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.


The Quatermass Xperiment

quaterm1Continuing this recent Hammer marathon, my delve into Hammer films I haven’t seen before means we now go back a little further in time, to 1955. The Quatermass Xperiment is widely considered the beginning of the Hammer line of films that fantasy and horror fans hold dear and would both cement the company’s name in British film history, and put its films on the world stage.

The Quatermass Xperiment was based on Nigel Kneale’s BBC serial The Quatermass Experiment (note the subtle spelling change for the film version) from 1953. which had been hugely successful for the BBC. Hammer producer Anthony Hinds immediately saw the possibilities in a film version and  chased the film rights as soon as the six episodes were aired.

Three astronauts have been launched into space in the first launch of the British-American Rocket Group, which crashes back to Earth in an English field after straying off-course and out of contact with Ground Control. Of the three crew, only one remains, the only sign of the other two astronauts being their spacesuits, still sealed but empty. The sole remaining crew member is Victor Carroon (Richard Wandsworth) who is badly injured and incoherent.  Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) who is in charge of the project desperately tries to find out what happened to the flight while it disappeared for a number of hours, and what happened to the two missing crew. Meanwhile Carroon baffles his doctors, never becoming coherent and slowly deteriorating. Recovered from the crashed ship, in-flight footage from during the period in which the ship was out of contact suggests an extra-terrestrial encounter with something unseen that killed the missing crew. Carroon breaks out of hospital abetted by his wife, beginning to transform into some monstrous creature to terrorise London and threaten the whole world.

quaterm2One of the chief pleasures of material like The Quatermass Xperiment is its vantage point at the start of the Space Age, back when anything beyond the Earth was alien and unknown and full of mystery. Space has inevitably been ‘normalised’ over the decades since, but back in the early 1950s (and of course in all the 1930s/1940s pulps prior) space was unknown, full of dark mystery. There are wonderful moments in this film when people wonder at the astronauts having been somewhere no-one else had ever been, experienced things no-one has ever seen or felt, and an almost palpable sensation of the fear of a dark frontier. There is an almost Lovecraftian theme of humanity transgressing where we should not go, or of the Outer Dark of Space infecting us, changing us. A contemporary sci-fi/horror film loses that.

The Quatermass series by Nigel Kneale has always had a dark and foreboding theme questioning our place in the universe: Quatermass and the Pit (both the 1967 Hammer version and the earlier BBC serial) has always been a personal favourite of mine, the Hammer film scaring me witless when I was a kid.

For once, the casting possibly hindered my enjoyment of this Hammer effort. For one thing, Brian Donlevy’s American Quatermass proved especially troubling- the guy is portrayed as a bully and a jerk, striding around like he’s got a broom up his ass. Quite unlike the portrayal I’m familiar with from the two versions of Quatermass and the Pit I’ve seen. This seems to have been a concious decision of the film-makers and one that original writer Nigel Kneale (who had no input in the film) was particularly unhappy with- so incensed was Kneale that he refused to allow Hammer to immediately make a sequel (which is what X: The Unknown was intended to be, necessitating that Dean Jagger’s character be changed from Bernard Quatermass to  Dr Adam Royston).

quaterm4The other particularly sour point in the casting is Margia Dean as Carroon’s wife, Judith. On the evidence of this film, Margia Dean simply could not act: its like watching someone from some amateur acting group thrown in front of the camera, not helped by being horribly dubbed in post as if by someone hellbent on making her look/sound even worse (so jarring its a little like Harrison Ford’s ‘deliberately bad’ narration in the theatrical prints of Blade Runner in 1982). So bad in fact was Dean that I looked her up and wasn’t really surprised to read of sources alleging that she was cast in the film because she was the girlfriend of 20th Century Fox president, Spyros Skouras (I’ve since been surprised that she appeared in quite a few films, despite her apparent lack of talent, before retiring in 1965 upon marriage to an architect). It did strike me a number of times just how much better the film would have been had June Thorburn played the part- it seems the kind of role that Thorburn would have excelled at.

Better casting includes Jack Warner as Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lomax (predating his most popular turn as Dixon of Dock Green), Richard Wordsworth who is absolutely brilliant as the doomed Victor Carroon, and good old Lionel Jeffries as an harassed Government minister who constantly complains to Quatermass regards his recklessness (not unfounded, as it turns out, with Quatermass coming across as some modern Frankenstein by the end of the film through a sobering epilogue).

With a typically great soundtrack by James Bernard (who deservedly went on to become a Hammer regular), a score that prefigures some of the techniques of Bernard Herrmanns Psycho, the film is a great thriller, the source material raising above the limitations of some of the cast. Certainly, its inevitably somewhat dated but its pre-Space Age perspective adds a certain mood of horror and Lovecraftian atmosphere. Some of the imagery is terrific- particularly that of the crashed space rocket. The Quatermass Xperiment is one of those films that I’ve heard about for many, many years and yet somehow never got around to. Well, I’ve rectified that at long last and I’m so glad I did.

It was rumoured a year or so ago that the film was going to be getting a remake; I don’t know how that has been progressing but do I think that bringing it up to date into our current times might lose much of the charm of the piece.

The Quatermass Xperiment is currently available streaming on Amazon Prime