Robert Altman's jazz-scored film explores themes of love, crime, race, and politics in 1930s Kansas City. When Blondie O'Hara's husband, a petty thief, is captured by Seldom Seen and held ...
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Robert Altman's jazz-scored film explores themes of love, crime, race, and politics in 1930s Kansas City. When Blondie O'Hara's husband, a petty thief, is captured by Seldom Seen and held at the Hey Hey Club, she launches a desperate plan to release him. She kidnaps the wife of a powerful local politician in an attempt to blackmail him into using his connections to free Johnny. Despite this being election time, he risks exposure by putting the political machine into action to free Johnny and thereby save his wife. Mrs. Stilton, meanwhile, has befriended Blondie and is impressed by her love and devotion to Johnny, especially in contrast to her own loveless marriage. Written by
Tad Dibbern <DIBBERN_D@a1.mscf.upenn.edu>
A kidnapping and a robbery move the plot forward in a film that's less about plot than about cultural ambiance. "Kansas City" is mostly a cinematic expression of place and time. It's 1934, when gangsters and jazz ruled and Blacks and Whites went their separate ways.
Visuals are very dark. And though the film is in color, tints are muted, which conveys a nostalgic, sentimental mood. The thin plot takes place largely at night. And the plot alternates with dark interior scenes at the Hey Hey Club, a risqué, all-Black speakeasy where an all-Black band jives free-form jazz, and where illegal gambling fills the back rooms.
None of the characters are sympathetic. But I don't think they're supposed to be. They're archetypes, models of desperate people in desperate times. A gun-wielding gangster's girl named Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) wants to be like Jean Harlow. Mrs. Stilton (Miranda Richardson) is a wealthy, spaced-out politician's wife. Seldom Seen (based on a real-life person and played by Harry Belafonte) is the cigar smoking godfather who rules the dark, smoky Hey Hey Club with an iron fist and who likes to stand around giving lectures to people.
The script's dialogue is mostly subtext, with message directed less at other characters than at viewers. And, as in other Altman films, then-current politics dance around the edges of the seedy story. The overall tone mixes depression with desperation.
For me this is an easy film to judge. The characters and plot I cared for not at all. Jennifer Jason Leigh was painful to watch. And though the jazz is performed with great competence, its free-form, improvisational style is too contemporary to reflect the 1930s. On the other hand, Miranda Richardson gives a fine performance. Attention to detail in costumes, sets, props, and storefront exteriors make the film come alive with era realism. And lighting is absolutely terrific.
If you go into this movie expecting a deep story and well-constructed plot, you'll be disappointed. Absorb the overall texture of the film's visuals. "Kansas City" is a terrific visual portrait of a specific place at a specific time.
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