Kiss of Death (1947)
Release Date: August 27th, 1947 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Henry Hathaway Actors: Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Coleen Gray, Richard Widmark, Taylor Holmes, Karl Malden
hot on location in New York, which few films could claim back in 1947, Henry Hathaway’s “Kiss of Death” is a sensational thriller that features one of the most memorable villains of the genre: Richard Widmark’s acting debut as Tommy Udo. A typical hard-boiled gangster flick, “Kiss of Death” sports the essential elements of classic noir, including a confused antihero, devious villains, gunplay and action, incompetent cops, and sets that cast shadows on everything that steps in front of the screen. A complementing score also presides over the events of the luckless lead, with thanks to composer David Buttolph, who carefully submerges the moody atmosphere with choice dramatic notes.
Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) is a common mob criminal with an unusual sense of decency hidden beneath his stony demeanor. Caught during a jewelry store heist, he refuses to rat out his accomplices and is sentenced to a harsh term in Ossining (that’s Sing Sing for aficionados of gangster slang). His silence comes from faith in his lawyer, Earl Howser (Taylor Holmes), who regularly defends mobsters and assures him that he will get an early release and soon be reunited with his wife and daughters. But as time passes and he hears nothing from the counselor, Bianco gets word from a fellow inmate that his wife committed suicide and his kids were sent to an orphanage.
Distraught at his loss and utter inability to help his loved ones, Nick decides to aid the district attorney in nailing the other criminals involved in his organization (his deal also involves parole). When he is able to provide sufficient evidence against mob hitman Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), a trial is set, but the jury finds the defendant innocent. Well aware of the dangers of a stoolie, Bianco sends his newfound girlfriend Nettie (Coleen Gray, who lends her sultry voice for narration) away with his children for safe keeping so that he can personally settle the score against the considerably displeased killer.
Bianco is a definitive antihero who is not an entirely bad guy but is inextricably caught in harsh times; he wants to go straight but is doomed to be a perpetual pawn in the gangster lifestyle. Although he eventually breaks free from his sense of duty to the mob, the ilk that surrounds him always returns to pull him back in. Seeing a fated protagonist continually dig himself into a deeper and deeper mess is nothing new, but Bianco’s gentle-giant temperament assists in defining a character that viewers can’t help but admire and pity. In addition, the police ineptitude forces him to take on increasingly more stressful scenarios with little dependable support, pushing him into full loner, underdog status.
However, none of the actors can outdo Widmark’s show-stealing performance as the unhinged but maniacally competent Tommy Udo, a villain so sinister not even a mother could love. Slapping dames, antagonizing the innocent, cackling like a madman at every word, and throwing wheelchair-bound old ladies down flights of stairs is just the beginning of Udo’s vicious visual characterizing, which is likely to have the audience grinning with veneration at how innovative this evildoer was for a 1947 release. His effective design was a stepping-stone for future criminals who outperform the mainstays viewers are supposed to be rooting for. “He’s nuts and he’s smarter than you are,” quips Bianco to district attorney Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) after Udo escapes his murder charges on a technicality. And Widmark would pick up a merited Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his efforts.
– Mike Massie