Wednesday, March 24, 2010

#32: Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway, 1947)

Released: August 27, 1947

Director: Henry Hathaway; Screenplay: Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer based on a story by Eleazar Lipsky; Cinematography: Norbert Brodine; Music: David Buttolph; Producer: Fred Kohlmar; Studio: 20th Century Fox

Cast: Victor Mature (Nick Bianco), Brian Donlevy (Assistant District Attorney Louis D’Angelo), Coleen Gray (Nettie), Richard Widmark (Tommy Udo), Taylor Holmes (Earl Howser), Howard Smith (Warden), Karl Malden (Sergeant William Cullen), Anthony Ross (Big Eddie Williams), Millard Mitchell (Detective Shelby), Temple Texas (Buster), Jay Jostyn (District Attorney), J. Scott Smart (Skeets)

- “You know what I do to squealers? I let 'em have it in the belly, so they can roll around for a long time thinkin' it over…”

One of the biggest myths of classic Hollywood is that Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death is worthwhile solely because of the over-the-top screen debut of Richard Widmark. To be certain, Widmark’s performance as bloodthirsty hoodlum Tommy Udo is incendiary, so it is understandable that it would overshadow other elements of the film. It’s unfortunate, because there is so much more to it than just Widmark. Victor Mature turns in a fine performance as Nick Bianco and the film as a whole boasts a nice mix of Hollywood veterans (Brian Donlevy) and future stars (Karl Malden). But guiding it all is the steady hand of Henry Hathaway, who flawlessly combines realistic location shooting with Norbert Brodine’s classy cinematography to craft a great movie.

Mature is Nick Bianco, a professional thief who tries to provide for his family through various heists. On Christmas Eve, when he and a group of hoodlums rob a Manhattan jewelry store, an alarm is sounded and Nick is not able to make it out of the building. Apprehended by police, Nick is grilled over who his partners were in the robbery. District Attorney Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) offers him a light sentence in return for fingering the other men, but sticking true to the code of the streets, Nick refuses. Packed off to Sing Sing with a 20-year sentence, Nick does his time as best he can, until he learns that his depressed and lonely wife has committed suicide. Learning from former babysitter Nettie (Coleen Gray) that his two children have been relocated to an orphanage, Nick realizes that he desperately needs to get out of prison and take care of his kids. Nick contacts DA D’Angelo to provide information on his compatriots, but since the case is years old, the information does no good in reducing his sentence. But D’Angelo offers him another way out – if he will give them help get close to and take down rising hoodlum Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), he will be released from his previous conviction. Paroled for his undercover work, Nick leaves prison and begins getting close to Udo. At the same time, he develops a relationship with Coleen and does his best to create the ideal family life with his new lady and his children. Things get dicey for everyone involved when Udo begins to learn what is going on, placing everyone close to Nick at extreme peril.

As strongly as I feel about my intro to this piece, there is no argument that Widmark is a tour-de-force in every scene he appears in. But the main criticism that I have read concerning the character of Tommy Udo – and really of the movie in general – is that Udo feels underdeveloped. I think this is missing the point of the film. Although Udo may feel like the center of attention, he actually isn’t. The real focus of the story is on Nick Bianco, a man desperately trying to go straight who never really has a chance to do so. While this is an incredibly familiar storyline, what makes it unique in this case is the reason why Nick doesn’t have a chance. It isn’t just the underworld that “pulls him back in,” as Michael Corleone would say decades later. It’s also the district attorney, his own lawyer, and other supposedly respectable personalities. Nick is being bombarded from every possible angle, leaving him and his family caught in the middle of powerful forces, both legal and illegal. So with this in mind, the lack of development of Tommy Udo as a fully fleshed-out person is unimportant to me. What matters is the dynamism of Widmark portraying one of the most sadistic and evil characters in Hollywood history. Those that have seen the film will undoubtedly be able to hear the childish giggle that he unleashes after committing horrendous acts of violence. Even more so than other cinema psychopaths, such as classic characters like Cody Jarrett, Udo seems to genuinely enjoy the violence and bloodshed. It is shocking even now to watch him push a helpless wheelchair-bound woman down a flight of stars. Imagine what it must have been like to see this in 1947.

