Kiss of Death (1947)

kissofdVictor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Richard Widmark and Coleen Gray star in this well-regarded film noir thriller in which lifetime criminal Nick Bianco (Mature) is caught by police during a botched jewellery heist and refuses to squeal on his three accomplices who get away. Instead he takes the rap, assured by his lawyer Earl Howser (Taylor Holmes) that Nick’s wife and two children will be looked after until he gets parole. Three years later however, Howser’s definition of ‘looked after’ seems to take some double-meaning. Nick learns that his wife has committed suicide following an affair with one of his jewellery heist buddies, Pete Rizzo, and his daughters subsequently placed into an orphanage, so he decides to give evidence to the District Attorney Louis D’Angelo (Donlevy) in order to get an early release and take care of his children. Later remarrying, getting a job and leading a better a life away from crime, he is warned that a psychopathic killer that he informed on, Tommy Udo (Widmark) has been released on a technicality and is out for revenge.

I must confess, I had a few problems with Kiss of Death. Its without doubt a classic film noir and one of the better crime thrillers of its era, but my reservations stem mostly from the plot’s forced romance between Nick and his much younger ex-babysitter Nettie (Gray), a woman who frankly creeped me out due to her wildly passionate, nonsensical obsession over Nick, turning up at his prison declaring that she has always loved him ever since she was babysitting his kids years before, rushing into a marriage with him as soon as he is out of jail and playing dutiful mother to his children. She’s purely a function of the plot to speedily (instantly, basically) get him settled down living an honest life by the last third of the film so that he has something to lose when Udo comes after him (and of course so that we can root for him as the good guy, or at least a bad guy gone good).

The romance is never given sufficient time to convince at all. Nettie is painfully underwritten and Gray hopelessly over the top because of it (another example of what I call an actresses enforced romantic hysterics covering up for an ill-judged plot mechanic), and it proves the weakest element of the film. I guess audiences just accepted bizarre sudden romances back then, but it felt so awkwardly engineered that it actually had me a mite suspicious and unfortunately distracted. Maybe I’ve seen too many noir, but the vague description that Nick’s wife (unseen throughout the film) had killed herself by putting her head in the gas oven just didn’t wholly convince. Had she been actually killed, her death staged as a suicide? Had Howser organised it to get out of his debt to Nick? I thought the film had missed a trick, with me at one point believing that Howser had hired Udo to do it, bringing things full circle for the final showdown and a revelation that of course never came, but I was even at one point suspecting dear besotted Nettie, that she had done it so that she could get to Nick at last. Yeah I’ve seen too many noir lately; they’ve got me suspecting that nobody is what they purport to be, especially an over-dramatic character whose parents should be consulting a doctor.

Of course, that’s partly the beauty of noir and the natural depth of these films thanks to their endless shades of grey. Just because it doesn’t state that Howser got Udo to stage the death as a suicide, doesn’t mean it didn’t turn out that way (Howzer is clearly a sleazy lawyer with Udo his right arm man enforcing Howser’s schemes amongst the criminal fraternity, because Howser later sets Udo after Rizzo when he thinks its Rizzo who’s turned snitch). Maybe there is more to Nettie than meets the eye.

But of course all my angst regards the unconvincing romance and Nick’s conveniently deceased wife is purely incidental to the real plus of the film, and why it is so well-regarded as a classic noir: and that’s the brilliant, chilling performance of Richard Widmark as the psycho killer Tommy Udo. This film was actually Widmark’s debut, and perhaps it was the nervous energy of appearing in his first feature that the actor channelled into the twitchy, horribly deranged killer. Just shy of over-the-top, its a performance that has clearly rattled down the decades informing many an actor’s portrayal of murderers and crazies, from the Joker in the Batman films to Dirty Harry‘s Scorpio to Joe Pesci’s turn as Tommy Devito in Goodfellas, or just about any other that one might mention. Widmark is just THAT good, and no doubt proved a shocking sensation at the time. The moment when, thwarted by his quarry Rizzo having evaded him, Udo by way of consolation throws Rizzo’s aged mother -in a wheelchair no less- down a flight of stairs to her death is jaw dropping and I can only imagine how audiences back at the time reacted to it. Something akin to Psycho‘s shower scene I suspect.

The fact that the film manages to hold its own elsewhere as a crime noir is testament to just how strong most of the other performances are as a whole and how solid and convincing the script largely is. Indeed, it could well be argued that Widmark’s high-energy performance only works as well as it does because it is counter-balanced by more grounded performances elsewhere.

I never really took to Victor Mature in the (admittedly few) films I saw him in before (The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators, Hannibal, that’s about it) but he is very good indeed here and its really a shame for him that he would be inevitably overshadowed by Widmark, who was fourth-billed but stole the show from everyone. Its one of the definitive film moments where you can feel films changing forever just from one stand-out performance, but as I say, I think Widmark owed his fellow actors some credit to his own success here. In any case, Kiss of Death is absolutely a great noir movie.


4 thoughts on “Kiss of Death (1947)

  1. All those potential plot twists you had in mind made me smile.

    It’s all about Widmark though, isn’t it? That’s truly startling debut, one which has maybe lost a little impact over time through being shown so often in clip compilations and so on but anyone coming to it cold is bound to get a jolt. When you then look at the shape of the man’s career and how he successfuly avoided typecasting and grew into, in my opinion, one of the great actors of classic Hollywood turning in so many nuanced and varied performances, well it’s frankly remarkable.

    1. Yes, this film tied me in knots; the romance didn’t convince at all and the lawyer agreeing to ‘take care of the wife and family’ and then the wife dying just sent me spinning off in all sorts of unintended directions. I think what intensified my suspicion was the fact that the authorities never informed Nick of his wife’s death and that his kids had been put into care, it just made it all seem very odd, surely the prison governor would have apprised Nick of the events?

      I’m sure a rewatch will be much more pleasant without me getting my undies in a twist with mad theories.

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