Thursday, February 20, 2020
Noir Watch: Kiss of Death (1947)
Format: TCM on DVR
Kiss of Death (1947) was one of the first "noir" films I watched years back when I was trying to sort out "what... is noir?". It took a second viewing a couple of years later for me to get how it fit into the category, but I do feel it is a good example of a certain kind of noir. More importantly, it's got a great set-up that plays into a tight, engaging story, and has three fantastic performances. And Brian Donlevy.
I kid. Brian Donlevy is fine, but this film is famous for a ground-breaking psychotic performance by Richard Widmark as mad-dog criminal, Tommy Udo. Flat out, that's probably what the movie is best known for - and there's no question, it's the Joe Pesci-before-Joe Pesci performance of it's day. Maybe even the Heath Ledger-Joker performance of its day? He's a lit stick of sociopathic dynamite who thinks nothing of killing someone's kids just to make a point, and he'd have a good laugh about it.
Less discussed in the context of this film is leading man Victor Mature, and, dear readers, I'm a fan. The man was deeply self-deprecating about his own abilities, but it's in movies like this that you can see why he was a star. He plays Nick, a lifelong crook who gets pinched and goes to jail rather than rat on his colleagues, but after he finds out his wife has killed herself and his kids are in an orphanage, he plays ball with the DA to get out and start a life for his girls. His character goes through *a lot* in this film - it's really a terrific curve from the first scene to the last, and I buy all of it, from tough guy crook to doting dad to man who feels he's been abandoned by the law.
Colleen Gray co-stars as a pivotal character - someone Nick (Mature's character) knew from the neighborhood, who helps him find his girls and find a new life. It's the "good girl" role of the film, but Gray plays it well - and the scenes between them do a lot of heavy lifting for getting across what a mess things were and what Nick now has to protect.
The story itself has probably been lifted for whole seasons of TV shows and dozens of movies at this point - but: the notion of falling in too close with a maniac and then becoming the maniac's target? Pretty common now. Still, sometimes the original formula is still the best. The movie does have an interesting spin on law and order in the middle of the Hayes era - ultimately the cops and courts let Nick down, and he really does seem to have a chance of seeing his wife and kids killed. The square jawed DA (Donlevy) does... really screw up. The law isn't the enemy here, but it also isn't Nick's friend.
I'd seen the remake in the 1990's, and I don't not recommend it, but it's significantly different, and I definitely think I'd push you at the original first. But, then you'd miss a very good Nic Cage performance from back in the day.