Kiss of Death Review
If screen violence was measured on intent and remorse instead of visceral bloodletting, Richard Widmark’s notoriously depraved scene in Kiss of Death would rank near the top. Even those who haven’t watched the film may be familiar with the infamous wheelchair Widmark’s Tommy Udo sends flying down the stairs, with a helpless and bound Mildred Dunnock still attached and screaming for her life. Udo giggles maniacally as he swiftly rips the cord from a lamp and ties up his victim before wheeling her out into the hallway and down the staircase. All that’s missing is a reaction shot from Udo. We know he’s giggling. The character takes a gleeful joy in violence and gives Kiss of Death a much-needed shot in the arm when he’s on the screen. When he’s not around, things are a little less interesting and Henry Hathaway’s film stumbles a bit from time to time.
It takes roughly forty minutes before Udo gets the spotlight. He has a brief introduction earlier and meets Victor Mature’s Nick Bianco on a train as the two men are escorted upstate to Sing Sing prison in New York. Bianco is an ex-con who got back into the robbery game and is now serving a sentence of twenty years. A strangely sympathetic female narrator tells us that Bianco couldn’t secure employment due to his criminal record. It’s almost a justification for the robbery Bianco and his cohorts commit on Christmas Eve. The audience is always intended to like Bianco and root for him. We’re told he saw his criminal father shot down as a young boy and he now has a wife and two little girls. The narrator just barely stops short of telling us Bianco is kind to animals and helps little old ladies cross the street (instead of pushing them down staircases, maybe).
Mature’s performance doesn’t entirely help the situation. Overall in the film, he’s as good as I’ve ever seen the actor, but his natural gentleness makes it tough to take him seriously as a repeat offender and violent criminal. The initial scenes, of Bianco robbing a jewellery store, fail to play to the actor’s strengths (which are, frankly, minimal). Despite his considerable size, he’s not believable as a tough guy or a criminal. His vulnerability is explored to great depths in the rest of the film, to persuasive effect, but there are no flashes of his supposed former self. It’s hard to believe the Nick Bianco seen for the majority of the movie could have been menacing or dangerous. It’s telling that when Bianco threatens Udo near the finale, he doesn’t mention physical harm. Instead, Bianco promises he would go to the police about murders Udo had bragged about committing when the two men shared a prison cell. It’s difficult to reconcile how Bianco, with his past, wouldn’t be furious or in a violent rage at the idea that Udo would hurt his family.
Depending on one’s viewpoint, Bianco might be described as stoic for these and other actions throughout Kiss of Death, resigned to whatever outcome fate has set aside for him. There’s a lot of Christian symbolism in the film, from the placement of a church’s cross to Bianco’s own demise and resurrection via voiceover. It’s not terribly obvious, and will probably fly over the heads of many viewers, but it’s undeniably there if you pay attention. Whether it adds anything of interest to the picture is up for debate. For me, it plays as misguided and unnecessary. Bianco’s societal rehabilitation seems only to occur as the result of his testimony against the men who robbed the bank with him. (Their redemption is, of course, apparently unimportant.) Forgiveness or repentance never plays a part in Bianco’s newfound happiness. He’s not any less guilty now than before so what’s the lesson here? Sin and report your fellow sinners to find the path to salvation?
Continuing this line of thought, Bianco’s guardian angel would be Nettie, played by Coleen Gray. Turns out she’s the narrator and she used to babysit the Bianco children. She visits her significantly older former neighbour in prison to lend her support. The next time we see the two is after Bianco has been paroled and suddenly they’re romantically involved. Then, they’re married and living in a new town with a new last name and Nick is in the equivalent of the witness protection program. Nettie’s motivations are bizarre enough that they no longer bother me. This is fairly common treatment for female characters in male-dominated older films, where the audience is expected to just go along with the idea that women make little logical sense and are unable to resist any lead male character regardless of his shortcomings. That’s to be discussed in books, not reviews, and, more importantly, by someone else. So, let’s suspend our disbelief that a beautiful, nubile young woman would basically throw herself at a twice-convicted criminal with a dead wife and two children and move on to the other problematic portions of the film.
Though far from being difficult to follow or understand, the plot tends to jump around indiscriminately, often completely skipping over amounts of time without explanation. This really hinders any kind of development outside of the Bianco character. Sometimes it feels like Hathaway and screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer got bored and decided to fast forward the plot whenever they became disinterested. (Though someone, I’m guessing Hecht, threw in possibly the funniest line ever spoken by an attorney in a non-comedy - “We’ve got no defense at all,” the mob lawyer says to Bianco after his client has just happily confided that he turned down a deal from the prosecution.) Another possibility is that studio chief Daryl Zanuck tinkered with some of the slower, more transitional scenes. The booklet included with this DVD mentions that Zanuck excised scripted and shot scenes of Bianco’s home life from the beginning, and added Gray’s narration. It probably does help the film’s pace initially, but I think it hinders the overall impact since we know nearly nothing of Bianco’s former life. The upside to this narrow focus on advancing the plot is that Tommy Udo’s scenes are all memorable and he rightfully takes his place as one of filmdom’s supreme psychopaths.
