Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Kiss of Death is an effective but slightly dated film noir better known than most for two salient factors: The debut of actor Richard Widmark as an irresistibly venal killer, and some ruthlessly brutal violence that made the film notably notorious on its release in 1947. The violence might seem less disturbing if Widmark's sadistic, chortling Tommy Udo wasn't perpetrating it; Udo's manic behavior and horrible laugh inspired chills in theaters across America.
Thief Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) is wounded and caught while escaping from a jewelry store holdup. Being sent up the river for a stiff sentence, he turns down an offer to become an informer for Assistant District Attorney Louie DeAngelo. But after three years behind bars tragedy strikes Nick's family and he changes his mind. Nick starts up again with his two daughters and new wife Nettie (Coleen Gray) but faces even greater danger: DeAngelo wants him to testify against Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), a nasty killer with a penchant for torturing squealers.
In 1947 20th Fox had its own house brand in films noir. It was their House on 92nd Street that initiated the practice of using real locations and non-actors, an interesting development that paralleled Neorealism in Italy. Except for its violent ending, Kiss of Death is filmed entirely on the streets of New York City and environs, with Norbert Brodine's moody photograpy kicking up an expressionist mood equal to what was being achieved on soundstages back in California.
As a crime story Kiss of Death has two disadvantages. First, its honorable district attorney keeps his word about protecting informants and their families, a situation we'd like to believe but really don't any more. Louie DeAngelo is a tough negotiator but as soon as he sees Bianco's sweet little girls we know he's basically become one of the family. When Nick is in trouble, Louie shares it. It's much easier to believe that one of DeAngelo's detectives would purposely spill the beans about Nick just to see him suffer. As a worst-case scenario we have 1974's excellent The Friends of Eddie Coyle, in which Robert Mitchum's put-upon squealer is double- and triple- crossed by ambitious investigators and then set up for execution by a more 'useful' stoolie.
But Kiss of Death plays it straight down the line. With plenty of Catholic imagery in tow, we see Nick Bianco take his punishment and then continue to suffer a harrowing ordeal. He gets horrible news from home and later sees all he cares for threatened by a slippery criminal who boasts of his revenge in sarcastic tones: "Yeah, you and me and your kids and your wife, we're all going to play together."
Richard Widmark was a highly educated college teacher- turned Broadway actor known for light roles on the stage. Darryl Zanuck outfitted him with a creepy wig that makes him look a bit like Henry Hull in The WereWolf of London. Tommy Udo's eyes gleam and his lips moisten when he prattles on about gouging a guard's eyes out, and he goes manic when calling for gore at a boxing match. His distinctive laugh cemented his place in screen history. Widmark said that he sometimes laughed the same way in harmless fun, but by exaggerating a bit it came out sounding totally depraved. Film noir had its fair share of sicko sadists at the time (note Hume Cronyn's torturer in Brute Force) but Tommy Udo takes the cake. Discovering that a frail old lady has attempted to trick him, he ties her to her wheelchair and rolls her down a steep set of stairs. 1
"Pushing the old lady down the stairs" became the scene to reference when shocked columnists and commentators decried the growing brutality and sadism on movie screens. Post-war filmmakers were getting away with a lot more murder than usual, for reasons that are unclear: It's possible that the censors were less sensitive to violence after the experience of the war. The most noted denouncement of these pictures came from director Frank Capra. In his autobiography he offers a pale argument that these sick movies were a bad thing, and that people really needed the uplift of his kind of storytelling. It's interesting that most of Capra's 'upllifting' entertainments pose an Evil alternative to his happy themes - ignominious suicide (Meet John Doe) is typical, but his masterpiece It's a Wonderful Life becomes profound only when George Bailey is threatened by an alternate nightmare noir vision of his existence.
The law cannot stop Tommy Udo so Nick Bianco puts himself directly in harm's way to remove the threat to his family, even if it means dying in the process. (spoiler) Against DeAngelo's orders, Bianco offers himself as a target to the deranged Udo, so the cops can arrest him with a gun in his hand. The ending scene is handled like a crucifixion, with Nick atoning for his own crimes, those of his father, and even the mortal sin committed by his first wife. (bigger spoiler) That mood is broken with a jaw-droppingly wrong ending, however. Darryl Zanuck green-lit and finished noirs like this one and Thieves' Highway, and then spoiled their downbeat endings with unconvincing, last minute changes. (Spoiler, spoiler, honest) Nick Bianco is shot at least four times point blank with a .45 automatic. The picture shows him being rolled into an ambulance, eyes shut, but his wife's farewell narration tells us that he comes out of it okay: "... And I got what I wanted. I got Nick." Kiss of Death was an "A" picture and Zanuck (or the Fox board in New York) had too much riding on it to send patrons out thinking negative thoughts. With film noir, the freedom to luxuriate in morbidity was more often observed in low-budget efforts from small independent studios.
Victor Mature was often more like a walking side of beef than an actor, but he's okay under Henry Hathaway's careful direction. Nick Bianco is a sympathetic character and a memorable crook with integrity. Brian Donlevy is dependably monotone but also comes out in the plus column. Fox starlet Coleen Gray never made top star status but appeared in scores of memorable parts, usually as women men can't forget: Red River, The Sleeping City, The Killing. Her big starring role is a promising-sounding title part in the unfortunate horror groaner The Leech Woman. Also making a good impact are Taylor Holmes as a corrupt lawyer and Millard Mitchell as a detective. Karl Malden is visible for only a few moments as a detective sergeant. His role must have been cut down during editorial. A blonde named Temple Texas shows off a naughty smile in a short bit part, at least until Tommy Udo sends her packing.
Fox's DVD of Kiss of Death looks splendid in rich B&W, with Brodine's cinematography of all those grimy New York locations a standout. Alain Silver and Jim Ursini are becoming ubiquitous on these noir commentaries but there are few better qualified when it comes to facts and analysis. Both are impressed by a scene in which Udo and Bianco are obviously visiting a house of prostitution.
The movie's hard-sell trailer shows most of the violent action in the film but doesn't bill Richard Widmark along with the stars. Widmark would be a name above the title from his next feature forward.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Kiss of Death rates:
Supplements: Trailer, commentary by James Ursini and Alain Silver
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 30, 2005
1. The staircase victim is actually noted stage actress Mildred Dunnock in her third movie. She's supposed to be a fragile 70 years old, but Dunnock was 47 at the time.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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