Richard Widmark started his film career with a bang and a giggle in Kiss of Death. As the psychopathic Tommy Udo who ties an old woman to her wheelchair and then pushes her down a flight of stairs, giggling merrily while he does, Widmark created such an impression it's a wonder he was able to move beyond creeps and become a star leading man. He dominates the scenes he's in, except, surprisingly, the scenes he shares with the star of the movie, Victor Mature. Kiss of Death is Mature's movie all the way.
Mature plays Nick Bianco, a small-time crook and an ex-con who squeals his way out of prison, partly to get back at the gang members who took advantage of his wife and caused her to commit suicide and partly to take care of his two little girls who now are in an orphanage. He cut the deal with Assistant District Attorney Louie DeAngelo (Brian Donlevy), remarries and starts a new life under a different name. But then he's forced to testify against Udo in open court. Udo, however, is acquitted. It's only a matter of time, Nick and DeAngelo know, before Udo comes after Nick, his new wife and his kids. Nick does the only thing he knows how to do. He sets Udo up so that DeAngelo can arrest Udo and put him away for life. The climax of the movie is suspenseful and violent.
This movie works on a lot of levels. The director, Henry Hathaway, and the screenwriters, Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, take their time letting us get to know Nick. Bianco may be a small-time crook, but he's got decent instincts. He's not the brightest guy around, but he'll do what he can to provide for and protect his family. Given half a chance, he wants to go straight. He's torn by the need to be a stoolie. Donlevy as the assistant D.A. doesn't hesitate to put the screws to Bianco, but he also recognizes that Bianco is not just another two-bit player. Hathaway, Hecht and Lederer are careful never to let this story slide into melodrama.
The duel between Nick Bianco and Tommy Udo, which is what the last half of the movie is about, features a scary, intense, unpredictable performance by Widmark. Widmark has a giggle like a hyaena's, a grin full of teeth and a face like a skull with skin. Victor Mature, however, gives us such a solid portrayal of a man trying to go straight, conflicted by his betrayal of the code of silence, decent and unsure of himself, that it should put to rest the idea that Mature was just a hunk of beefcake with little talent. Mature himself would laugh and say the same thing about his career. Yet with the right role and a good director, Mature was capable of turning in memorable performances. This is one. Or his sick, conflicted Doc Holiday in My Darling Clementine. Or his easy going promoter-turned-sleuth, with Betty Grable, in I Wake Up Screaming. Even with exotic schlock like Demetrius and the Gladiator, The Shanghai Gesture or The Egyptian, Mature always turned in an honest job for his paycheck. That's a pretty good epitaph for an actor or for anyone else.
The movie also features a number of actors who do excellent jobs, including Coleen Gray who loves and marries Bianco, Millard Mitchell and Karl Malden as two associates of Donlevy, and Taylor Holmes as Bianco's crook of a lawyer. Holmes is one of those great character actors whose face we'll recognize without knowing the name. As Earl Howser, he's as avuncular as your grandaddy and as trustworthy as a snake. Watch how he takes off his hat when he first visits Bianco in jail. He lifts the hat an inch straight up and then off. It just takes a second. Here's a lawyer who cares more about not mussing his hair than about his client.
The DVD looks very good considering the age of the movie. There is a commentary I didn't bother with featuring James Ursini and Alain Silver.
on March 15, 2000
This great piece of cinema has lost none of its punch in more than 50 years. Even more starkly photographed than most "film noir." Makes you realize, if you don't already, that filmmakers and actors knew what they were doing back then, frequently producing results far superior to most of their modern counterparts.
on May 19, 1999
The Sylvester Stallone of his time, Victor Mature was regarded as little more than a joke until his fine performance in the crime drama "Kiss of Death." Unfortunately for Mature, a New York stage actor was making his film debut in the Henry Hathaway directed thriller, and "Kiss of Death" remains famous for having introduced Richard Widmark to film audiences. As the giggling, psychopathic Tommy Udo (is there a true film buff anywhere in the world unfamiliar with that name?), Widmark would create a character much imitated in the years that followed, though still not surpassed for cruelty. It is in this film that Widmark pushes an old lady tied into her wheelchair down a flight of stairs, maniacally cackling as she makes her way to the bottom. The scene is still quite chilling, and there isn't a moment nearly as memorable in the adequate 1995 remake with Nicolas Cage and David Caruso taking over for Widmark and Mature. The rest of this original "Kiss of Death" holds up pretty well, too.
