Friday, 21 June 2019

Noir Diary # 4:
Kiss of Death
(Henry Hathaway, 1947)

Maybe it’s just me, but ‘Kiss of Death’ strikes me as an overly dramatic title for this meat n’ potatoes crime/gangster melodrama, made for Fox by western specialist Henry Hathaway.

True, Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) plants some big kisses on his kids and his second wife (Coleen Gray) in the second half of the movie, and ok, he’s a reformed felon in deep trouble at the time, but his affections certainly never smack of death, and that aside, there are no femme fatales or doomed dames here, no sexual undertones or any funny business like that – just crooks and cops in their off-the-peg duds, chatting in offices and cell blocks, taking care of the day to day. Solid stuff, and no damned kissing.

Am I being too literal here? Didn’t pulp crime writers basically just pick these titles out of a (big, black) hat, more often than not? Well, regardless, I’d probably have called the picture “Confessions of a Stoolie”, or hey, how about “Nicky Soprano”? [It’s been done – Ed.]

Well no matter, ‘Kiss of Death’ it is, and it begins with a nice bit of post-modern humour - the image of a revolver placed atop a movie screenplay (marked “shooting script”), as an unseen hand begins to turn the pages, and the credits are presented in the form of typed script notations.

This self-awareness is immediately jettisoned however once we get into the film itself, which opens with Nick Bianco and a few of his cronies pulling off a Christmas Eve heist at a Manhattan jewellery store (located inside the Chrysler Building, no less). Although Mature gives the impression of being a pretty thorough-going, black-clad bad-ass at this point, voiceover narration (read, rather hesitantly, by Gray) foregrounds Bianco as a sympathetic figure, informing us that he’s been searching for a straight job for over a year, but that his criminal record has got him the bum’s rush every time, forcing him into this act of desperation to buy some Christmas gifts for his family.

A sweat-drenched journey down to the lobby in a crowded elevator establishes the film’s strongest suit – tension! – before a desperate flight from the cops leaves Bianco writhing in the gutter with a bullet in his leg. “The same thing happened to his father twenty years earlier; he died with a police bullet in him,” Gray’s voiceover flatly informs us. A pretty great opening, all in all.

Bianco keeps his stone-faced front up all the way to Sing-Sing, repeatedly telling obsequious Assistant D.A. Brian Donlevy “no deal” when the latter offers Nick a plea bargain in return for fingering his accomplices, manipulatively appealing to the felon’s recently acquired status as a father and aspirant decent guy. In the process of telling Donlevy to shove it, Bianco inadvertently gains the admiration of his cellmate, a twitchy young gangland psychopath, the perfectly named Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), but… more on him later.

After several years in the joint, things change for Bianco when he learns – via a fellow inmate and a scan of a newspaper obituaries column in the prison library, rather unfeasibly – that his wife has committed suicide. Stuck her head in the gas oven, no less, leaving the kids bound for the orphanage. Harsh.

Bianco had entrusted his family’s wellbeing to one of his partners on the robbery job. Evidently, that didn’t quite work out, so before you know it, Nick is back up-town, singing for Donlevy.

Out on parole as a result of his vengeful snitching, Nick is soon making time with Gray (the nice gal who used to live downstairs and babysat the kids) and, after tying the knot of course, the couple reclaim his two adorable moppets from the nuns. But, inevitably, ol’ Brian is soon on the phone again, asking Nick to set up and testify against another old pal of his – young Tommy Udo. One ‘not guilty’ verdict later, and you can probably see where this train is heading.

Behind the camera, ‘Kiss of Death’s credits are a dictionary definition of “solid”. Master script doctors Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer sure as hell knew how to write a three act genre movie (there are a few clunky lines and abrupt time transitions, but hey), and Henry Hathaway sure as hell knew how to direct one.

There are a few striking compositions, and the film is attractively photographed by Norbert Brodine, making effective (but rarely showy) use of real world locations – an element which doesn’t seem terribly noteworthy today, but proved a game-changing novelty for noir/crime films in the immediate post-war period.

