Sunday, February 28, 2010

#52: Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (Gordon Douglas, 1950)

Released: August 4, 1950

Director: Gordon Douglas; Screenplay: Harry Brown based on the novel of the same name by Horace McCoy; Cinematography: J. Peverell Marley; Music: Carmen Dragon; Producer: William Cagney; Studio: Republic Pictures/Warner Brothers

Cast: James Cagney (Ralph Cotter), Barbara Payton (Holiday Carleton), Helena Carter (Margaret Dobson), Ward Bond (Charles Weber), Luther Adler (Keith “Cherokee” Mandon), Barton MacLane (Lt. John Reece), Steve Brodie (Joe “Jinx” Raynor), Rhys Williams (Vic Mason), Herbert Heyes (Ezra Dobson), John Litel (Police Chief Tolgate), William Frawley (Byers)

- “And now… would one fugitive from justice care to make another fugitive from justice… a sandwich?”

Find any review of this 1950 James Cagney film and I bet that you cannot make it out of the first paragraph before it's compared to the previous year’s White Heat. The similarities are quite obvious – Cagney playing a sociopathic, ambitious criminal that aspires to rise to the top of the underworld, plus similar criminal scheming and plotting. In fact, many reviews that I have seen in the past look up on Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye as basically being White Heat Part II, seeing very little distinction between the two. The two movies are no doubt similar, but it’s unfair to simply lump them together. They are both strong enough to stand on their own. It is not a stretch, though, to look toward Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye as the younger brother of White Heat. It is not quite to the level of that iconic film, lacking some key ingredients that elevate White Heat to even greater heights. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye lacks the two dynamic female leads that Virginia Mayo and Margaret Wycherly provide as counterpoints to the fierce Cody Jarrett. The cinematography of Sid Hickox trumps anything done here by Peverell Marley. And comparing the directorial skills of Gordon Douglas and Raoul Walsh is a no-contest.

But, I’ll go ahead and let everyone in on a little secret… I think I like James Cagney’s performance here as Ralph Cotter even more than Cody Jarrett. And that alone is reason enough for the high placement in this countdown.

The interesting thing is that apparently Cagney was very reticent to even do this movie, not wanting to do yet another gangster film so soon after White Heat. But the production company that he had formed with his brother William was in financial difficulty at the end of the 1940s and needed to produce a profitable film in order to pay off debts. So instead of searching to find more versatile roles, Cagney reluctantly accepted the fact that him starring in a gangster picture was likely to make money – White Heat had proven that to still be true. When his brother William acquired the rights to Horace McCoy’s novel, James made the correct decision in choosing to star in it. The movie actually was a solid success, earning much needed profits for Cagney Productions.


Cagney plays Ralph Cotter, a vicious career criminal who has escaped from a prison work camp. His partner-in-crime is killed in the prison break, leaving Cotter to escape with his dead partner’s sister Holiday (Barbara Payton) and Jinx Raynor (Steve Brodie). Cotter works his way close to the innocent Holiday by holding over her head the fact that she is now a fugitive for having assisted in the escape. In the meantime, Cotter and Jinx team up in robberies and extortions that bring them to the attention of corrupt local police. When the cops begin shaking them down, Cotter responds with blackmail of his own. Eventually, Ralph concocts a scheme for one big final score, in which he, Jinx and the two corrupt police officers will steal money from the local mob. Adding another layer of complication to everything that Ralph is doing is the fact that he has met the beautiful heiress Margaret Dobson (Helena Carter), whose father Ezra Dobson (Herbert Heyes) is the richest and most powerful man in town. Ultimately, it is this relationship that contributes to Ralph’s complete fall.

I’ve said before in reviews of other Cagney films, but it is worth noting again: even though he is often accused of playing the same role again and again, each character is slightly nuanced from the others. In this case, Ralph Cotter may seem remarkably similar to Cody Jarrett, but in fact he’s even more coldblooded. With Cody, there are some obvious mental issues involved. Ralph Cotter, on the other hand, is in complete control psychologically and is fully aware of what he is doing. He knows how cruel he can be, chooses to use this callousness to his advantage, and does it all with a chuckle. He is what he is and enjoys it. It really is a marvelous performance, among the best that I have ever seen from Cagney, which is really saying something.