on June 8, 2000
Henry Hathaway's 1947 noir drama Kiss of Death is one of the first films to deal with the subject of criminal informing. An informer, commonly referred among criminals as a squealer, stoolie, rat, or pigeon is often trapped in an earthy purgatory. Shunned by the underworld and suspectly viewed by law enforcement, an informer's life becomes shrouded in self doubt concerning the principles of right and wrong. In Kiss of Death, Nick Bianco's ( Victor Mature) decision to turn informer against a demented, murdering gangster named Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) is justified by his duty as a father to provide security for his two young daughters. When Nick Bianco's testimony fails to convict Udo, Bianco's safe environment becomes disrupted and threatened by the violence that was once part of his criminal past. Widmark making his screen debut as the cackling Udo is memorable with shaven eyebrows,intimidating drawl, and dark gangster suits. Mature's performance is first rate as the ex-hood who showers his new wife (Coleen Gray ) and children with the bliss of blue collar euphoria. Hathaway's New York filming locations add to the realism of Bianco's plight. Legendary Sing Sing prison in Ossining, "The Tombs" prison cells in NYC, St. Nicholas Boxing Arena in the Bronx, and the gray streets of Greenpoint Brooklyn provide ample imagery to the noir motif. Hathaway deftly and subtlely escorts Udo and Bianco into a private bordello. Most viewers are not aware that the double entry doors manned by the tall, dark figure is a whorehouse. ( Bianco- "What's that smell?" Udo- "Perfume"-camera fades out). The one major flaw is Coleen Gray's fairy tale voice over ending. After being shot at close range, four times with a 45. automatic, why did Hathaway allow Bianco to survive? Hathaway succumbed to the false noble notion that squealers will enjoy long idyllic lives. Not so- has anyone checked on Sammy the Bull, Joe Valachi, or Henry Hill lately?
on April 1, 2000
Kiss of Death is a crime thriller that kept me more involved then I was expecting. Perhaps it's the fact that the Victor Mature character is pretty sympathetic. Mature (a better actor than he was given credit for) plays the internal conflicts of his character with a lot of conviction. The location filming and the straightforward direction help to add a lot of realism to the film. The supporting cast, with the exception of Colleen Gray, contribute good performances. But it's Richard Widmark, in his film debut, that leaves the strongest impression. His giggling, psychopathic killer Tommy Udo is one of the most memorable characters you'll ever see, and the wheelchair scene is justifiably famous. Kiss of Death is a gripping crime drama.
Nick Bianco and his gang sweat through the first few minutes of this knockout noir as they pull off a jewelry heist on a high floor in a Manhattan skyscraper. The tension is superbly handled as the trio waits out a long elevator ride down, knowing that one of the tied up or unconscious jewelers could be alerting the police at any time, and the Christmas joy and cheer around them only heightens the anger and frustration that Bianco feels at having to resort to a life of crime, though we are told (by the interesting choice of a female narrator) that he's been trying to go straight. Alas, Bianco gets caught - though the rest of his gang gets away - and goes to prison, despite a sympathetic Assistant DA trying very hard to get him to save himself - and his wife and kids - by squealing.
Justly famed as the film that made Richard Widmark a star, and there's no question that he steals every scene he's in, smirking and snickering with one of the creepiest laughs and most obviously crazed faces you've ever seen. But Widmark's only a supporting character, and the picture more rightly belongs to Victor Mature as the small-time lifelong con trying to go straight - and Mature delivers in probably the best performance of his career, aching with a weariness that only prison could bring to a man still in his prime, with sad eyes and regret etched into every movement in his lumbering frame. Widmark was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but IMO Mature deserved a nod in the lead category just as much; it's really hard to imagine anybody - even the biggest of noir stars like Kirk Douglas, Robert Ryan or Humphrey Bogart - doing better in the role.
I won't spoil the rest of the plot - this one develops very organically and naturally for the most part, and the use of real locations in New York and the acting choices and fairly low-key music make this one of the more "real"-seeming and natural of all films noir. Director Henry Hathaway, best known for his westerns today, puts it all together with conviction and tautness, never a wasted moment. An utter masterpiece.
on June 23, 2005
Richard Widmark, always known for his wit, had a line like no other when it came to his highly successful transition from radio drama to film. The slender blonde actor had secured a major niche as a radio performer in the early post-World War Two era, leading him to quip after being asked to transition his talents to film, "I'm the only actor who gave up a home with a swimming pool to go to Hollywood."
