70 years after its release, Kiss of Death still terrifies with Richard Widmark’s magnificent scene-stealer.
As far as Noirs are concerned these days, the shadow cast by Kiss of Death does not stretch across the genre landscape like it once did. The story of Victor Mature’s honor-bound jewel thief forced to squeal against his criminal cohorts after the state hijacks his children is borderline boring. Personally, do-gooder crooks have always grated the nerves, and while Mature’s hood never reaches the heights of acceptable hero worship, the film never allows him freedom from the righteousness of the law. Kiss of Death has more in common with the morality witnessed a decade later on Leave it to Beaver than the genuine filth of 40s street trash noir.
Although, who cares about the hero? Your mind doesn’t jump to Luke Skywalker when obsessing over Star Wars. Your bedsheets are spotted with that samurai dome of Darth Vader! Silence of the Lambs only succeeds because of Anthony Hopkins’ salivating slurps for fava beans and a nice chianti. Who remembers any of the faceless teens slashed through by Jason Voorhees’ machete? Not me. Kiss of Death is no different. Richard Widmark’s debut performance as the monster clinging to Victor Mature’s heart-of-gold thug is an absolute showstopper and solidifies this film as an essential entry in the genre.
Film Noir certainly has a moral code. Sad sacks are punished for their very being. Get rich quick ideas often end in lead rather than gold, especially if you offer your heart to a leggy blonde. Chumps gotta pay and Victor Mature’s Nick Bianco is a total chump. Give Kiss of Death to Billy Wilder or John Huston and they’d find a way to trick the censors into allowing a proper Noir send-off for our hero. Instead, Kiss of Death fumbles the climax with a happy ending perfectly in tone with a celebratory post-war America.
Kiss of Death has no Femme Fatales to put Mature out of his misery. The only female part belongs to sweetheart Colleen Gray as the swooning babysitter waiting to graduate into the role of Wife #2. Gray’s darling Nettie has an impressive ability to ignore the potential terrors of Nick’s Goodfellas lifestyle. Her eyes go wide at the thought of her man’s hard luck history. From her point of view, a few clean dishes and folded laundry will steer him from a life of crime. She’s no Barbara Stanwyck.
20th Century Fox and producer Fred Kohlmar were looking to make a big splash with the film, and they brought on director Henry Hathaway because the man was on a hot streak of cranking out quality crime capers (as well as a sludge of Westerns). He was a studio man to the bone and had little interest in shaking up the sensibilities of his audience. When censors pushed, he did not push back.
Hathaway had just received a Best Director nomination for The House on 92nd Street and was looking to further a new docudrama style with Kiss of Death. After the title card, the film proudly states, “All the scenes in this motion picture, both exterior, and interior, were photographed in the state of New York on the actual locale associated with the store.” That’s a bit of a white lie, some sets were used, but Kiss of Death placed its cameras inside the Chrysler Building for its opening heist as well as Sing Sing Prison, where you can spot one of the first toilets to ever be witnessed on celluloid. The Law & Order reality of these locations certainly places the film apart from other crime dramas of the era.
Kiss of Death would receive plenty of critical acclaim upon its release but scored only two Academy Award nominations for Eleazar Lipsky’s Original Story and Best Supporting Actor for Richard Widmark. Oh man. That’s it. Practically the only reason we return to this film over and over again 70 years later is that Richard Widmark is such a scene stealing monster.
The giggler. Playing the psychotic Tommy Udo, who would rather toss a wheelchair bound old woman down a flight of stairs than allow a no-good squirt to squeal on a pal, put Richard Widmark on the scene in a pretty spectacular fashion. Which is especially impressive considering how Hathaway desperately tried to eject him from the set. You see, Widmark simply didn’t have the hairline of a gangster. His light brown hair rested high on his forehead that gave Hathaway the impression of an intellectual. How could anyone be afraid by such a cranium?
Thankfully, production manager Charlie Hill went above his director’s head and snuck Widmark’s screen test to studio chief Darryl F.Zanuck who immediately took to the fresh-faced actor. Ordered to take on the newcomer, Hathaway apparently made Widmark’s life on set a living hell. Widmark only shot for 13 days, but nearly gave it up during a particularly brutal session with Hathaway. Hathaway had to chase him down after Widmark stormed out mid-lunch. The last thing Hathaway needed was the head of the studio coming down on his head. Amends were made, and the pair would go on to make five more movies together.
One cannot imagine Kiss of Death without Richard Widmark. He’s introduced inside a jail cell where he most certainly belongs, but won’t keep him caged for long. His constant giggling spitting violence with every breath. As he watches the pacing correctional officer he brags to Mature’s pigeon, “For a nickel, I’d grab him, stick both thumbs in his eyes, and hang on until he drops dead.” The grin splitting his head, the twinkle in his eyes practically sparking fire. Give me a time machine and I’ll produce the ultimate Joker for Batman to squash.
Kiss of Death doesn’t have the style of other postwar noirs, but it secures its footing within the genre by adhering to a grim integrity where hoods hold power over cops through honor and brute force. Henry Hathaway does his damnedest to scrape the depths of human depravity, but can’t quite free himself from the censors. Victor Mature does not deserve the wife and kids. He does not deserve to walk away from a blaze of glory, and neither does Richard Widmark’s Tommy Udo. Crime does not pay in 1947, the 1950s are coming to surround the chiaroscuro cities in white picket fences.