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When his independent filmmaking efforts failed to make money, James Cagney relented in his self-exile from Warner Bros. and negotiated a return to the studio under favorable conditions. Although he contracted to make only one more outright gangster picture, White Heat became such a big hit that James and his producer brother William chose a gangster story for their next spin at independent producing. Although a lesser achievement, 1950's Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is not without its compensations: a script from a hard-boiled pulp original by the now-celebrated Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?), smart direction from Gordon Douglas, good acting, and sadistic violence. Make that a LOT of sadistic violence. Shooting people point blank and smashing their heads in with blunt objects are commonplace occurrences. After his shocking turn as Cody Jarrod, this is James Cagney's most vicious screen characterization.
Harry Brown's script charts the progress of a tough guy who enjoys a violent streak of good luck. Thief and thug Ralph Cotter (Cagney) is sprung from jail as an 'investment' for several crooks led by auto shop owner Vic Mason (Rhys Williams). Fellow prisoner Carleton (Neville Brand) is wounded during the escape so Cotter shoots him through the head. As it turns out the sharpshooter providing cover for the getaway is Carleton's sister Holiday (Barbara Payton). Ignoring instructions, Cotter and his associate Jinx Raynor (Steve Brodie) pull off a local robbery. Detectives Weber and Reece (Ward Bond & Barton MacLane) turn out to be crooked as well. They take Ralph Cotter's money and order all three of them to leave town. Cotter instead records Weber and Reece's self-incriminating voices on a record, and takes his evidence to Cherokee Mandon (Luther Adler), a shady attorney.
With the cops in his pocket, Cotter and his tiny gang are free to rob the local syndicate's moneymen. The morally malleable Holiday knows she's doing wrong, but is soon madly in love with Cotter. Unfortunately, he has found another outlet for his amorous ambitions: Margaret Dobson (Helena Carter), heir to a major fortune. The adventurous Margaret launches into a whirlwind affair with Cotter. Her busy father Ezra (Herbert Heyes) catches them in bed together, only for Margaret to produce a marriage license. The only trouble is those two crooked cops, who will do anything to turn the tables on Ralph. And how is Ralph going to explain Margaret to Holiday?
The evocatively titled Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is smart, fast and cynical - it assumes that the city officials and cops in any given burg are in league with organized crime. Cagney's Ralph Cotter bluffs, cajoles and threatens his way in and out of trouble. He loves risk and is convinced that he can control anyone. He takes full advantage of Holiday's unquestioning loyalty.
The hard-edged dialogue may have been a carry-over from author Horace McCoy, who himself had been writing screenplays since the early 1930s. As might be expected, James Cagney imbues the crafty Ralph Cotter with a full range of devious tricks. He plays the sniveling coward with the cops just long enough to let them fall into his trap. He's "sincere" with Holiday and enticingly cagey with Margaret. We'll bet that in an earlier draft Holiday was more of a hick, and Margaret a reckless playgirl fantasy hungry for a 'dangerous' man to dominate her.
It's especially fun to see the delighted look on Ralph's face when his attorney Cherokee Mandon cleans up his past with just a few slick moves. Cotter's police record is shredded and he's even issued a license to carry a concealed weapon. Ralph also loves getting pulled over for speeding with the rich Margaret Dobson - the cop apologizes to her for the inconvenience. Ralph proves that he's a Crook For All Seasons when he plays the upstanding fellow for the benefit of Margaret's father. Enjoying Margaret's swank apartment and an exotic European sports car (not to mention Margaret herself) seems a lot better than dodging the law for the rest of his life. If he can only pull it off...
The heightened violence quotient in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye may be a carryover from the savage scalding and cold-blooded executions White Heat. Other pictures offered instances of aggravated brutality, such as Andrew Stone's Highway 301. The violent acts aren't isolated, and the targets now include women. In Highway 301 a terrified beauty is cornered in a hotel corridor and shot in the stomach. In Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye Ralph murders cops and crooks alike. He pistol-whips people so hard there's every possibility of a fatal blow. He also roughs up Barbara Payton, perhaps to carry on the Cagney legacy of girl bashing in White Heat (Virginia Mayo) that began twenty years earlier with The Public Enemy (Mae Clark). Ralph commits atrocious acts, such as the (offscreen) execution of three rival mobsters, yet he's the film's only identification figure.
The show is bookended with strident courtroom scenes expressing outrage at Ralph Cotter's crime wave, but legal payback can't quite restore moral balance to Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. Even the ironic twist ending seems a bit wrong. Ralph Cotter is just too exciting for an exit like that -- who wants a world populated with all those unimaginative leftover crooks?
James Cagney has lost none of his tough guy edge, although from here forward he promoted a good-guy Yankee Doodle Dandy persona when possible. Everyone else gives fine support, with Helena Carter (the sexy nurse in Invaders from Mars) looking a little unfocused at times but always tuned to maximum seductiveness. Ironically, crooked detectives Ward Bond and Barton MacLane also played the dumb but honest cops that dogged Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade ten years before in the classic The Maltese Falcon.
This was the big break picture for actress Barbara Payton, who showed great promise before her career and her personal life fell to pieces. One of the sadder chapters in Hollywood Babylon lore, Ms. Payton seems to have been victimized by bad men, bad luck and terrible personal decisions.
Olive's Blu-ray of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is a great HD encoding of this handsomely filmed crime story. Cameraman J. Peverell Marley and designer Wiard Ihnen contrast Holiday's crummy apartment and Margaret's lush layout with its servants at the ready. Barbara Payton and Helena Carter are each given their own glamour treatment. The fascinating James Cagney is screen center in almost every scene.
As it carries a Warners distribution logo, readers have been asking for years why this picture hasn't been released by that company. A Republic laserdisc was one of the first I bought back in 1992. At the time, we were we amazed at the improvement of laserdisc's picture quality over VHS tapes!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye Blu-ray rates:
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