated and changed and made to be civilized when it comes to politics. But when you strip away that civility, it’s basically mob mentality. Kansas City captures the infrastructure of 1930’s America through the prism of crime, politics, jazz, and all of the elements that made up life at that time.
These characters are all entangled in elements beyond their control, all the while acting otherwise. And really that’s true of all of us living in civilization at any time, and Altman captures those sentiments wonderfully throughout the film. Things end up tragic, and like most Altman pictures it really sneaks up on you. You don’t see it coming. I didn’t anyway, and it’s a shocking conclusion to close out things in 1930’s Kansas City. Per usual for Altman, in this film the focus is on the atmosphere and tone of the place in which the story takes place, and how that location alters and affects those around it.
Capturing this kind of mood and tone so specific is so rare now in modern films, and I long for that kind of detail to return to the cinema. Kansas City takes a bare bones genre plot of a crime film, and turns it into something that feels fresh, original, and unpredictable. There’s a beautiful and natural ease of pace that Altman injects into his films that allow them to blossom at their own steady course. They reveal themselves slowly as they play, showing you something you didn’t know you were looking for.