Henry Hathaway, 1947
Starring: Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Coleen Gray, Richard Widmark
Nick Bianco spends some time in prison after a failed jewelry store robbery he took part in on Christmas Eve in New York. He gradually builds a relationship with the Assistant District Attorney, D’Angelo, who tries to convince him to inform on his friends. He refuses and later learns that his unfaithful wife has committed suicide and his two young daughters have been placed in an orphanage. His children’s former babysitter, Nettie, comes to visit him in prison and the two fall in love. For his family’s sake, Nick changes his mind and decides to inform on Rizzo, a fellow robber, though the ADA makes it look like Rizzo is the informant. The insane Tommy Udo, who Nick met in prison, gets wind of it and tortures and kills Rizzo’s mother.
Nick, meanwhile, is released from prison, marries Nettie, and settles into an honest, hard-working life. When Nick’s evidence on Udo doesn’t land Udo in prison, Nick knows it’s only a matter of time before Udo will come after his family.
Though Kiss of Death (what a title) is not quite essential noir, it benefits from some solid performances and some brilliant scenes that feature the debut of Richard Widmark as the psychotic Tommy Udo. He is essentially a comic book character – his demeanor, suit, and hat are a bit ridiculous – and makes a convincing precursor for someone like The Joker. With his maniacal laugh, penchant for violence, and sociopathic tendencies, Widmark is the star of the film and deservedly received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The scene where he tortures Rizzo’s wheelchair-bound mother, and then ties her up and throws her down a winding set of stairs to her death, is perhaps the best in the film.
Both Widmark’s wide-eyed, malicious Udo and Victor Mature’s homely, if somehow charming Nick are reminiscent of later gangster characters. Mature (I Wake Up Screaming) has never been one of my favorite actors, but here he gives a great performance and is perfectly cast. There is very little that’s romantic or charismatic about a failed criminal trying to lead a quiet family life, but his character is honest and compelling, if somewhat unbelievable. Udo, Nick, and plenty of other things about Kiss of Death reminded me of later gangster films, such as The Godfather (1972) and Goodfellas (1990). It was obviously influential, though it never quite reaches the heights of those films that came after it, as far as gangster movies are concerned.
It’s a shame that Charles Lederer and the great Ben Hecht didn’t produce a better script, as their combined talent is responsible for such greats as Notorious, His Girl Friday, The Thing from Another World, and so much more. There is nothing specifically wrong with the film, though outside of Udo’s scenes, it’s bland and unimaginative. There are some nice moments of realism and the film was apparently partially shot in Sing Sing, but it lacks the impressive sense of stylist found in visually realist films like The Lost Weekend or Naked City. The opening heist is well-shot, but feels rush.
One note of interest is the similarity between cops and criminals depicted within the film. The necessity of them working together is the film’s main theme and the levels of corruption and violence shared between the two is an obvious point of controversy. In one scene, the ADA comments that the only difference between them is the fact that cops beat up on the “bad guys.” This apparently incensed the Hays’ office, though director Henry Hathaway changed little, only removing the scenes with Nick’s troubled first wife and overt references to Udo’s drug use.
In addition to Victor Mature and Richard Widmark, there are some decent performances throughout the film. Brian Donlevy (Hangmen Also Die) puts in a solid performance as the ADA and is finally not miscast (as he was in The Glass Key with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake). Coleen Gray (Red River) is adorable as Nettie, Nick’s second wife. While not much explanation is given for her sudden marriage to Nick, it’s wholly believable and she is a convincing portrait of domestic bliss.
Kiss of Death is available on DVD as part of Fox’s film noir series. As I said, it’s not essential viewing, but noir fans will enjoy it, as well anyone who loves gangster movies. Widmark’s terrifying, spellbinding performance is an obvious precursor to so many contemporary psychopathic gangsters that it would be a shame not to see him at work at least once.