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Widmark's Chilling Debut,
This review is from: Kiss of Death [VHS] (VHS Tape)
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."