Monday 15 June 2020

Movie Review: Kiss Of Death (1947)

A character profile focusing on the dilemma of an informer, Kiss Of Death is an intense crime drama heightened by an unforgettable Richard Widmark performance. 

It's Christmas time in New York City. Ex-convict Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) joins three hoodlums to rob a jewelry story at the Empire State Building, but he is the only one caught. Assistant District Attorney Louis D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy) offers leniency in return for the names of the other gang members, but Nick refuses to squeal and is sentenced to a long stint behind bars.

Three years later, Nick learns his wife has committed suicide, and his two daughters are in an orphanage. His ex-neighbour Nettie (Coleen Gray) visits him in prison and reveals that Rizzo, one of Nick's former associates, may have mistreated his wife before her death. Nick now strikes a deal with D'Angelo, naming names to earn visits with his daughters. Soon Nick is released on parole and settles down with Nettie, but D'Angelo wants his help to nab the dangerous Tommy Udo (Widmark), a psychotic killer.

In one of the more memorable big screen debuts, Richard Widmark announces his arrival with an incendiary performance. When he is on screen as the cackling, unhinged Udo, nothing else matters. He commands his scenes with a murderous edge of barely contained psychosis, creating one of the screen's most noteworthy villains.

When Widmark is not dominating, the screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer is primarily interested in Nick's soul searching as he struggles to decide whether the criminal code of silence is worth the impact on his family. Despite a robust and heartfelt Victor Mature central performance, the narrative is sometimes bogged down wondering if Nick can be a good man at heart. 

But director Henry Hathaway also punctuates Kiss Of Death with short and sharp moments of extreme violence, including allowing Udo to earn his place in cinematic infamy in a scene involving a wheelchair and a staircase.

Some elements proved too troublesome for the censors and audiences of the day, leaving Nick's story somewhat muddled. His wife's death, and the role of the criminal Rizzo, were truncated to the edge of incomprehension. The romance between Nick and Nettie proceeds at jarring speed, and the climactic showdown is too far fetched, even for the standards of hardboiled men.

But Hathaway also produces some moments of noir-infused brilliance to compensate for the rough spots. In a couple of sequences, time slows down to a crawl to build unbearable tension. The endlessly long elevator descent from the opening scene of the crime to the lobby of the Empire State Building allows Nick plenty of time to reflect on his life's downward trajectory. And later, Udo's emergence from behind a curtain at an Italian restaurant is prolonged to an epic noir moment.

On either side of the prison walls, Kiss Of Death offers only dark paths to redemption.

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