Film-Noir gets interesting when the stylized, more formalistic world of this dark genre begins to seep into the familiar human drama that we as an audience are more used to. Many of us have families. We have jobs so we can provide for our families. Or maybe some of us don’t and that makes for some tough decisions.
In Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death, Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) has been out of work for a long time now, so on Christmas Eve, in order to get presents for his two little girls, he robs a jewelry store with a few other accomplices. What sets him apart is he’s not your stereotypical ruthless criminal. He’s a family man, but he’s also bought into the idea that you don’t squeal. So inevitably after he gets caught and booked, Nick will not talk and he gets sent to the clink. The assistant D.A. (Brian Dunleavy) tried to help him, but Bianco took the three years in Sing Sing instead. After all, his wife is doing fine and so are his daughters.
While he’s in the clink, however, he gets tragic news that his wife committed suicide and his two girls were sent to an orphanage and that changes his entire outlook. He needs to get out of there, and he’s ready to sing if that means getting to see his girls. He begins communication with D.A. Louis D’Angelo again, and he also begins to receive visits from a pretty young woman named Nettie (Colleen Gray), who used to babysit his girls back when his wife was still alive. As his relationship and gratefulness in Nettie grow, Nick also comes in contact with Tommy Udo who is also serving time. He’s a thug with a maniacal laugh and psychopathic personality if there ever was one. He’s not a good guy to cross.
The day finally comes when Nick gets out and he has Nettie waiting for him with his two girls. They are a beautiful happy family and Bianco has remade his life possibly better than it ever was before. However, he’s still beholden to the D.A. and they want him to get dirt on Tommy Udo. They don’t know what they’re asking, but still, Nick goes through it reassured that depending on what he can get, Udo will be put away for good. But of course, the slimeball beats the rap and Nick’s now a sitting duck. He sends his family away and waits for a confrontation with Udo.
His home life has all of a sudden been shattered, and he’s a wreck. Udo’s sadistic laugh undoubtedly ringing in his ears. In a different era, this film could have spiraled deeper and deeper into the darkness after the final confrontation. Supposedly there was one cut of the film where Widmark’s character actually got away and Mature was left for dead. The ending that was decided upon is still harrowing but holds a Hollywood silver lining as Coleen Gray’s narration ties up the story in a nice bow.
There potentially was also a scene in Kiss of Death with Mrs. Bianco where Udo took advantage of her and drove her to commit suicide, but it was deemed too graphic at the time. Although I would admit that such a scene would have made Udo even more despicable, he really did not need much help. Widmark plays him to a tee with a chilling laugh that would make the Joker proud. Mature is certainly not the standout, but he’s a necessary every man who we can empathize with. The demure Colleen Gray (who unfortunately just left us) is also fun to watch as the girl who stands by him. She also serves to narrate our story informally. Maybe it’s just me, but I really do not grasp the importance of this title. It gave me major misconceptions going in, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The title of many noir films seem to me provocative more than content-inspired. I guess I’d posit that Mature gives his life the “kiss of death” by being discontented with what he has and going over to the wrong side of the law.
I confess I dislike when women in noir are used as angelic objects through which to provide sympathy for a male protagonist — often by killing them to set the man on his journey. (The late noir film Cry Vengeance does this — including kids too — as does the new-noir Memento, to name just two others.)
I do, however, love young Widmark in villanous noir roles, and Tommy Udo’s smile and laugh are absolute evil! I remember his character far more than broody Victor Mature after seeing the film six months ago.
This said, it’s a solid noir melodrama and I can see why you give it 4/5 stars.
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Great analysis. I agree Widmark is certainly the standout. Not a great film but I found it surprisingly enjoyable.
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