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Kiss of Death

20th Century Fox
year: 1947
runtime: 99′
country: United States
director: Henry Hathaway
cast: Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy,
Coleen Gray, Richard Widmark,
Taylor Holmes, Howard Smith,
Karl Malden, Anthony Ross
writers: Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer
and Eleazar Lipsky
cinematographer: Norbert Brodine
music: David Buttolph
dvd company: 20th Century Fox
release date: December 6, 2005
retail price: $14.98
disc details: Region 1 / NTSC / dual layer
video: 1.33:1 / full screen / progressive
audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 mono (English, Spanish)
Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo (English)
subtitles: English, Spanish
special features: Feature commentary by
Alain Silver and John Ursini, theatrical trailer,
stills gallery, promotional trailers for other Fox Noir
(Call Northside 777, House of Bamboo, Laura,
Panic in the Streets, The Street With No Name)
order this film from

Plot: An ex-con back in prison for a jewelry heist squeals on the mob that hired him after learning that his wife has died in his absence.

What a great film!  Victor Mature last paid visit to this site via Hal Roach Sr. and Jr.’s original cavemen-versus-dinosaurs epic One Million B.C., which cast and typecast Mature as the stoic slab of manhood he would play time and again throughout his career (Samson and Delilah, Demetrius and the Gladiators and so on).  Henry Hathaway’s location-bound neo-realist noir requires far more of Mature as a performer than any of those efforts did or would, and the actor, cast against then and future heavies Brian Donlevy (Beginning or the End, The Quatermass Xperiment) and Richard Widmark (Panic in the Streets, The Bedford Incident), proves time and again that he can pull it off with chops to spare.

Mature plays Nick Bianco, a decent man forced by unfortunate circumstance into a life of crime.  His past is checkered, his father was shot dead by police when he was just a kid and he spent time in prison as a young adult.  His wrap sheet is enough to keep him from finding a steady job in post-war New York, so Bianco turns to pulling contract heists for the local mob.  On Christmas Eve a jewelry store hold-up goes sour, and Nick finds himself on the street in front of the Chrysler Building with a policeman’s bullet in his leg.  Assistant D.A. D’Angelo (Donlevy) offers Nick is offered a plea deal, but he refuses it, getting 15 years in Sing Sing while his accomplices go free.

Nick, good guy that he is, is more than happy to serve the time for the crime he knows he committed, and is led by shady (or shyster, as D’Angelo puts it) lawyer Houser into believing that his wife and two young daughters will be taken care of.  He couldn’t be more wrong.  After an affair with Nick’s old cohort Rizzo his wife takes a nosedive into alcoholism and depression, eventually snuffing out her miseries in a gas stove.  Nick doesn’t find out until well after the fact, and concerns over the welfare of his children, now in an orphanage, and a visit from his former babysitter Nettie (Coleen Gray in her first billed role) convince him that helping the assistant D.A. might be the right thing to do after all.

Ratting on his cohorts in the Christmas Eve jewelry store job is small stuff, and soon Nick is put on the job of squealing on slick mobster Tommy Udo (Widmark in his Academy Award-nominated screen debut), a squirrelly sociopath Nick first met while awaiting trial in the Tombs.  The gig works, and Nick gives D’Angelo all the evidence he thinks he needs to put Udo away on a murder wrap.  Bianco goes on with his life, marrying the much younger Nettie and living with his kids in Queens under an assumed name.  But it isn’t long before D’Angelo is calling again, demanding that Nick shed his secrecy and testify in the Udo case, a guaranteed conviction we already knows is going to swing the other way.

With the sadistic Udo back on the streets, Nick knows that it’s only a matter of time before he gets an unwanted knock on his door.  Realizing that D’Angelo will be of no help, Bianco puts his family on a train to the country and goes out to find Tommy himself to settle things once and for all.

Kiss of Death is best remembered, and perhaps rightly so, for the hilariously sadistic breakout performance of Richard Widmark as the demented hood Tommy Udo.  With sunken eyes, a slicked-back hair piece and a constant giggle, Udo is more of a cartoon caricature than a human being, but even caricatures can be dangerous.  Udo is the man Houser calls when there’s dirty work that needs doing, and when the lawyer is led to believe that Nick’s old friend Rizzo is squealing on the mob it’s Udo he sends in to fix things.  And fix them he does, wrapping Rizzo’s wheelchair-bound mother with electrical wire and sending her on a face-first trip down her tenement’s stairs.  Widmark’s performance is absolutely electrifying here, and he imbues Udo’s human weasel (undoubtedly an inspiration for Judge Doom’s henchmen in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) with enough raw power to make him a believable threat, even when so obviously physically outmatched by co-star Mature.

