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Kiss of Death

Kiss of Death(1947)

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Victor Mature gives one of his best performances in Kiss of Death as two-time loser Nick Bianco, a small time crook who has done time and finds it impossible to get work once he has been released. Penniless and desperate to buy Christmas presents for his two little daughters, Bianco and three partners attempt to pull off a daring daylight jewel heist in the Chrysler Building. The job goes sour almost from the start, and Bianco is apprehended before he can get out of the building, though his confederates manage to escape.

Bianco is brought up before Assistant District Attorney Louie DeAngelo (Brian Donlevy), who offers him a lighter sentence if he will name his accomplices. Bianco balks at the idea of turning stool pigeon, even when DeAngelo points out that he has two children who need him, and that cooperating with the authorities will drastically reduce his sentence. But Bianco adheres to a strict code of honor and refuses, earning him the maximum sentence.

Three years into his stretch Bianco learns that his wife has committed suicide, and that his daughters have been taken to an orphanage. Naturally distraught at the news, he offers to do a deal with DeAngelo, which will at least allow him to visit his children. In an effort to keep Bianco's fellow criminals from knowing that he was the one that shopped them, DeAngelo instructs Bianco to contact his lawyer, the shifty Earl Howser (Taylor Holmes), who has made a fortune striking shady deals for gangsters. Bianco is to tell Howser that he believes that one of his confederates has talked, choosing as the fall guy a thug named Rizzo, whose affair with Bianco's wife led to her suicide.

Instead of sowing seeds of doubt among the thieves that will lead to their capture, this act unexpectedly sets in motion a dangerous and violent chain of events when Howser contacts psychopathic ex-con Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark, in his film debut), who has a pathological dislike for "squealers," to "take care of Rizzo."

Bianco obtains his early parole and is reunited with his children, eventually marrying long-time friend Nettie (Coleen Gray) and settling down to a normal home life, resolved to leave the past behind. But DeAngelo is not quite finished with him: During Bianco's time in prison he met Udo, who boasted to him of one of the murders he committed. Determined to get Udo convicted, DeAngelo pressures Bianco to appear on the witness stand against him, sure his testimony and that of an eye-witness will ensure that the crazed killer will go to the gas chamber. However, when Udo is unexpectedly acquitted, he goes gunning for Bianco, who has to take matters into his own hands to save his family.

Written by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, Kiss of Death is a fascinating study in retribution and redemption. The film is heavy in religious imagery and draws a fine line between the actions of the criminals and the machinations of the good guys. In the scene in which Bianco receives his initial instructions from DeAngelo, he observes, "Your side of the fence is almost as dirty as mine," to which DeAngelo replies, "With one big difference: we hurt bad people, not good ones." And in one of the film's few amusing moments, when Bianco arrives at the orphanage to see his children, flanked by the DeAngelo and a detective, they are greeted by a nun who asks which one of them is Bianco. Her failure to immediately discern the crook from the cops causes the three of them some noticeable discomfiture.

The film is centered by Mature's finely textured performance as Bianco, with the metamorphosis through which his character passes reflected in his posture and the way he moves: In the early scenes, Mature smoothly demonstrates the studied cageyness of a con who will not give anything away, physically holding himself in reserve. In the shattering scene in the prison mill in which he receives the news that his wife is dead, and he is forced to go on working, his movements become indistinct and faltering, as if he literally doesn't know which way to turn; and his mental confusion as he enters new ground by squealing is palpable. Mature manages to convey all of this effortlessly and with no sign of artifice, subtly shifting to more assured movements as his character becomes more familiar with his new role.

It is truly one of Mature's greatest performances, which is only overshadowed by the startling debut of Widmark in the necessarily more showy role of Udo. Widmark won an Oscar nomination for his performance as the leering, giggling psychopath, with the legendary scene in which he pushes an old wheelchair bound woman down a flight of stairs so pungent that it's amazing it didn't end his career before it began. Despite the somewhat dated quality of the performance, Widmark still packs a wallop as the mad-dog killer, and makes such an indelible mark early in the film that his presence seems to loom over the action when he is not onscreen.

Director Henry Hathaway, who proved himself a master of the "docu-noir" subgenre with films such as The House on 92nd Street and Call Northside 777, provides complex and subtle imagery that reflects the transformation of the characters, with Mature's wardrobe growing lighter as he moves from criminal to good-guy, while the environment ironically grows darker: during the first third of the film, while Bianco is on the wrong-side of the law, the action is played out in sunlight and brightly lit rooms (even the initial robbery takes place on a bright morning), while the scenes following Bianco's change of sides slowly descend to night, until the ultimate midnight showdown.

With its sure-handed direction, unforgettable central performances, and the sharp screenplay, Kiss of Death stands as one of the finest examples of 40s film noir.

Released to DVD as part of Fox's Film Noir series, the film is showing signs of age with some general wear to the source, though generally the transfer is excellent. The disc includes an informative feature-length commentary by noir historians James Ursini and Alain Silver, as well as the theatrical trailer and a still gallery.

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by Fred Hunter