Movie Critique - Kiss of Death

Stars: 5 / 5

Recommendation: Film noir with some real intense moments which shake you to the bone and they definitely made me shiver while telling the tale of two crooks with polar opposite characters - one filled with a moral heart; and the other has no heat at all. 

Kiss of Death is a 1947 American film noir directed by Henry Hathaway and produced by Fred Kohlmar, and released by 20th Century Fox. The film has some big name stars who appeared on A and B movies in several film noir such as Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Coleen Gray and Richard Widmark among others.

Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) is caught running from a jewelry heist and assault on a police officer, sentenced to 20 year jail time. Assistant District Attorney Louis D'Angelo (portrayed by Brian Donlevy) tried to get the names of his accomplices, and he caves in turning police informant. After released from jail he moves to Queens with his new wife and kids, but now he is pursued by a psychopathic killer against who he had testified.

The film is based on a story by Eleazar Lipsky, former assistant district attorney for city of New York. Screenplay was written by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer. It received two Academy Award nominations - For Best Supporting Actor to Richard Widmark and Best Motion Picture Story to Eleazar Lipsky.

Check out the theatrical poster that Eddie Muller shares with the viewers right before airing it on Turner Classica Movies (TCM) channel as pat of Noir Alley Holiday Edition in December. The opening credits are shown over a bound manuscript titled Shooting Script and a revolver placed on top of it, which is then picked up by a hand to reveal the title of the film. Each subsequent titles are shown as pages being flipped through the manuscript. 

The only tie to Christmas and this film is that the heist was planned on Christmas Eve that goes awry. And Oh, the filming at Old Saint Nicholas Arena might add to the Christmas element too. Otherwise this is straight up film noir. This film again comes under that category of films that are very vey broadly classified as Christmas films.

This film was specifically purchased by 20th Century Fox as a vehicle for Victor Mature who got the lead role. With his drunken episodes and finding him in the men's toilet many times, he was a difficult actor to work with for director Henry Hathaway. But him being an excellent actor and a perfectionist none of that is seen on screen when he plays his part. 

Richard Widmark makes his film debut with this film and he gets an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Tommy Udo in the film. He based the personification of his character Udo after Batman's arch nemesis The Joker. His deranged cackle has become legendry and has been used by Frank Gorshin when he played the role of The Riddler in the 1960s television series Batman. 

Widmark also lands the most famous and iconic scenes of American cinema in this film - the scene where he pushes Mildred Dunnock's Mrs. Rizzo character in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs, maniacally laughing. His gleeful sadism rocked the Hollywood cinema to the core and changed the way they filmed film noir or mystery murder movies in general. This scene was censored in the original UK release and has been added since 1974.

Eddie Muller in his closing comments after the film on TCM mentioned that in an interview he had with Coleen Gray, she revealed that the famous wheelchair scene might have started with Midlred Dunnock being pushed down by Widmark's Tommy Udo. But the scene that shows the forward of the flight down the stairs was in fact done by her husband and dialogue director Rod Amateau. He was considered jack-of-all-trades in film business and had several bruises to show his cinematic immortality. Interesting!

Though Mature gave a great performance in the film, it was overshadowed by Widmarks psychopathic Tommy Udo. Widmark goes on to become a successful actor with a long career, first as anti-hero or villain in film noir; and later as leading man in Westerns, drama and horror genre. 

This is the first credited role for actress Coleen Gray as well. She played the part of Nettie Cavalio, second wife to Mature's Nick Bianco. She also narrates the beginning, all through the film and the ending of the film, which was outside of the norms in those days to have a female narrator.

We get to see a film noir fixture and old time radio legend Brian Donlevy in the film as Assistant District Attorney Louis D'Angelo. 

The film had a different ending first, but then the filmmakers changed it to what it remains now to give it a happy ending. Actual locations were used in the filming and credited for the same in the beginning of the film. As used in many movies made under 20th Century Fox banner, the background music of the beginning and ending is taken from Alfred Newman's Street Scene.

The film comes with some real intense moments which shake you to the bone and they definitely made me shiver. The story tells the tale of two crooks with polar opposite characters - one filled with a moral heart; and the other has no heat at all. Filmmakers kept giving the viewers shock after shock after shock at every turn of the frame, thus making it another immortal noir leaving a deep mark in the film world. 

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. Karl Malden is seen in one of his first film roles as Sergeant William Cullen. 

b. Although they start a rocky relationship, Richard Widmark and director Henry Hathaway ade five more pictures together. Widmark was also pallbearer at Hathaway's funeral.

c. Lux Radio Theater broadcasted a 60-minute radio adaptation in January 1948 with Victor Mature, Coleen Gray and Richard Widmark reprising their roles.

d. Another 30-minute radio adaptation was broadcasted in October of 1948 by The Screen Guild Theater with Victor Mature and Richard Widmark reprising their roles. They also did a 60-minute radio adaptation in March of 1951.

e. A 1995 remake was made with the same title and had David Caruso, Nicholas Cage, Samuel L. Jackson and Helen Hunt in the cast. Incidentally the character Tommy Udo who made the 1947 film famous was omitted in the 1995 version.

f. Checkout a 1929 or 1930 stock footage of New York montage at the beginning of the film. It is clear because of a display of Jeanette MacDonald in the 1929 American pre-Code musical comedy film The Love Parade. 

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. ADA D'Angelo proposes a deal to Nick, while his cellmate Udo is in hearing distance. This is highly inappropriate and is not how the business is conducted in reality.

b. After Udo's girlfriend leaves the club, and when Udo nd Nick are talking, you can see the piano player behind moving his fingers on the keys, but no sound of music is heard in the background.

c. After Nick puts his wife and daughters on the train, he walks off in the opposite direction of where his car is parked.

d. Nick looks at the phone number of the 37th Precinct in the phone book which shows as UN 4-3400. But when he dials the number he doesn’t dial any zeroes.


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