A Henry Hathaway Film
Another of Henry Hathaway‘s neo-realist film noir‘s that aped the post-war Italian film penchant for shooting dark themes in real locations without glamour and emphasizing the grit. This one, about the rise and fall and rise of heist-criminal Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), starts out in the sky-scrapers, jail-houses, and police offices that reverberate with the realistic sound that you can’t acquire in a sound-baffled soundstage, but once the mayhem starts, the film scurries back to the safety of studio sets. It’s rough in the mean streets of noir. Safer to make your own.
Bianco is an ex-con who can’t find a job, and with a wife and two kids to support, he decides to make his own work—robbing a jewelry business in downtown Manhattan. The job goes South and he ends up on the street with a police bullet in his leg and a stretch awaiting him at the gray-bar hotel. He’s offered a chance by assistant D.A. Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) to supply evidence on his cronies, but Bianco sticks to the criminal code—he won’t squeal, sing, or rat, even when D’Angelo offers him an early parole so he can see his kids. But Bianco won’t bend. His family is being “taken care of” by his sheister of a lawyer (Taylor Holmes), who visits him in prison to keep tabs on Bianco’s loyalty.
But, in prison, Bianco gets wind that things aren’t going so well. And a visit to the prison library newspaper galleys tells him his wife has committed suicide, his kids are now orphans, and his silence has bought him nothing.
Hathaway’s direction is no-nonsense throughout, but stylistic, anyway, and the scenes in the initial robbery, in the D.A.’s office and the lock-up have a drab, utilitarian look to them—the robbery has a nice touch in it, as the crooks’ target is on the 44th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper, and the post stick-up elevator ride (with plenty of stops) provides a particularly teasing kind of tension. Mature is fine, Donlevy’s abilities aren’t taken advantage of, and there are bit parts by Karl Malden and one of my character actors, the short-lived Millard Mitchell (who played Gene Kelly’s producer buddy in Singin’ in the Rain).
But Kiss of Death is also the feature debut of Richard Widmark, who plays the cheap gangster killer Tommy Udo. You don’t see him kill too many people, but one of them is indelible in its cruelty and vicious enthusiasm. Widmark’s performance is amazing, looking like a wire-thin Dan Duryea, with Cagney‘s ability to hold the eye in every scene he’s in. His dialogue isn’t the greatest (even though the script is by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer) and limited, and repeated over and over, but Widmark punctuates it with a goonish laugh that implies a sarcastic inner amusement that he knows he’s stringing you along. Hathaway, knowing what he was getting from the young actor, pulled out all the stops for his performance. There’s one scene where someone’s waiting for udo, who’s holding court in a curtained-off restaurant back-room. Hathaway holds on the curtain, elongating the wait, then cuts to a close shot of the part in the curtains, where all you can see is the glint in Udo’s eye before he gets up and makes his way to the camera, It’s an amazing shot and one that shows the director’s confidence in his young actor’s ability to hold an audience’s attention, even when he isn’t actually seen.
When New York mobster Joe Gallo–a vicious killer known as “Crazy Joe”–was starting out as a small-time hoodlum, he saw this movie and instantly idolized Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). Afterwards, Gallo began wearing his suits with black shirts and white ties in emulation of Udo. He also began acting in a more crazed manner, thus giving rise to his “Crazy Joe” persona, which lasted until the gangster’s death in 1972, when he was murdered by rival gangsters in Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy.
According to Richard Widmark, there were pads on the bottom of the stairs during Mildred Dunnock‘s scene as well as men to catch her, but the cameraman forgot to rack the film and the scene had to be shot a second time.
A Tale Of Two Crooks – One With A Heart, One Without One
This was a 1940s film noir with a little bit different slant: the main character “Nick Bianco” (Victor Mature) being a caring father. Here’s a guy torn between being a crook most of his life and the damage it did to him mentally, but at heart a real softie who is desperate to go straight and just be a regular family guy with everyone leaving him alone. In the story, he turns “stoolie” so he can earn that freedom and be that family man.
Among film noir buffs, however, this film is noted more for Richard Widmark’s debut as the sadistic “Tommy Udo.” One of the most famous noir scenes of all time is “Udo” throwing an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs! Widmark puts on a fake pair of choppers giving him an exaggerated overbite to go along with his insane little giggle. He also calls everyone a “squirt.” His over- the-top performance puts a lot a spark into this film which, otherwise would have wound up more as a melodrama.
Two other actors have key roles in here: Brian Donlevy and Colleen Gray (making her credited film debut, too1). Donlevey plays a character who never see in modern-day films: a compassionate district attorney who goes out of his way to help “Nick.” It’s refreshing to see, for a change. Gray becomes Nick’s love interest and is a very appealing wholesome type, as are the two sweet little girls Nick had with his former wife who killed herself while Nick was in prison. Gray becomes the step-mother.
Although not spectacular, the film is entertaining, especially the suspenseful last 20 minutes. It’s quite dated in spots but Widmark’s character alone is worth investigating this film if you’ve never seen it. I’m surprised there aren’t more reviews of this.