Aside from a few looming shadows and dark hats in the final act however, there’s not much of that wild, expressionistic stuff that usually gets us noir fans excited. Even this early in noir’s “second wave”, realism was clearly already the big word, jarring somewhat with the film’s more baroque characters and theatrical performance styles - a disjuncture Hathaway and Brodine attempt to correct by allowing the atmosphere to become slightly more fantastical as the story progresses.

Likewise, there is little of the kind of moral ambiguity, all-consuming corruption and doomed inevitability that defines the noir sensibility to be found in ‘Kiss of Death’. Straight-down-the-line, good vs evil melodrama is more the dominant flavour here, with the Production Code-friendly, family values moralism championed by Donlevy’s character baked into the heart of the film, rather than sprinkled on top as an after-thought.

There is a cloying sense of paternalism for instance to the scene in which the prison governor compliments Bianco for his neat hand-writing, whilst a guard opines that “he’s not a bad guy”, and in the way that Nick timidly proceeds to follow the Assistant D.A.’s orders, hanging his head like a naughty child who knows he’s done bad and wants to make good.

When Mature tells Donlevy, “your side of the fence is almost as dirty as mine”, the older man comes back with, “yeah, but we only hurt the bad guys” – a questionable assertion which Hathaway is content to leave largely unchallenged, even after the D.A. proves himself to be pretty ineffectual when it comes to protecting his star witness’s loved ones from harm.

In front the camera meanwhile… well, I know that Victor Mature took a lot of stick over the years for his supposed lack of thespian talent and willingness to cruise on his good looks, but I’ve always had soft spot for him. Sure, he doesn’t exactly have much range, but how many capital letter Movie Stars really do? More important than that, he has brooding screen presence to die for, and does that lethargic, heavy-lidded drawlin’ thing just as well as Mitchum. He did great work as the tormented, alcoholic Doc Holliday in Ford’s ‘My Darling Clementine’, and as the crusading cop in Robert Siodmak’s ‘Cry of the City’, to name but two.

In ‘Kiss of Death’ though, well, I begin to see what his critics were getting at. Nick Bianco anchors this film front to back, and would likely have proved a challenging gig for any actor, with the script requiring him to transform in quick succession from a tight-lipped criminal operator to a grief-stricken jailbird, and from a craven, self-loathing stool pigeon to a defiant and proud family man. Mature might nail the first of these aspects pretty well, maybe the second, but beyond that, he struggles.

His conduct in the family scenes feels weird and overbearing, whilst the scene in which he reports back to the cops on Tommy Udo’s activities is deeply unconvincing; he sounds more like a concerned movie star recounting a conversation he overheard outside a nightclub than an insider from the criminal underworld breaking a lifetime’s silence.

Mature does manage to retain our sympathy throughout however, and he can get convincingly cool n’ tough when needed, so I won’t shame his memory by uttering the names of a few of his contemporaries who could have aced this role in his place… let’s just suggest that he was an actor who hit a lot harder in “one note” kind of parts, and leave it at that.

Speaking of “one note” parts meanwhile, most critics seem agreed on the fact that it is Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo who steals this movie. Indeed, Widmark – who made his big screen debut here after a few years slugging it out in theatre-land – even received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his trouble… and how I wish we still lived in a world where The Academy was willing to award a nod to this kind of berserkly cartoon-ish over-acting once in a while.

Basically, Widmark’s approach here is to take the kind of “sneering, psychotic punk” character first defined by James Cagney in ‘The Public Enemy’, and to crank the dial up to eleven. As a portrayal of full spectrum, eye-popping, lip curling (literally - he curls that lip good), subtlety-free villainy, Widmark pretty much knocks it out of the park here, and I don’t think anyone’s quite found it yet, over seven decades later. (Having said that, it’s certainly no surprise to discover that Nicholas Cage took on the role in Barbet Schroeder’s 1995 remake.)

