Robert Altman’s film Kansas City came near the end of his ‘90s comeback. Of course, Altman was best known for his extraordinary run of films in the 1970s starting with M*A*S*H*. The ‘80s were not the kindest period for him, but the birth of what is now called ‘the independent film movement’ had an impact on all filmmakers, and Altman was one who benefited since he was one of the originals. He often worked with studios, he started his own production company and even the studio films had a independent spirit.
The first of his ‘90s films to gain critical respect (though it was not a commercial success) was Vincent & Theo, his film about Vincent van Gogh and his brother. Then he made two of his very best and popular films—The Player and Short Cuts. The Player was a big hit, and that was just what Altman needed. These were followed the flop Prêt-à-Porter, and Kansas City.
Kansas City is a noir-ish film, a genre Altman occasionally dips into, as with The Long Goodbye. It’s set in Altman’s hometown, Kansas City, and you could make a case that it’s his Roma or Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, a film that shows something about the world of the director’s own childhood. Altman was nine years old in the period when the film is set. It’s a tale of kidnapping, the Kansas City jazz scene at the time, class, power and the political implications of everything that’s going on. It all springs off when two somewhat connected kidnappings take place (it’s partially based on a true incident, although part has been fictionalized.)
It has a really strong cast, including Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is really good as always. She plays Blondie O’Hara, the wife of one of the kidnap victims, a petty thief. O’Hara then carries out a kidnapping herself. Her victim is the wife of a politician who is connected to the gangster Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte), who is behind her husband’s kidnapping. Altman regular Michael Murphy plays the kidnapped husband, and Miranda Richardson is the kidnapped wife. Steve Buscemi puts in a good performance as a political fixer who is rounding up homeless people and derelicts to vote.
One of the big problems is that Altman shot the film, but then added in these long segments about the jazz clubs, which aren’t really connected to the film’s story, although Belafonte’s character is from that world. He also jumbles up the timeline a bit, while a more straightforward narrative might have worked better.
Leigh’s performance really centres the movie (she was also in Altman’s Short Cuts and the Altman produced Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle). She is a very versatile actress who can find a way into any part. Belafonte is a very underrated actor, and is very good in his part—it’s a shame that he gets so few roles. More Buscemi in anything is always good.
It’s a good Altman movie, though not one of his very best. I feel that having an additional writer always helps his films—when he’s working with other people’s material, maybe he is less protective of the script. He did have another writer, but its someone he had worked with very closely before several times (Frank Barhydt) so maybe it didn’t have that protective effect. Of course, there is also a lot of improvisation with his films, so the actors make a difference (it all depends on the project—for example, I would imagine that Elliot Gould did a lot of improvisation on The Long Goodbye, especially with the cat).
That’s said, it’s an interesting story and it’s well-shot. I can’t help but imagine how good Altman would have been as a director for the kind of long-format TV that’s being done today—Kansas City could have easily been a TV series, and it might have been better for it. Altman did do a lot of TV in the ’60s and dipped his toes back in the ’80s and ’90s but he would be very at home at Netflix or HBO if he was alive today.
The extras include the Altman commentary track from the old US DVD, a new appreciation from the critic Geoff Andrew, and other items that have been on other European DVD releases, such as a visual essay and introduction to the film from Luc Lagier, archival featurettes, EPK interviews with cast and crew, four theatrical trailers, TV spots, and an image gallery. In the first pressing there is new writing on the film from Dr. Nicolas Pillai, original press notes and an excerpt from the Altman on Altman book.