The script is surprisingly witty, with biting dialog and one-liners being rattled off by everyone in the film, with Cagney in particularly showing the wiseguy flair that he is famous for. As great a pulp writer as Horace McCoy is, though, the general story is weaker in some spots than others. When the story stays focused on Cotter and his criminal activities – the heists, the scheming, the dealing with dirty cops – it is as strong as the best crime films of the era. When it begins dealing with Ralph’s sudden relationship with Margaret, it really slows things down and feels disjointed. Fortunately, the majority of the focus remains on Ralph’s underworld maneuverings, taking the audience on a ride through a world where everybody is dirty or crooked to some degree. This might be the most underrated Cagney film that I have yet come across. If it doesn’t quite stack up against his truly best films, that is only because those others (Angels With Dirty Faces, White Heat, The Public Enemy) are masterpieces. This one is not quite a masterpiece, but its strong points almost get it there.

11 comments:

  1. Enjoyed your review, Dave - I've seen this movie a few times now, as it is probably shown on British TV more often than any other Cagney film, though I'm not sure why. Last year alone I think it was screened at least six times (I did not watch every time!) I agree it is underrated and that the best parts are up there with Cagney at his best, but I do find the character of Ralph Cotter rather inconsistent - the part you mentioned where he falls for Margaret does slow down the film, as you say, and I also feel as if he starts to behave too differently from the Cotter we have seen up to that point. By contrast, his relationship with Holiday (Barbara Payton, who I think is very good in the part) seems creepy and semi-sadistic, helping to build up the noir atmosphere. I must say I much prefer Cagney in 'White Heat', but he gives a fine performance here too, and shows how he could go on varying his gangsters/violent roles even as he yearned to get away from them.

    The most underrated Cagney film I've seen is probably 'Man of a Thousand Faces', which I think is a masterpiece to put alongside the others you mention, and just an astonishing central performance, but it isn't a noir.

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  2. That is interesting, Judy, that this one is screened so much in the UK... it's on occasionally here on TCM, but nothing like the amount of times that you mention! You're right, that relationship for Margaret is the one weak point in this one and just feels awkward. When things stay focused on Ralph, Holiday, and the dirty cops, it's outstanding.

    I haven't seen MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES but with this strong recommendation from you I'm going to have to check it out.

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  3. This is one I have been looking to watch for many years Dave and have not seen. If this film has appeared on TCM I keep missing it! I am probably going to have to order it on Amazon, its pretty cheap. Great write as usual!

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  4. John - I recently got my own copy of the DVD through Amazon and it's certainly worth it... looks very good, much improved over the bootleg that I originally watched.

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  5. Dave, again I am in the dark, and for that my apologies. It's a great review, and that comment about Cagney's performance bettering the one he gave as Cody Jarrett is startling, but as amazon has it, I'll be ordering it. #52 is not chopped liver! Another great essaying and surprising choice!

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  6. Very cool, Sam, I'd love to hear your thoughts after you see it. Cagney is definitely at the top of his game here.

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  7. I finally watched this and was very pleasantly surprised. You didn't even mention Ward Bond, and I think this is about his best acting ever. The two cops were the same ones as The Maltese Falcon, only this time Bond was the higher rank. I thought the two women angle didn't slow things down as much as others think, he was obviously playing them both, controlled with the rich lady, and cruel with the poor girl.

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  8. 1950 was the year when many good films were produced, I think that Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is the most representative example of I am said! so I have watched this movie many times , my favorite scene is when otter quickly gets back into the crime business!!22dd

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  9. awful movie, but better than any Hollywood crap from today don't you think ? anyway incredible analysis.

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  10. Some epochs ago actors didn't need to speak on the movies to offer a good performance and also to offer a good movie, and this film is a perfect example of what I'm saying.

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