While others went to Hollywood in search of riches, including a swimming pool, standard fare for affluent performers in warm and sunny Southern California, Widmark left his posh Long Island home and swimming pool behind when he went to Hollywood. The trip west proved worthwhile for him as well as moviegoers.
The irony was that, while he ultimately moved to Hollywood, his first cinema effort, which resulted in film immortality, the 1947 film noir gem "Kiss of Death,"enabled him to commute to work from his Long Island home since director Henry Hathaway set it almost entirely in the authentic New York location settings embodied in the story, which was drawn in part from a true life account. The film represented noir at its most convincing and Widmark at his most chilling.
Filmed in convincing black and white and including prison sequences shot at Sing Sing Penitentiary, Widmark as psychopathic killer Tommy Udo stamped an enduring presence on the cinema world with one of the most brutal and graphic scenes in history. It comes when he pushes Mildred Dunnock, cast as the mother of a mob partner that the criminal suspects of squealing on him, down a flight of stairs. Equally notable was the fact that this film made Widmark's sadistic and sardonic laugh every bit as big a trade mark of cops and robbers suspense films as George Raft tossing his legendary coin.
As Widmark would be the first to acknowledge, for him to garner such accolades from his first role it took a great team effort, and delivering a consummate performance, as Udo's onetime friend and ultimate enemy, was Victor Mature. As a handsome Twentieth Century-Fox contract player with a great physique Mature was frequently downplayed as beefcake. His sensitive portrayal of a stickup artist seeking to go straight revealed that he was far more than a handsome leading man for the likes of Betty Grable in light studio musical fare.
Initially Mature spurns assistant district attorney Brian Donlevy's effort to extract information from him in exchange for a lesser prison sentence, sticking to the criminal code of refusing to cooperate with authorities. Even after Donlevy appeals to Mature's family side as a husband and father of two young girls he is initially undeterred.
Mature changes his mind after spending some time at Sing Sing. The glib mob attorney, played by veteran Broadway stage actor Taylor Holmes, fails to follow through with his promise to get Mature a pardon through pulling strings. In the interim Mature's wife is beset by poverty, becomes depressed, and kills herself. The young daughters he deeply loves are then placed in an orphanage.
His cooperation with Donlevy nets Mature an exit from Sing Sing. He ultimately takes a regular job and marries Colleen Gray, who had been his children's former baby sitter. Just when things appear to be going well and Mature has adjusted to the life of a lawful citizen the moment occurs that spin the story toward its ultimately suspenseful conclusion.
A previously confident Donlevy calls Mature with some bad news. He had cooperated in a case to nail Widmark on a murder rap, but Taylor Holmes' skillful defense cast enough doubt in the minds of the jury to result in a not guilty plea, which set the psychopathic killer back on New York's streets.
Mature realizes that he has more than himself to be concerned about, fearing that the vengeance-minded criminal and his mob will target his wife and children as well. The drama swings into high gear when Mature plots a strategy to confront Widmark and resolve their differences. At one point he clashes directly with his old benefactor Donlevy, who asks him to accept police protection and let authorities nail Widmark.
Mature and Widmark hold a tense meeting near the film's conclusion that brilliantly contrasts their styles. Mature exhibits a steely determination while Widmark waxes sarcasm and delivers his trademark laugh. The action spins to a final conclusion amid much tension, leaving audiences spellbound and awaiting final resolution.
The crisp dialogue and fast-paced story can be credited to long-time pro Ben Hecht working in tandem with Charles Lederer. Hecht wrote the script for one of Alfred Hitchcock's top suspense films, "Notorious," with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, released one year before "Kiss of Death."
"Kiss of Death" was directed by Henry Hathaway based on an unpublished story by Eleazar Lipsky, who had been a district attorney in New York city. Hathaway also made "Call Northside 777" and "The House on 92nd Street", both docudramas inspired by true stories, and he tried to accentuate the authenticity of this material as well. The film was shot on location in New York. Those really are the Criminal Courts and Chrysler buildings and The Tombs and Sing Sing prisons. In fact, Hathaway had the cast "processed" through Sing Sing to add a dose of realism to their performances. One could debate which of Hathaway's films, "Kiss of Death" or "The Dark Corner", is the more "noir". They both qualify but deviate considerably from noir themes at times. "The Dark Corner"'s Bradford Galt is a quintessential noir protagonist, while "Kiss of Death" is best remembered for its villain, the sadistic Tommy Udo, who launched Richard Widmark into a series of unforgettable low-life roles.
