John Kahane (jkahane) wrote,
John Kahane

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Movie Review: Kiss of Death (1947)

I decided to finally watch Kiss of Death (1947) the other night, a lovely little film noir directed by Henry Hathaway and featuring Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Colleen Gray, and Richard Widmark.

I'm not going to do a really long review of the film, simply because I'm really struggling to write and all using my badly injured right wrist, but do want to say a few things about the film.

The plot of the movie goes... The film begins, as it ends, with narration by Nettie (Coleen Gray). On Christmas Eve, down-on-his-luck Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), an ex-convict, and his three cohorts rob a jewelry store located on an upper floor of a New York skyscraper. Before they can exit the building, however, the proprietor sets off his alarm, and Nick is apprehended by the police. Assistant District Attorney Louis D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy) tries to persuade Nick to name his accomplices in exchange for a light sentence. Sure that his lawyer, Earl Howser (Taylor Holmes), and cohorts will look after his wife and two young daughters while he is incarcerated, Nick refuses and is given a twenty-year sentence. Three years later, at Sing Sing Prison, Nick learns that his wife has committed suicide, and his daughters have been sent to an orphanage. Nick then is visited by Nettie Cavallo (Gray), a young woman who used to babysit his girls, who reluctantly tells him that his wife had an affair with Pete Rizzo, one of his accomplices. Nick decides to tell all to D'Angelo. Because so much time has elapsed, however, D'Angelo cannot use Nick's information to reduce his sentence, but makes a deal that if Nick helps the police on another case, he will be paroled. D'Angelo questions Nick about one of his previous, unsolved robberies, which he pulled off with Rizzo. Nick implies to Howser that Rizzo "squealed" on him. Howser, who also acts as a go-between to a fence for his clients, tells Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), a sadistic killer, about Rizzo's "squealing." When Udo shows up at Rizzo's tenement, only Rizzo's mother (Mildred Dunnock) is present. Annoyed, Udo pushes the wheelchair-bound woman down a flight of stairs, killing her. Soon after, Nick is freed on parole at D'Angelo's behest, and immediately pledges his love to Nettie. To stay paroled, Nick then continues his work with D'Angelo, conniving to run into Udo, whom he knows from Sing Sing, at a boxing match. The unsuspecting Udo takes Nick to various clubs, including one at which narcotics are being smoked, and Udo reveals enough information to Nick about a murder he committed to enable the police to arrest him. When Udo later comes up for trial, Nick, who is now married to Nettie and living in a small town, is reluctant to testify against him, but realizes he must in order to maintain his parole. Despite Nick's testimony and other evidence, Udo is acquitted. Sure that the killer will be after him, and that the police will not be able to protect him and his family, Nick sends Nettie and the children to the country. Nick then searches for Udo at his favorite haunts and finally finds him at Luigi's restaurant in East Harlem. Before confronting Udo, Nick telephones D'Angelo and instructs him to go to a police station near the restaurant and await his call. Nick provokes Udo into shooting him, knowing that he will now be incarcerated for life as a "three time loser." Though badly wounded, Nick survives, and he and Nettie look forward to a happy, peaceful life together.

Okay, here's the thing: While this movie is entertaining, overall I don't think it had much else going for it at all (but see below). While Henry Hathaway's direction is all right, I don't see that he covered any unique ground or brought anything original to the table with this picture. Hathaway had already incorporated filming in actual locations and quasi-documentary style with his previous work The House on 92nd Street, and would do the same (with more effectiveness) a year after Kiss of Death with Call Northside 777. The movie looks fine, and there is some nice editing in several key scenes such as the opening heist, the scene where Udo pushes Rizzo's mother down the stairs, and the ending which does nicely emphasize the tension of it all. The script was solid, but it lacks some style and panache, and that leaves it seeming a little flat in places. While there are some great lines, I honestly expected more from this movie given all the hype that it gets, and the quality of the stuff that writers Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer were capable of given their other credits. (Hecht was even more impressive with his list of uncredited contributions to may scripts over the years.)

With that being said, the performances of Victor Mature and Richard Widmark are the two elements that make this movie stand out from the pack. Victor Mature was truly effective in his role as Nick Bianco as he can balance the believable hood with the genuine guy who is motivated by his kids to straighten out his crooked life. He could have played the role very sappy (especially the scenes with his two little girls), but Mature verly wisely acted out the role and not the dramatic story. The result of this was a performance that elicits just the right mix of sympathy and compassion for his character. His wistful eyes also seal the deal when necessary, too. He was perfectly cast here, and his acting brings the protagonist, Nick, to life in the film. And then there's Widmark. If I had to choose one reason to recommend watching Kiss of Death, it’s the screen debut of Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo. His performance is outstanding; he doesn’t so much give you the creeps as he force feeds them to you. Udo is a perfect little menacing storm, a sadist and sociopath. Widmark commands every scene he’s in with such a forceful presence and performance that as the film continues, one finds oneself just waiting for him to appear. He also gets some classic lines such as telling a cop fishing for info that he wouldn’t give him “the skin off a grape.” Without Victor Mature’s understated performance, Widmark’s Udo might have lost some of his effectiveness by seeming too over the top or out of place, contrasted by a less convincing Nick Bianco. However, the two portrayals balance each other perfectly and create a solid foundation of tension and excitement for this otherwise moderate noir.

Overall, an interesting film in some ways, but I can only give it a 5.5 out of 10, based primarily on the performance of Widmark.

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