Merely looking at Tommy Udo’s face is enough to conjure up images of bullet wounds being probed with pen knives, abandoned syringes and chorus girls with smashed up faces, along with a metallic smell of cologne and formaldehyde – and that’s even before he starts laughing like a hyena. He’s like some killer, mutant animal that has emerged fully-formed from the ugly tensions of the artificial urban environment, his cherubic features rendered grotesque by the sadistic impulses that lurk beneath.

At various points, Udo reminded me both of Richard Attenborough’s Pinky in ‘Brighton Rock’ and Ronald Lacey’s sadistic Nazi in ‘Raiders of The Lost Ark’ – which should give you some idea of where this freak stands in the canon of OTT cinematic villainy.

In ‘Kiss of Death’s most notorious scene, Udo ties up a wheelchair-bound elderly lady (the mother of a fellow underworld fink) with electrical cord and pushes her down a flight of stairs to her death. A shockingly violent moment that succeeds in upping the ante on the similar exclamation points of perverse brutality that became a trademark of Warner Bros’ ‘30s gangster films, this admirably tasteless attention-grabber also serves a vital narrative function in establishing beyond doubt the kind of threat Tommy Udo poses to Nick Bianco’s family.

Indeed, it is the reality of this threat that helps to make the film’s final act - in which everything goes a bit ‘Cape Fear’ once Udo is acquitted and back on the street – into by far its most compelling section. Hathaway may not exactly be the most stylistically extravagant of filmmakers, but as Bianco waits, and waits, for Udo to make his move, the director wrangles the slow-burning suspense and apprehension of the scenario beautifully. There are looming, empty shadows, bead-of-sweat close-ups, nocturnal door creaks, passing headlights and lots and lots of clock-watching. Endangered innocents, helpless heroes and long, pregnant silences. Old tricks, but they work like a charm.

By the time our hero and villain finally square off, we’re deep into a psycho gangster dream world (and back on the studio lot), hanging tough in a Mafioso seafood joint after midnight whilst gunmen in a sedan with black window blinds lurk outside. Lugosi and Karloff meanwhile wish they could have come up with some jive as genuinely chilling as the threats Udo issues to Bianco whilst ironically acting out the part of his “big pal” through sneering, clenched teeth: “yeah, it’s all gonna be fun, fun, fun for us from now on. Just you, and me… and your wife … and your kids. Kids like to have fun.”

In the end, this superb build-up is slightly undermined by a muffed ending, in which a perfectly respectable downbeat / tragic conclusion is ruined by a last minute attempt to “fix” it with a closing voiceover narration that must have left the entire audience filing out into the lobby scratching their heads in confusion… but you’ve just got to learn to live with this stuff in old Hollywood crime pictures, I suppose. Here in the home video era, I’ll simply advise viewers to mute the sound for the final ten seconds, and everything should work out nicely.

At the risk of repeating myself, ‘Kiss of Death’ isn’t exactly what I'd deem definitive film noir, hampered as it is by plodding melodrama and some deeply square, self-satisfied moralising, but as a more straightforward crime / suspense movie, it does the business.

Tommy Udo at least has become something of a key gangster movie archetype (in a horrible instance of life imitating art, the notorious NYC mobster “Crazy Joe” Gallo is reported to have used the character as an early role model), and the scenes involving Widmark crackle with a malign energy that makes the film essential viewing, irrespective of its flaws.


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Maurice Mickelwhite said...

Kiss of Death - I've not seen this for best part of the century so far. Was recommended by a coworker back in the past, who shared the Noir gene, as "It's got a speedfreak Widmark flinging an old woman in a wheelchair then laughing like a jackal, you gotta see it!"

I thought he was overselling it, but it did indeed have that.

Ben said...

Ha! Yep, definitely has that in it. (Also, I wish I had co-workers who dropped recommendations like that on me.)

I guess I must have become de-sensitised from watching too many horror movies, because the wheelchair-down-the-staris scene didn't really shock me that much upon first viewing. Just, like, yes, he pushed the old lady down the stairs - he is indeed a bad man. Job done. It was only digging into the special features etc afterwards that I realised this was main reason the film is remembered by many people...