Unemployed and unemployable due to his prison record, with a family to support, Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) returns to a life of crime. Briefly. He's caught robbing a jewelry store. Assistant D. A. D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy) offers Nick a reduced sentence if he squeals on his cohorts. Nick refuses, confident that his family will be cared for by his partner and his sleazy lawyer (Taylor Holmes) while he's in Sing Sing. Three years later, Nick learns that his wife has died and his daughters have been placed in an orphanage. When he receives a visit from Nettie (Coleen Gray), a young woman who used to babysit his girls and who harbors feelings for him, Nick realizes that his friends reneged on their promise to support his family. So Nick decides to take D'Angelo up on his offer. D'Angelo wants to get the goods on Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), a bloodthirsty, sociopathic mob killer. But if all doesn't go precisely as planned, Nick will have the most ruthless, sadistic assassin in New York hunting him.
"Kiss of Death" begins with an evocative title sequence in which a woman's hand reaches for a revolver, tantalizing the viewer with the implication of sex and violence to come. Curiously, the sequence has little to do with the movie. There are guns in "Kiss of Death", but none in a woman's hand. Yet the hand that clenches that gun is clearly that of a woman, with long, shaped nails. Maybe this is evidence of how strong and alluring the image of femme fatales had become in crime films as of 1947. A voice-over narration introduces us to Nick Bianco, also unusual because it is the voice of a woman. It's Nettie, telling us how Nick was forced into a life of crime by circumstances. Her voiceover will recur at several points during the film, always sowing sympathy for Nick. "Kiss of Death"'s attempts to make Nick out to be a victim of poverty or social injustice have been interpreted by some critics as an element of social conscious -however muddled- in this hardened crime film. Honestly, I think it is a device to create sympathy for the protagonist and nothing more.
Nick Bianco is a good guy -if a little crooked- in a corrupt world, where doing the right thing is as risky and nearly as sleazy as being a hood. Nick remarks to D.A. D'Angelo, "Your side of the fence is almost as dirty as mine." Victor Mature could dazzle in everything from sleazebucket to persecuted nice guy roles. But the greatest star of "Kiss of Death" might be Norbert Brodine's camera. The film's best scene has the camera in an elevator, as Nick tries to make his escape while the elevator makes its way from the 23rd floor to the lobby. The anxiety is palpable. The silence is oppressive. It's brilliant. Our introduction to the villainous Tommy Udo is also daring. The first time we seen Udo, he is out of focus and taking about sticking his thumbs in someone's eyes. There's nothing vague about Tommy Udo, yet there he is: blurry. Richard Widmark gives a gleefully sadistic, rhythmic performance that earned him an Academy Award nomination. Udo is, indeed, a fine example of Widmark's considerable talent, though not an example of his depth, as Udo is two-dimensional.
The DVD (20th Century Fox 2005): There is a theatrical trailer narrated by Walter Winchell (2 min), a Stills Gallery of 9 movie posters, and an audio commentary by film noir scholars Alain Silver and James Ursini. The commentary is consistently good. Silver and Ursini discuss "docu-noir" films, the visual and auditory implications of location shooting, themes, imagery, actors, analyze the ideas behind each scene, and relate some anecdotes about the notoriously tyrannical Henry Hathaway. Subtitles for the film are available in English and Spanish, dubbing in Spanish.
on November 27, 2013
Victor Mature was so good in this. I fell in love with him in I Wake Up Screaming and feel honored to be from the same town as he. I wanted to find another movie by him that is worth adding to my collection and this is it! His acting was great, believable and darn cute. I also like Richard Widmark when he is older, but did not love him in this movie. The story and other actors made up for what I didn't like about Widmark. This movie is worth buying!
on November 1, 2005
I won't go into giving a synopsis of this movie, others have already done so quite well. I'm a film noir buff and "Kiss of Death" is certainly among the film noir classics. This film made Richard Widmark a star and is, without a doubt, the best role Victor Mature ever played in his career. Brian Donlevy, is probably more well known for playing characters on the wrong side of the law, but does a fine job as the DA in this movie. This is film noir at it's best. Other highly recommended film noir classics: "Double Indemnity", "Laura", "Murder, My Sweet", "The Killers" (Lancaster), "The Big Sleep", "Out of the Past", "Kiss Me Deadly", "The Big Heat", "The Postman Always Rings Twice", "The Killing", and "The Asphalt Jungle".
Too bad there weren't more movies made like these.