20th Century Fox
Victor Mature - Nick Bianco
Brian Donlevy - ADA DeAngelo
Coleen Gray - Nettie
Richard Widmark - Tommy Udo
Taylor Holmes - Earl Howser
Karl Malden - Sgt. William Cullen
Henry Hathaway - Director
Fred Kohlmar - Producer
Ben Hecht - Screenwriter
Norbert Brodine - Cinematographer
Thomas Little - Set Design
David Buttolph - Film Score
A guard makes his rounds outside a holding cell. One of the two guys in the tank cranes his neck to watch the bull patrol. "Lookit that cheap squirt, passing up and down," he grouses in an oddly high voice. "For a nickel I'd grab him . . . stick both thumbs right in his eyes . . . hang on till he drops dead." Then he chortles, and it's like staccato bleats of a raspy alto sax. The film is Kiss of Death (1947), the loser in stir is Tommy Udo, and the actor injecting Tommy with a new strain of dementia is Richard Widmark, making his Dark City debut. "Imagine me in here," he says to sloe-eyed cellmate Victor Mature. "Big man like me gettin' picked up. Just for shoving a guy's ears off his head. Traffic ticket stuff."
Once he's sprung--and hunting down a potential informer--Widmark makes movie history. He uses a torn-out electrical cord to lash Mildred Dunnock, the squealer's mother, to her wheelchair, then pitches her down the stairs of her tenement, cackling happily all the while. Audiences were brought up short by such berserk mayhem--but also guiltily beguiled.
Kiss of Death was an unusual hybrid, in limbo between the flamboyantly stylized cinematography of Norbert Brodine and the semi-documentary approach that director Henry Hathaway previously used in The House on 92nd Street. Mature played Nick Bianco, a hump trying to shake the crooked life who gets enlisted by the cops as a stoolie. Bianco fingers Udo for a job that's been nagging the law, but the prosecution bungles the case and the wacko walks. Nick sends his family away, knowing that he'll have to confront the vengeful Udo if he ever wants to be free of him.
Poor Victor Mature. He gave probably his best performance in Kiss of Death, but nobody noticed. They were breathlessly waiting for Widmark to reappear, eager for whatever fresh, twisted tricks he had up his sleeve. Ostensibly a story about Bianco's struggle to go straight, Kiss of Death is actually one of the earliest psycho-stalker movies. All its suspense is generated by wondering when and where Widmark will pop into the frame.
Tommy Udo wasn't the type of provocative, persuasive gangster Jimmy Cagney played to perfection in the 1930s; audiences weren't responding to Udo's anger and ambition, or relating to the simmering social motivations that made him turn bad. With Widmark inhabiting the baggy suits, white tie on black shirt, and fedora big as a lampshade, spectators were jazzed by his dizzy, dangerous charisma; he played it big and broad, with a spring in his step that might launch him over the top at any moment. All told, he had about 15 minutes of screen time, and he devoured it. He funnelled bad intentions, annoying habits, grating obnoxiousness, and total amorality into Tommy Udo, and let it rip. The result was a vicarious thrill, and it proved very influential. Double Indemnity (1944) had broached the unthinkable by making murder acceptable screen fare. Widmark took the next step--pathology as squirmy entertainment. And he raised the bar for all subsequent noir nutcases.
It was Darryl Zanuck who recognized the lunacy lurking in Widmark. Henry Hathaway didn't want to hire him, even after seeing the maniacal leer and hearing the freakish titter in a screen test. He thought Widmark was too clean-cut. But Zanuck prevailed, even outfitting Widmark with a hairpiece that lowered his forehead and made him look a little denser, and a lot scarier. Widmark scored an Oscar nomination for his Kiss of Death performance.
Kiss of Death was remade in 1994 with David Caruso, Nicolas Cage, and Samuel L. Jackson.
--EDDIE MULLER, from Dark City
The Lost World of Film Noir
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