Remind Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger to remove "petty jewelry theft" from his to-do list.
It will mark you for life as it marked him for…Betrayal
To be literal for a moment, I cannot figure out how the tagline above and the title of this film relate to its actual content. None of the kisses in this movie are the least bit dooming; in fact, they're downright pure. Few people die. Finally, the main character wasn't betrayed by anyone. Aside from its tendency towards hyperbole, Kiss of Death is a taut little tale with some noirish touches to give it character.
Facts of the Case
A melodramatic voiceover by a forlorn lady informs us that Nick Bianco (Victor Mature, My Darling Clementine) is basically a good guy. Sure, he has a "record," and that prevents him from getting honest work no matter how hard he tries, so he has no choice but to pull heists to feed his family.
One of the jobs goes south and Nick ends up in the joint. On his way there he meets two men who take an interest in him. The first is Assistant DA Louie DeAngelo (Brian Donlevy, The Quatermass Xperiment), who wants Nick to sing in exchange for parole. The second is Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark, Night and the City), another "big man" on his way to Sing Sing. Tommy is a stone cold killer and an incorrigible con; he's impressed by Nick's steadfast refusal to rat out his partners.
Nick's world is turned upside down when his children's babysitter Nettie (Coleen Gray, Nightmare Alley) calls on him in prison. She has news that will force Nick to rethink DeAngelo's offer. No matter where Nick turns, he'll find hard choices, hardened men, and lots of chiaroscuro in his way.
The bulk of Kiss of Death is a modest, based-on-a-true-story tale of crime and woe. There's nothing spectacular about Nick or his circumstances, and nothing particularly compelling about his turn as a stool pigeon. Kiss of Death is almost romantic-comedy-like in its execution: Man meets crime, man leaves crime, man hooks up with crime again. Crisis, resolution. Yet out of the nondescript foundation emerge a few noteworthy aspects.
The first and most noticeable is the realistic look of the film. Director Henry Hathaway goes straight to the source, shooting scenes on their actual locations. This is noticeable because the opening credits tell you so; how quaint to throw a little self-promotion right there in the intro! Fortunately, this hokiness doesn't detract from some truly beautiful camerawork achieved by cinematographer Norbert Brodine. New York has a distinct look, and Brodine makes the most of it. Establishing shots of lights and skyscrapers in silhouette lead into a New York in full seasonal glory, with Christmas shoppers amok in the streets. From posh nightclubs to gritty prisons, Hathaway and Brodine milk as much texture from the locations as possible.
The self-promotional focus on cinematography quietly gives way to Victor Mature's personable portrayal of Nick. Though he worked through six decades, Mature was never a big name or recognized star. Indeed, his relative lack of star quality allows him to succeed in this modest, intimate tale culled from the real life of a small time hood. Mature doesn't steal the show by any means, but he capably anchors it and gives Nick some plausibility and a sympathetic quality. When Coleen Gray arrives on the scene as Nick's former nanny, we can somehow buy their slapdash romantic entanglement. Gray is also capable in her role, sweet but not saccharine, petite but with a hint of spark. Her perkiness doesn't grate, and there seems to be more to her than just a pretty face and her status as Nick's love interest. She has the intriguing "I want to know more about this woman" vibe that characterized Judy Garland's stardom, though Gray would never reach those levels of fame.
Mature may not steal the show, but Richard Widmark does. Like Coleen Gray, Widmark made his debut in Kiss of Death. Unlike Gray's, his performance left an indelible mark on cinema and made Widmark a household name overnight. Tommy Udo is such a ruthless, depraved character, and his manner crawls under your skin so thoroughly, that Widmark is impossible to ignore. His characterization could so easily have spasmed across the line into caricature, or become smarmy or irritating. But Udo's manic, staccato laugh just skirts that edge, and his bitterly cold eyes and palpable menace invigorate later scenes. The unnecessary murder he commits onscreen is shocking; it isn't hard to see why Joe Pesci would evoke shades of Tommy Udo in Goodfellas. In fact, Widmark's Oscar-nominated turn as Udo would inspire countless nods from subsequent maniacal mobsters.
These characters spice up an otherwise small, vague tale. Kiss of Death morphs though a series of focus shifts. It seems like a hardboiled crime saga at times, a political game at others, even a tale of family values and romance. It ends up in a dramatic knot of danger and redemption. Its inability to stick with one theme gives Kiss of Death a wishy-washy, gutless quality. But touches of depth, particularly the way Eleazar Lipsky's script makes the end of the film tense and involving instead of anticlimactic, keep the otherwise straightforward story fresh.
The tale is also enhanced by a couple of pure noir moments. The most obvious is Nick's nervous vigil when he knows Udo is coming for him. A car's headlights slice through the dark house and set off a game of hide-and-seek in the shadows. The pressure mounts, and you just know that someone is bound to die. I don't know how film noir can support such ludicrous amounts of shadow, but it does so to powerful effect. Noir jumps back onto the front burner when Nick takes matters into his own hands at the end of the film. A showdown with Udo over a restaurant table is fraught with peril and tension; mostly because of Widmark's scintillating menace, but partially because of the composition and the score.
A superb commentary by James Ursini and Alain Silver walks us through the nuances of the film without much pause or filler. The pair has an impressive understanding of film noir, and they're able to parlay that knowledge into an engaging commentary. Though I don't fault most of their specific points, Ursini and Alain Silver hold the film in higher esteem than I do. This is good for noir fans because the commentators highlight the positives in each shot, performance, and theme.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Kiss of Death strikes me as a small-time movie that exceeds its boundaries through one brilliant performance and a handful of taut scenes. I've seen similar films, such as Force of Evil, that maintain a grittier, more aggressive tone. Others, such as Night and the City, place their victims into more desperate mazes. By comparison, Kiss of Death's emotional punch is more of a slap.
I can think of nothing less suitable for a 1940s noir film than a forced anti-theft warning set to pulsing techno music. These "public service" announcements need to die a fast, quiet death.
Though the transfer seems sharp and bold, constant instability causes the image to wander up and down in a diagonal drift. This annoyance is most prominent whenever words are on the screen, but it is present to some degree throughout the film. Also, the level of perceived detail comes at the expense of digital noise reduction, which causes tiny swarms of mosquito noise in the lighter areas. This is one drawback of a cleansed transfer, and it is less objectionable than edge enhancement. The audio is in good shape, with clear dialogue and little distortion.
Kiss of Death has just enough drama and tension to recommend it to noir fans. The cinematographic mixture of realism and expressionism is interesting, and Widmark's characterization of Tommy Udo is worth seeing. But if you're looking for a truly tense, palm-clamming, noirish thrill, there are better examples to seek out first.
Squealers are not condoned in this courtroom. Get outta here.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by film historians James Ursini and Alain Silver
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