Please Note: The stills used here are taken from promotional materials and other sources, not the Blu-ray edition under review.
I am not sure what is more disturbing: James Cagney's performance as the sociopathic gangster Ralph Cotter in the 1950 film Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye or the fact that Phil Spector was allegedly watching the movie in his limo the night he shot Lana Clarkson. If life was going to imitate art, it's too bad Spector's evening didn't end the same way as Cotter's.
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was directed by Gordon Douglas (Robin and the 7 Hoods) and marked the end of Cagney's string of famous hoodlums. It's a doozy of a role to end that part of his career on. Cotter is a despicable human being, the antithesis of a romantic gangster. He cares nothing for his fellow man and never shies away from violence, yet his undeniable charisma and his ability to blend in with average citizens and get along as need be makes him even scarier than other homicidal gunmen. Cotter lacks the sadistic giggle and murderous gaze of, say, Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death. Rather, he is a friendly death trap who, like many a real-life abuser, needs little excuse to go off.
The basic plot for Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, adapted from a Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?) novel by screenwriter Harry Brown (Ocean's Eleven), is precipitated by Cotter's escape from a chain gang. The plan goes slightly wrong when the crook he was supposed to run off with is killed before he can get to the car. Seeing an opportunity, Cotter takes advantage of the grief of the dead man's sister (Barbara Payton, Only the Valiant) by commandeering the life she planned for her brother. Setting up shop in the small city where she lives, Cotter quickly takes over the town, blackmailing crooked cops (Ward Bond and Barton MacLane) and wooing a socialite (Helena Carter, Fort Worth) with a taste for bad boys. With each increasingly audacious scheme, Cotter appears unstoppable--that is until his comeuppance manifests in the last place he expected.
The story itself at times can be overcomplicated and unwieldy, but the fine cast, which also includes character actors Luther Adler as Cotter's slick lawyer and Steve Brodie as the getaway driver, keeps everything moving forward. Gordon Douglas has an assured style, artfully amplifying the audience's fear of Cotter by keeping his more grisly acts of violence just out of frame. We don't need to see the effects Cotter has on his victims when we can see the gleeful menace on the man's face. There are few classic actors who could even come close to Cagney when it comes to a visceral expression of evil, and few even now that can play with our love/hate fascination with outlaws so disarmingly. At his meanest and most manipulative, Cotter can also be fascinating. He is cocksure and hilarious. The scene where Payton unloads the breakfast table on her cheating man is as memorable as anything Cagney ever did with a grapefruit.
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye ends abruptly, and the courtroom framing sequence does little to add to the movie's suspense, but that's okay. The dark pleasures that come in between the rapping of the judge's gavel are more than worth it.
The movie is shown at its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio.