Monday, 29 October 2007

Kiss of Death (1947)

Kiss of Death: Film 8 out of 10, DVD 8 out of 10, On Sale 15th October 2007 at a typical online price of £13.89. Imdb rating at time of writing is 7.6, Rotten Tomatoes is 92% fresh

If you're a fan of Film Noir, you'll love Kiss of Death, beautifully presented here in its original 4:3 black and white format, in a digital restoration from the British Film Institute (BFI).

The film is perhaps best known for featuring actor Richard Widmark's first appearance in front of the camera. It's an astonishing debut in the role of psychotic killer Tommy Udo, a performance which rightly won the actor an oscar nomination. Invested with a nervous giggle and twitchy manner that Widmark invented for the character, Tommy Udo becomes an iconic villain, and the actor burns up the screen with every second of his performance.

Arguably the film's most infamous scene is that featuring Udo's revenge when, frustrated at being unable to find his intended 'snitch', he almost casually pushes the intended victim's wheelchair-bound mother down a steep flight of stairs. Despite some fairly obvious stunt work (it's pretty obvious that the woman falling out the chair is just a bundle of clothes with nobody inside!) the scene still has the power to shock, with its unexpected intensity and display of casual violence.

Victor Mature plays petty crook turned 'stool pigeon' Nick Bianco

Victor Mature plays Nick Bianco, a petty crook who's fallen in with the wrong crowd, and become reduced to theft and petty violence in order to support his wife (who, we're told, has a drink problem) and two small daughters. The film opens with an exciting, tension-filled jewellery heist that ultimately goes wrong, leaving Bianco's accomplices injured or dead, with the man himself facing a long jail term unless he accepts a parole offer, made by kindly Assistant District Attorney Louis D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy).

Bianco initially refuses, proud of his chosen 'profession' - pride which vanishes some months after he starts his jail sentence, in part because he sees no sign of the parole initially promised by his gangster attorney. Disillusionment really sets in when his family's former child minder Nettie Cavallo (Colleen Gray), visits him in prison to tell him his children have been taken into care following the suicide of his wife.

There is obvious chemistry between Bianco and Cavallo - chemistry which causes him to decide to go straight when 'The Kiss of Death' of the film's title takes place between the two.

With early parole and future happiness with his new family on offer, Bianco 'squeals' on former colleague and psychopath Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), only to find the case against Udo is thrown out by the jury, leaving the psychopath free to exact revenge on not just his former best friend, but his new-found family too.

Brian Donlevy is sympathetic Assistant District Attorney Louis D'Angelo

Critics of the time praised Victor Mature, who up to this point had been given leading man roles based on his smouldering looks rather than any innate acting talent. But it's the supporting cast, and Richard Widmark in particular, that make this a classic.

Mature is OK, but when supporting characters like Donlevy and Gray appear on screen their much more naturalistic performances out-class that of Mature at almost every turn. It's not that he's a terrible actor, just that you're continually aware that he is acting, too frequently with rather exaggerated effect. At times his performance is reminiscent of a hulking Sylvester Stallone, with a complete lack of the sort of subtlety or contrasts of light and shade that would have added real depth to the role. Too often his performance feels like a missed opportunity.

Fortunately, none of that really matters because of the combination of a beautifully-paced plot, more than acceptable direction from Henry Hathaway and a blistering screen debut from Richard Widmark as the psychotic villain of the piece. Widmark himself has since called his performance 'too over-the-top', but when 'over the top' is this good, who cares?! The actor is never less than mesmerising, despite his limited screen time, and it's not hard to see why this was an oscar-nominated performance.

Assistant D.A Louis D'Angelo's pleas for Nick to rat out his accomplices fall on deaf ears.

The picture quality on this 1947 movie is superb, and the monaural soundtrack is clear and surprisingly free of noise. Clearly a lot of work has been done on digitally restoring the print, as evidenced by comparing scenes from the film with the almost impenetrably murky footage of the same scenes shown in the trailer that's included on the disc. Aside from the trailer, which is more entertaining than is usually the case in that it features additional footage specially shot to promote the film, the only other extra is a 20-minute interview at London's National Film Theatre with the actor Richard Widmark, recorded in the late 1990's.

The interview with the now-elderly Widmark has some fascinating anecdotes about the shooting of the film, with the actor being very down-to-earth and unassuming in discussing his career over the years. It makes for fascinating viewing.

Richard Widmark impresses in his first film role, as Tommy Udo - a role which won him an oscar nomination, and rightly so.

The BFI are always very good at putting together a decent DVD package, and this one is no exception. A lavish 16-page booklet features original poster designs and set photo's, with the main feature being a short essay on the film by Lee Server.

If you like your movies to be of the 'film noir' variety, and relish a beautifully put-together black and white classic from the late 1940's, then this is definitely worth a rental, if not an outright purchase. Indeed I enjoyed it so much that I've already ordered a couple of other titles in the same series, including Night and the City (1950), which features a return performance from Richard Widmark. Highly recommended!

Coleen Gray plays love interest 'Nattie' - her kiss is enough to persuade Nick he can find happiness IF he's happy to snitch on his former colleagues to get parole.


Anonymous said...

In what way does Mr. VMature exaggerate his acting, I don't understand. Based on your critique he is only cast because of his good looks and nothing else. Please explain.

Ian said...

I don't normally publish "anonymous" comments, but anyway...

I think I've been more than clear in explaining what I felt was wrong with Mr Mature's performance. Several independent film critques have reported the reasons for Mature's casting, and the evidence from this picture seemed to bear that out.

As with any review, your mileage may vary, which is why I went to some pains to point out why I thought Mr Mature's performance was lacking.

Reel Popcorn Junkie said...

Ian, Well-written piece. I don't have as much enthuasiam as you for this film. It's pretty easy to connect the dots with the script. But, yes, Richard Widmark is fantastic as killer thug Tommy Udo. Silent scenes on the elevator, at the film's start, and in the restaurant, near the film's end, build a lot of tension.

Reel Popcorn Junkie said...

Ian, Well-written piece. I don't have quite the enthusiasm for the film. The script didn't really have any surprises. But, yes, Richard Widmark delivers a knockout performance. Silent scenes bookending the film build a lot of tension.