Hathaway’s work is also noteworthy, as it alternates between documentary style shooting and gritty, noirish set pieces. Scenes showing Nick confined in prison feel real because, to a certain extent, they are. Hathaway took cast and crew to the actual Sing Sing Prison to film. Popular legend holds that the actors were processed through the institution as actual prisoners would be, adding a further sense of realism to everything filmed there. Likewise, shooting on the streets of New York is also gorgeous, particularly in the filming of the tense Manhattan jewel heist that opens the film.

There are certainly some minor details that I would have preferred to change – once again, there is narration that is completely unnecessary, and I could understand someone thinking there might be a bit too much moralizing in the story. Still, taken as a whole, I still think it’s a wonderful noir. It has a solid reputation, but with the exception of Widmark’s turn as Udo, I think it is actually a bit underrated as a whole.


  1. That wheelchair scene is horrifying indeed. Again you've chosen a quality film here, one that boasts Wildmark's second best performance behind Dassin's NIGHT AND THE CITY. The film is indeed negotiated by blending a 'documentary realism' with the 'gritty, noirish, set pieces' and Brodine's work is extraordinary here. The narration didn't bother me, but yes, I agree there was some moralyzing we could have done without. And yes, Dave, Jarrett is a novice next to this supreme sadist. Geez, you have me in the mood to watch this again after reading this wonderful and dead-on assessment.

  2. Overall, I like this film Dave, maybe not quite as high in esteem as you but this is a fine noir. Some thoughts…. Widmark’s performance eclipses the film, and the old lady (Mildred Dunnock) in the wheelchair down the stairs scene is as iconic as Cagney’s “Top of the World, Ma!” in “White Heat.” Victor Mature on the other hand is a limited actor whose range goes from about A to B and his performance undercuts the film a bit. The relationship between Mature and Gray is just a bit too good to be true and develops awfully quick, however, she is fine in the role, and the police just seem to be a little too goody two shoes. That all said, the New York location scenes are made the most of and add to the reality of the the film. I probably would have ranked this a bit lower overall.

  3. Dave, it's been quite awhile since I've seen this one, but I definitely love it. I agree that its "documentary style shooting" is fantastic, and there's so much other greatness here, as well, which you've superbly covered.

  4. The female narration does not bother me in this film. It is used rather sparingly and does not have that booming dated sound of T-Men. I agree with your assessment that Widmark's character is not the central focus and thus the argument that he is underdeveloped seem trivial. I"m also in accord with John that Mature is a weak actor but I happen to like him in this movie. He does a good job conveying Nick's struggles with trying to do the right thing while feeling guilt over his criminal code allegiances. Widmark does shine in his scenes and this is one of his four great noir performances. I'm hoping Panic in the Streets makes this countdown since I feel he does a marvelous job against type in that film (though the list may be too far ahead for me to think you will be including it). Kiss of Death is indeed underrated and I think its placement here is slightly high but definitely top 40. I'm always commenting on the rankings because I also love making lists. I hope after you declare your number one that all the other commentators will list their top 10 or 20. I'm curious to see their own favorites.....M.Roca

  5. Sam - Glad to hear that this is a favorite of yours as well. You're right in assessing Widmark's performance, and I'm not exactly revealing a great secret in saying that NIGHT AND THE CITY will be heard from as the countdown continues!

    John - I think Mature does quite well here, but agree that his overall body of work can be uneven.

    Jeffrey - Thanks for checking in. This movie is certainly one of the treats of the Fox Film Noir series and it looks great on the DVD release.

    M.Roca - A wonderful assessment here. And I agree with you, I hope that as the countdown winds down that others will share their own lists of noirs. That will be its own post once the countdown has been completed.

  6. I remember I loved this one when I saw it last year.

    Seeing Brian Donlevy in a "good man" role was quite refreshing. Victor Mature was solid, I know he didn't care much for acting, but it doesn't ruin anything for me, I kinda came to liking him. Richard Widmark is incredibly amazing, but I still prefer him in the "good guy" parts or at least grayish, not downright evil.