Ultimately, it’s Widmark who makes Kiss of Death worth watching, whether it’s the first or tenth time seeing the picture. His jazzlike rhythm, astoundingly dead-on for a film debut, transforms Udo from hyperkinetic Cagney-lite to a completely nutso character all his own. That hyena chuckle Widmark gives the role remains unnervingly creepy sixty years later. There had been crazy villains in film before, but possibly never anyone so subhuman in their actions and emotions. Udo has been parodied and aped by countless performers over the years, including Widmark himself after Zanuck repeatedly put him in similar roles and with the same wolfman hairpiece, but the original incarnation still proves shocking and cruel. It’s almost disgusting to lament the relative lack of screen time for Widmark here, given the horrific things his character says and does, but it’s a compliment to the actor’s performance just how much of a difference he makes with a role billed fourth and one that would have been far less memorable in virtually anyone else's hands.
Fox released Kiss of Death in its R1 Film Noir line two years ago and the BFI's R2 PAL version looks basically identical imagewise. The transfer is strong and has minimal dirt in the print. There is a bit of damage here and there, but nothing out of the ordinary and both releases seem to contain the same minor imperfections. Blacks are reasonably good and detail and sharpness raise no complaints. The film was shot on location in New York so the lack of controlled studio lighting may affect the film's natural contrast. Regardless, this is a fine transfer overall, certainly not too grainy and with more than adequate contrast levels. Though this is also a single-layered disc, the image quality here is definitely a step up from the BFI 's simultaneous [url="http://www.dvdtimes.co.uk/content.php?contentid=66090"]Cry of the City[/url] release.
Audio levels are maybe a bit low, as I had to crank up my speakers at times. Again, I noticed no difference between the Fox R1 and the BFI's Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Fox's disc does have four audio options, including English stereo, English mono, Spanish mono, and a commentary, whereas this just has one. The Fox mono and stereo tracks really seem barely distinguishable though. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included on the BFI disc, and are white in colour.
The only area where the BFI give Fox a possible challenge is in the extras department. The latter included a pissing contest of a commentary between "film historians" James Ursini and Alain Silver, the usual flimsy liner notes, a stills gallery, and the theatrical trailer. This new BFI release forgoes any commentary, but has a very welcome interview (18:25) with Richard Widmark conducted in 2002 at the National Film Theatre by Adrian Wootton. Fans of Widmark may have noticed a distinct lack of input on the fine DVD releases of his films, including the Criterion releases of Pickup on South Street and Night and the City, as well as many titles put out by Fox. Their disc of Sam Fuller's Hell and High Water included an episode of A&E's Biography series about Widmark, but it was more of a personal look at his life than an exploration of his film career. I found this fairly recent interview on the Kiss of Death DVD to be more interesting, as Widmark candidly touches on everything from Kiss of Death and Night and the City to Otto Preminger's Saint Joan ("something I should have done in a closet") and working with John Ford (lovingly classified as a "total tyrant" and an "Irish drunk"). Widmark was 87 years old at the time the interview was shot, but he's in fine form.
The theatrical trailer is included on the BFI's release as well and features Walter Winchell's typically subtle narration, commenting that the film was "written by a machine gun." There's also a twelve-page booklet containing an essay by Lee Server, who provides similar writings for all three upcoming BFI Film Noir Collection releases. Among other things, he discusses director Henry Hathaway's well-known cantankerous behavior onset and the semi-documentary, shot on-location feel that so many of the Fox crime films of this time period boasted. A brief interview between Hathaway and Polly Platt is also included. I particularly enjoy seeing the cover images in the style of the original poster art on these BFI booklets. The cover artwork for Penguin Books' release of the film's source novel is also reproduced inside the booklet and looks quite striking.
The BFI Kiss of Death disc is a nice addition to their Film Noir Collection series. The fine transfer is virtually identical to the Fox R1, but they've added a stellar Richard Widmark interview from 2002 and an attractive twelve-page booklet. The Fox disc retails for $15 while this one is pricier at £20. The additional extras are the only reason to upgrade if you already own the earlier release, but picking up the BFI version is a viable alternative otherwise. The Widmark interview is definitely worth watching for fans and film noir buffs, but I doubt it's worth the difference in price.
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