Kiss of Death (Blu-ray Review)20 Mar, 2017 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Richard Widmark, Coleen Gray.
Whatever its other virtues, which are considerable enough, Kiss of Death will always be renowned as the Fox film noir in which maniacal thug Richard Widmark shoves a wheelchair-bound mother down some steep apartment stairs — an act that easily could have made this the first movie to be called The Big Bounce before two subsequent movies took the title for their own. What’s more, mom wasn’t just played by anyone but by Mildred Dunnock, who before long would become Mrs. Willy Loman in the stage and screen versions of Death of a Salesman and, much later, Carroll Baker’s impossible mother in the 1962 Something Wild (recently out from Criterion). And in between, of course, Dunnock sat proudly on the porch as last-born son Elvis shook his 1865 guitar and barely post-Civil War hips in Love Me Tender. Suffice it to say that in Death, Widmark doesn’t push her tender (nor, for that matter, tender-ly).
Widmark got his only Oscar nomination for his screen debut here (interestingly, 1947 also produced the great Robert Ryan’s only Oscar nomination as well, for Crossfire). But for the record, Death’s main focus is lead Victor Mature, whose performance came not long after he played Doc Holliday in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, a 1-2 punch thought by nearly everyone to be the high point of the self-deprecating actor’s underrated career. Cast as a decent guy at heart who would be happier earning an honest living, Mature is nonetheless a major player in an almost doomed-to-fail jewel heist as the movie begins. This eventually makes him vulnerable not just to turning stoolie but also to the professional machinations of an assistant DA (Brian Donlevy) who’s not a bad guy but also not one whose complete word you’d better take to the bank. When Donlevy, to get specific, offers warm assurance that ratted-out Widmark will be convicted and sent up a polluted river, maybe it’s time to get an outside lawyer’s advice.
Not, however, from the mob-entwined smoothie (Taylor Holmes) who’s already giving Mature oily attorney’s counsel before stabbing him in the back. Donlevy and especially Holmes became mainstays at Republic in the 1950s, so it’s a bit of a kick seeing them together in an ‘A’-picture at this later stage of their careers, especially when the latter’s performance is such an unctuous jewel. The movie is well cast down the line, and this would include Coleen Gray as the too-good-to-be-true former babysitter who’s almost ravenous to take up with Mature, a widower with two young daughters. The passion Gray brings to the role is not unlike what we’d soon get from her in the opening scene to the following year’s Red River, which resonates over that entire epic Western.
Blue-chip screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer penned Death while director Henry Hathaway again collaborated with cinematographer Norbert Brodine, who had a long career (including shooting Deluge) but became something of a noir point man at Fox in the immediate postwar period. Death is less in the pseudo-documentary mode of the preceding The House on 92nd Street and 13 Rue Madeleine, which Hathaway-Brodine had made for producer Louis De Rochemont, but parts of it still emphasized nuts-and-bolts crime-busting “realism” in these pre-"Dragnet" days. The opening credits boast that all of Death was shot on New York and borough locations — a claim that turns out not quite to have been a total truth, though there’s no doubt the movie benefits from more than predominant non-studio work.
I’ve always been somewhat amazed that a balking Widmark managed to convince his home studio, very early on, to reverse his malevolent screen image so early in his career after playing heavies so effectively in his first four movies; the actor’s “Tommy Udo” characterization in Death (down to the dark shirt/white tie, Guys and Dolls chorus boy apparel) is so emblematic that impressionist Frank Gorshin used it as the cornerstone of the Widmark riff he played for decades, which was one of the comic’s best and one he co-opted for his portrayal of the Riddler on TV’s “Batman.” As the apparently accurate lore goes (and it’s discussed on both Blu-ray commentaries here), Hathaway couldn’t initially “see” the radio actor Widmark in the Udo role, but Fox chief Darryl Zanuck (the best production chief in history, imo) flexed some muscle. Interestingly, the movie where Widmark began to change his image into an almost perpetual good guy’s was 1949’s Down to the Sea in Ships, which Hathaway directed (the two subsequently got along). Though it was Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950) that completed the transformation completely.
The two audio commentaries are complementary: In a carryover from the old DVD, noir specialists James Ursini and Alain Silver roam on the technical side, while Twilight Time’s Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo get more into actor personas (Kirgo’s almost cackling amazement at the anti-social dimensions of the Widmark-Holmes characterizations are impossible not to share). Death has so much historical currency (Fox re-released it in the ’50s, which wasn’t everyday procedure) that it merits the hands-on treatment associated with TT releases. But even in 1960 (when I saw it for the first time at age 12 or 13), the ending bothered me — a case of a movie trying to have it both ways. Zanuck must have been overly shrewd, scared or else there was something in his water. The same year’s Nightmare Alley, also with Gray and from Fox, is a remarkably solid adaptation of what likely would have seemed to be an unfilmmable novel in ’40s Code-driven Hollywood (I just read it). Until the last 30 seconds.