Director: Henry Hathaway
Writer: Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer
Cinematographer: Norbert Brodine
Producer: Fred Kohlmar
by Jon Cvack
The more time wears on and memes deconstruct every piece of popular art in lightning speed, the more fascinated I become with film noir; a movement that didn’t even seem aware of itself until years later. The common trope being the hard boiled detective in his office when a drop dead gorgeous woman enters, asking for some help; a trope that, while common enough in neo-noir and beyond, isn’t found too often beyond the Chandler and Hammond adaptations. In college the debate was whether film noir was a genre or movement, given how many other genres it crossed into. When someone refers to a film noir, however modern, most cinephiles will know exactly what to expect. In that case, it’s a genre. In terms of the classic era, when the stories had no specific angle or parameters, it reflected a collective post-WWII ideology; of a generation coming home to alleged perfection after gross amounts of destruction.
Also shot on location in New York City like Call Northside 777 (1948), Kiss of Death opens up at heist, in which a trio led by Nick Biano (Victor Mature) attempt to rob a jewelry store a dozen or so floors up in a skyscraper. They arrive, get the gems, and leave when the clerk trips the alarm. In a thrilling scene, they board the elevator and head down, stopping at each floor until they arrive at the ground level, hearing the cops and the crowd dispersing. Nick makes his way through the post office, thinking he’s in the clear and heading out into the actual New York streets where the police open fire, catching him in the leg and he’s apprehended.
Nick’s visited by the Assistant District Attorney Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) who offers Nick a lighter sentence in exchange for turning over his accomplices and the boss that hired them. Nick’s visited by the syndicate’s attorney Earl Howser (Taylor Holmes) who advises him to be quiet and his wife and daughters will be taken care of. If not, who knows what might happen.
Nick agrees and three years into his term he receives word that his wife has committed suicide; later learning she was raped by the a man named Pete Rizzo. Enraged, Nick gets in touch with D’Angelo who doubts Nick’s testimony is any longer reliable with the news.
Howser gets in touch with Nick who explains the situation and Howser hires one of the greatest criminals in film noir history, Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). Widmark would go on to receive an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a young and completely unhinged murderer; the type of generic sounding character that only the rare actor can pull off.
Udo agrees to take out Rizzo, and in one of the most terrifying murders I recall seeing from the entire period, he finds Pete Rizzo’s mother alone in her apartment, unsure where her son is. Udo then ties her into her chair, wheels her out into the hallways and tosses her down the stairs; shown in a long wide over the shoulder angle where an actual wheelchair is tossed down the stairs, obscuring the mother’s face. It’s a brilliant use of cinema, up there in shock value with the bird’s eye murder from Pyscho (1960); conveying just how psychotic Tommy Udo actually is.
After Nick spills the beans, D’Angelo releases him on parole. Nick ends up at Nettie’s to find he’s still doing work for D’Angelo. He soon meets up with Tommy at a club who admits to the murder, and just as things seem all good and D’Angelo releases Nick who ends finding and job and getting his girls back. Things seem to look on the up and up until D’Angelo indicts Tommy and the city demands Nick testify. Knowing it’d likely mean his death, he still takes the stand. But after going after the jury, Tommy is released.
Nick, Nettie, and the girls head out to the country to seek refuge, though Udo hunts them down. Cornering Nick, Udo demands Nick go with him on the next hit or be killed. Nick agrees and manages to tell D'Angelo about the job, but he’s reluctant to move on the recently freed man. Nick tells D’Angelo his location and to look out for Udo’s silver plated pistol. D’Angelo agrees
Reading Pauline Kael’s "5001 Nights at the Movies" (1982), she called the film a melodrama and nails exactly the type of noir this is. When considered and broken down, the plot is fairly sensational and packed with emotion. Place within the film noirs confines, it’s a unique discovery from the movement. To think that Richard Widmark received an Oscar nomination just goes to show how far Hathaway pushed his characters. No matter how ridiculous the plot gets, all of the leading characters are so good that they pull it back to raw grit; honoring the inevitable doomed fate found in noir’s greatest titles. It’s one of the more thrilling conclusions I recall.
BELOW: A movie where everything goes back to sex
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