Though he can’t help but be upstaged by Widmark in his gravy role, Mature is no push-over.  At 6 foot 2 inches tall he looks a bit like Gulliver after his landing on Lilliput when decked out in his suit tie (perhaps an intentional move to make the family man look all the more out-of-place as a criminal), but his emotions are spot on and in the final confrontation with Widmark he more than holds his own.  It’s interesting that even in noir Mature can’t escape Biblical associations, and his sinner-turned-martyr is followed by a good deal of Christian symbolism.  Prison bars cast shadows that form crosses in at least two scenes (one of them across Mature’s face) while he is seen centered beneath another (this one in a stained glass window) when he visits a Catholic  orphanage with D’Angelo and his cop assistant.  When it comes time for the cops and robber to take their seats in a waiting room, Mature sits directly below a painting of Christ, and a nun working the orphanage, much to the embarrassment of the assistant D.A. and his friend, has to ask which of them is the ex-con father.

While much of the symbolism looks to have originated with director Hathaway (Call Northside 777, True Grit), it extends well into the Hecht and Lederer (and possibly the Lipsky source story, though I’ve not read it to check) as well.  The assistant D.A. who saves Mature from prison is named Louis D’Angelo (Louis ‘of Angels’) and Mature himself plays a character named Bianco (white), re-enforcing his overall goodness.  It’s never terribly overbearing and no one will ever confuse Kiss of Death for a Christ allegory, but it’s interesting to point out all the same.

Veteran director Henry Hathaway plays the early events as realistically as possible for a dramatic film, showing us through the procedure of Mature’s confinement and ushering us through a series of real locations.  The drama will seem dated for anyone happening upon it today, but seeing the Tombs, the D.A.’s office, and Sing Sing and its workshops alive on the big screen helps.  The documentary style on display, with its high-key lighting and straight compositions, stands in for that classic noir aesthetic for the first two acts, not that it hampers the suspense (an early scene of Nick trapped in an elevator is superbly claustrophobic).  The change arrives with a call from D’Angelo informing Nick that Tommy Udo has beaten his murder wrap, and from here on out fans of low-key noir stylings will find themselves in familiar territory.  Hathaway ramps his crime drama into a slick thriller in the third act, and his direction of Mature, crushed by the realization that his work with D’Angelo was for nought and turned paranoid by fear for his family’s well being, is exceptional.

My only real complaint is with the framing and the ending, which smells of studio tampering, not that either of these things keeps the film from succeeding.  The film is bookended with narration from Nettie, who offers a bit of useful backstory in the beginning and adds a happy high note to the otherwise grim finale.

Those worried about spoilers should skip this rest of this paragraph. Nick ends them film prostrate on the ground, shot half a dozen times in the gut by the vengeful Udo, with the three-time-loser immediately apprehended by police for the assault and locked away for good.  As Nick is shuffled into an ambulance, obviously on his way out, Nettie’s narration chimes in to let us know that he, in no uncertain terms, survives.  Here we fade to a stock shot of New York seen at the beginning of the film, then the ending title.  There’s ample evidence here to indicate that Nettie was not originally intended to be the framing device, and the Nick did not actually survive.  It seems far more likely that assistant D.A. D’Angelo was set to be the original framework for the piece, particularly given that the source story was based on the experiences of its author Eleazar Lipsky, a former prosecutor.  It’s food for thought certainly, but as I said, not enough to ruin the picture.

Kiss of Death gets exceptional treatment as part of the Fox Film Noir collection, with the black and white feature and supplements spread over a hefty 7.5 gigs of disc space.  The progressive transfer is excellent for such an old catalog title, with tight 1.33:1 framing and healthy detail.  Contrast looks appropriate if a little boosted and a fine layer of that beloved film grain is present throughout.  Damage is limited but still present, mostly as dust and speckles but occasionally as more obvious chemical imperfections.  It’s never enough to really distract from the viewing and I suspect this is the best the film has looked in a good long time.  Audio is available in three flavors, English in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono and 2.0 stereo, and Spanish in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono.  Recording on all three is crisp, and I didn’t note much difference between the stereo and monophonic tracks.  Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.

Fox offers up a feature commentary track from Alain Silver and John Ursini as the chief supplement for the disc.  While short on background information and high on observations of things that will be pretty obvious (at least I hope so) to most viewers, the pair still offer up some good information – certainly worth a listen and not nearly so pointless as some other tracks I’ve come across (Once Upon A Time In The West, for instance).  The other supplements are pretty standard issue, a theatrical trailer in good shape, a still gallery, and a collection of trailers for other Fox Noir titles (including Panic in the Streets, starring Widmark, and Call Northside 777, directed by Hathaway).

This is a great disc from Fox, currently on sale at 60% savings (a bargain price of just $5.99) at  Fans and film buffs in general are encouraged to indulge.  As for the film, what more need be said?  It’s a landmark performance from then-newcomer Widmark and one of the best from the underrated Mature, all wrapped up in a fine crime drama by director Hathaway and writers Hecht, Lederer and Lipsky.  The fine score is so good we’ve heard it thrice, with the opening theme recycled for Elia Kazan’s Gentlemen’s Agreement and the less upstanding 3D attraction Gorilla At Large (insert your own canned ape sound effects here – they did).  Excellent stuff, and highly recommended.

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