Saturday, February 17, 2018

Kiss of Death (1947)

Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway, 1947) 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.
It's curtains for Widmark's Tommy Udo

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