Sunday, November 1, 2015

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for November on TCM

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.". - Victor Mature

I think Victor Mature 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  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.

"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." - Victor Mature

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. 

Richard Widmark

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, Illinois 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.


  1. Widmark deserved his kudos as Tommy Udo (ahem), but I believe you and Coleen Gray are on the money about Victor Mature's performance. Great pick for November.

    1. True. If Victor Mature's performance didn't work, it wouldn't matter what else happens in the film. I hope people who aren't familiar with the entire movie take the opportunity to catch it on TCM.

  2. Ah, Kiss of Death. I haven't seen this one in years and should revisit it. What I love about the movies you mentioned along with this one is that most, if not all, are ensemble pieces, even if they have a big-name star. Victor Mature deserved more strong roles.

    1. November is just the month for these hard-boiled crime dramas. What you say is true, there is always an interesting face and/or performance in unexpected roles that make everything come together.

  3. I love this movie. You're exactly right -- it's Mature (and Coleen Gray) who make the movie matter and provide the contrast to Widmark. Mature is superb and this was also the movie where I fell in love with Gray, in a very open and naturalistic performance.

    Best wishes,

    1. Yes! Coleen Gray's "Nettie" wears her heart on her sleeve and is totally disarming and incredibly brave.

  4. Great write-up. I love how Widmark was able to move from a giggly psycho to a true blue leading man in "Panic in the Streets" and then back to a sort of anti-hero in "Pickup on south street". Mature was underrated too. I love him in "My darling Clementine"

    1. Reputations lead to expectations among audiences. You keep telling them a guy is "just a hunk" then that is all they see. Mature had a lot more going for him.

      With Widmark, perhaps due to his years on stage/radio, he knew how to handle his career within the studio system and was able to display his versatility. Two very interesting actors in a dandy film.



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