A scene from “Kansas City.” Contributed photo

Is the quirky, charismatic Robert Altman America’s greatest filmmaker, or at least holding firm in the top five? Depends on who you ask. Someone over 60 would be best. I would say he’s had his highlights as in “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and “M*A*S*H.”

Here he is, back in Maine this summer as Maine’s International Film Festival 2021 promises a variety of films to be shown this pandemic year in their scattered locations, and Altman has found a place.

Stalking out of the past is Altman’s and Frank Barhydt’s “Kansas City,” a jazzy melodrama of Altman’s 1934 hometown.

Altman’s “Kansas City” is a smoky, meandering, sweaty hunk of life in the Great Depression, with all of the requisite ingredients that made that era so favorable, and filled cinema history with a library of stories.

Altman and co-writer Barhydt’s fable, filmed in smoky brown tones by Oliver Stapleton, centers around a Max Sennet/Harold Lloyd-like kidnapping, less-than-breathtaking political corruption, and disorganized crime, all played out with a background of great jazz (Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins are here played by Joshua Redman and Craig Handy).

All of this is blended with gin, marked cards, bad and damaged women, gun smoke and dirty money.


In other words, all of the fun stuff that made that era red meat for Hollywood writers.

Six blocks from the river, Kansas City was a jewel in the basket of political boss Tom Pendergast, the man who took haberdasher-turned-senator Harry Truman and put him in the White House.

Altman’s story is pumped with jazz and gambling, prostitution and stuffed ballot boxes, and at the center of it all, Altman fills his screen with a parade of talent.

We slip into the backstreet Hey Hey Club, managed by the city’s Negro crime boss, “seldom seen” (Harry Belafonte, of all people) with his handy man bartender Johnny Flynn (Steve Buscemi) who runs the current election by fueling his customers with cheap whiskey, and enforces the rules with a bat. It’s a carnival of fools set to music.

The players include small-time thief Johnny O’Hara (a young Dermot Mulroney), so dumb he can’t wind a watch, even those he steals. The future is not his friend, as we will see.

Right smack in the middle is Johnny’s luckless wife, the fast talking Blondie O’Hara (a good Jennifer Jason Leigh in a strident delivery) who emerges with an imitation of Hollywood’s favorite blonde, Jean Harlow.


Leigh’s cartoonish role fuels the action, and starts all the balls rolling with a “kidnapping” of an FDR advisor’s (the always welcome Michael Murphy) laudanum addicted wife (a splendid Miranda Richardson).

When Johnny, in Al Jolson charcoal blackface, fumbles a holdup, he winds up a prisoner in the back room of the Hey Hey.

Michael George Murphy, always one of the best supporting actors in the business, is saddled with a suit, a homburg and little to say.

“Kansas City” entertains us with an ongoing sax duel between the ghosts of two great jazzmen.

If Altman were auditioning for a job, I would advise him to offer his “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” or the immortal “M*A*S*H” instead.

J.P. Devine of Waterville is a former stage and screen actor.

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