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Kiss of Death (Fox Film Noir)
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Henry Hathaway's directorial skills brought a heightened sense of realism to crime dramas in this classic 1947 original that marked Richard Widmark's Oscar -nominated debut. When a small time crook (Victor Mature) gets a twenty year sentence for robbery, he refuses to reveal his accomplices, even after a D.A. (Brian Donlevy) offers to help him. But he changes his mind once he learns that his wife has committed suicide and a psychopath (Widmark) has threatened his children.
Richard Widmark's bravura debut as snickering gangster Tommy Udo, and particularly his infamous encounter with an old woman in a wheelchair, enjoys such pop cachet that the movie itself has been somewhat underrated. More's the pity. Henry Hathaway's third entry in 20th CenturyFox's series of postWWII thrillers is just about the best of the bunch. These films incorporated the semidocumentary techniques and wondrously persuasive on-location shooting Hollywood learned from Italian neorealism and the wartime filming of some of its own best directors. Kiss of Death is more fictional than documentary in thrust, with a solid script by ace screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer. But that only makes its imaginative, atmospheric use of real places and spaces--e.g., a superb opening robbery sequence in a New York skyscraper--the more remarkable.
Victor Mature belies his rep as one of the Hollywood star system's bad jokes with his intense performance as Nick Bianco, a career criminal driven to turn squealer. Nick's motivation is family values: although he had gone to Sing Sing (yes, they filmed there, too) as a stand-up guy, "the boys" failed to take care of his wife and daughters as promised, with devastating results. Despite the best efforts of an assistant D.A. (Brian Donlevy), Nick is forced to lay everything on the line to rescue his family's future. The movie abounds in evocative texture, thanks to the no-frills excellence of Norbert Brodine's camerawork and an exemplary supporting cast including Millard Mitchell (as a sardonic police detective), Karl Malden (another D.A.), and Taylor Holmes (a flannel-mouthed Mob shyster). Kiss of Death was remade twice, as a Western titled The Fiend That Walked the West and as a straight thriller again in the '90s. --Richard T. Jameson
- Commentary by film historians James Ursini and Alain Silver
- Still Gallery
- Theatrical Trailer
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While in prison, though, his wife commits suicide in despair and his two little girls are placed in an orphanage. The shock and anger over his wife's death and his childrens' plight change Bianco's mind about cooperating with the DA's office. He gives them information about several cases that win him a parole.
This 1947 film noir is famous among film fans for the fantastic debut performance of Richard Widmark as the psychopathic killer Tommy Udo. The unforgettable scene of his pushing a woman in a wheelchair down the stairs while braying his famous and inimitable snarling laugh has been shown countless times for its shock value. It still shocks today, even in our violence-desensitized society.
Udo's nasal-toned "big man" contempt toward a better class of people, and Bianco in particular at the end of the movie, is another classic acting invention that Widmark created for his Oscar-nominated role. After Bianco testifies against Udo, and Udo walks anyway, it is only a matter of time for the violent denouement that ends the picture.
I found Victor Mature's performance surprisingly solid and low-key. It is a far cry from his later stereotype as the outsize overactor required in "Samson and Delilah," "Demetrius and the Gladiators," and "Hannibal," which are wonderful viewing for the 8-12 year crowd. He is right for the Bianco part. His acting is controlled and subtle. He is convincing as a film noir hero; a basically good guy who cannot catch a break. His redemption comes, of course, through righting a wrong.
Brian Donlevy does his usual solid acting job as the Assistant D.A. Coleen Gray is sweetness and light as the babysitter who becomes his second wife and a key player in Bianco's rehabilitation. She does a nice job of narration as well. Karl Malden has a bit part as one of the detectives in one of his early performances.
Widmark's performance is classic, but the movie itself is well worth seeing for its suspense and fast-paced plot. Ben Hecht was one of the screenplay writers. That is always a good sign that the movie will have crisp dialogue. Buy it if you like film noir and good moviemaking.
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.