Henry Hathaway's 1947 feature Kiss of Death is one of a spate of post-war crime dramas from the director, many of which can be classified film-noir, most embodying the popular docu-drama style. In quick succession Hathaway made The Dark Corner, The House on 92nd Street, 13 Rue Madeleine, Call Northside 777 and Kiss of Death. The cinematography, so important to the mood of the films, on 13 Rue Madeleine, The House on 92nd Street and Kiss of Death is by Oscar nominee and Emmy winner Norbert Brodine.
Career criminal Nick Bianco has always played the game by gangland rules. He'll even keep quiet about doing a stretch on the proviso that his wife and two daughters are properly cared for. After three years in Sing Sing, Nick discovers that his pals, represented by Taylor Holmes (Nightmare Alley) as lawyer Earl Howser, may not be strictly above board. A hood named Rizzo has been the cause of Nick's wife suicide and now his children are in an orphanage. It is time to take a deal once offered by Assistant District Attorney Louis D'Angelo played by Brian Donlevy (The Big Combo). Nick is willing to turn informant for the chance to be a father to his girls and more to Nettie played by Coleen Gray (The Killing), a young woman who has long harboured feelings for him.
Nick is played by the underrated Victor Mature, who was generally the first to deride his career, before the critics had their fun ("Actually, I'm a golfer. That is my real occupation. I never was an actor. Ask anybody, particularly the critics.") I think he should have been able to point with pride to his performance here, in the classic My Darling Clementine and in winning comedies such as Footlight Serenade ("I'm an emotional actor. When I'm doing a scene, I really believe it, I live the part as long as I'm in the scene."). Mature brings a great deal of that emotion to Nick Bianco. The audience has to root for him, to feel events through him and it is his grounded performance to which Kiss of Death owes much of its success.
Victor Mature, Coleen Gray
Coleen Gray (co-star): "It's the best thing Victor ever did. But I have a feeling that because Richard Widmark was so good Victor may have had a little bit more of a prod."
Fulfilling his deal with the D.A. places Nick in the orbit of an unstable mob enforcer. Kiss of Death may be most notable for the character of Tommy Udo and his portrayer, Richard Widmark (No Way Out). A radio and stage actor for ten years, Widmark made his impressive screen debut as Udo, a man who lives for mayhem, particularly that of his own creation.
Henry Hathaway (director): "I have a very strange feeling about the part. The only man that I'm scared of is a hophead. I'm nervous around 'em. I'm scared of 'em. I don't know what the hell they're gonna do. They're unpredictable, they're vicious. They're not themselves any more. They're psychotic. They're crazy."
Udo is a maniac. Even audiences who haven't seen the film are familiar with the scene between Widmark and Mildred Dunnock (The Trouble With Harry) which involves a staircase and a wheelchair. It is the stuff of movie legend.
Richard Widmark was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his debut. It would be his only nomination in a distinguished career. The winner of the award at the 1948 ceremony was Edmund Gwenn for Miracle on 34th Street. The other nominees were Charles Bickford for The Farmer's Daughter and, also their only career nominations, Thomas Gomez in Ride the Pink Horse and Robert Ryan in Crossfire.
Elwy Yost (interviewer): "When I look at you I think of that laugh in Kiss of Death which chilled me and still does all down the years - that terrible laugh. I met someone who said 'he laughs like that'.
Richard Widmark: "When we were little my brother and I used to go to the movies in Princeton, Illionois and we'd cut up enjoying the pictures. The audience would say 'Well, the Widmark boys are here.' We were trouble with bad laughs."
TCM is screening Kiss of Death on Monday, November 16th at 10:00 pm as part of a six film salute to Victor Mature.
Gray, Hathaway and Widmark quotes are from TVOntario's Saturday Night at the Movies.