KISS OF DEATH Brings Cackling Noir Thrills on Blu-ray

You guys been watching Archer? This year they’ve reinvented the show as a noir-spoof, with all the wacky characters now plugged into the archetypes we know so well from decades of stories about hard-living men trudging through filthy alleys in an uncaring world. The dueling crime lords, the bent cop, the hard-hitting beat cop with a heart of gold, the femme fatale – they’re all there.

Also there: a story choked on narrative convolutions and bizarre twists. Watching Archer deploy these techniques made me realize that by this late date, noir is as affiliated with labyrinthine plotting as it is with any of the socio-economic/thematic ideas that writers like Hammett and Chandler were playing with.

But if you look at some other classic noir, like Kiss of Death, now available on Blu thanks to Twilight Time, a messy plot did not always a noir make. For every Sam Spade untangling a mass of half-truths and betrayals there were a half dozen tales of hard luck losers just scrambling to make it through the day, and almost invariably failing.

Kiss of Death follows one such loser, Nick Bianco (Victor Mature). Bianco tried to go straight for the sake of his wife and daughters, but his criminal past kept him from honest work and drove him to a criminal future. At the top of the film, Bianco gets pinched after a heist goes wrong and told that he can either rat on his cohorts or spend years in prison.

He chooses prison, but circumstances soon conspire to put both him and his family in desperate circumstances. So Bianco rats and gets his freedom.

It’s not as easy as that, of course, and pretty soon Bianco finds himself in the crosshairs of an especially vicious enforcer, Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark, in his debut).

Now, there are plenty of other reasons to recommend checking out Kiss of Death, and we’ll get into those soon. But the one thing that makes this film a necessity for fans of this particular era and genre is Widmark’s turn as Udo. A Batman fan, Widmark based his leering gangster on the earliest appearances of The Joker, and his work in the film went on to inspire Frank Gorshin’s notorious take on The Riddler in the Batman TV show. Talk about paying it forward.

There’s a quality that you tend to see in younger actors when they get called up to the big show that can be pretty infectious. It’s an energy, a hunger, a glint in their eyes as they go into scene after scene looking to make their mark. You always hear stories about how the younger actors on The Godfather would compete to steal scenes away from Brando, and you can see it in the likes of Paul Newman in his earlier roles when he would play opposite the likes of Orson Welles.

Widmark has that hunger, and you can see it in every scene featuring him. On the page, there’s little to distinguish his Tommy Udo from any of the other snarling heels that populate this sort of picture, but Widmark brings a gleeful, malicious energy that makes Udo far and away the most involving character in the film. Nowhere is this more clear than in the film’s most notorious scene, involving Udo, a frightened old woman, a wheelchair, and a flight of stairs. In fact, the biggest knock against Kiss of Death is that Udo vanishes for long stretches of it.

Mature is the real leading man here, and he acquits himself nicely as a classic noir loser. With a face like a Springsteen ballad come to life, Mature gets kicked down over and over again throughout the film, with the only real narrative question being how much he can take before he snaps. Mature doesn’t have quite the right charisma levels to become a truly legendary sap (a la Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity), but he’s both likable enough that you wince as he sinks deeper into quicksand and enough of a dope that you understand that he brought most of this madness onto himself.

Director Henry Hathaway is today predominantly known for his westerns like How the West Was Won (also featuring Widmark) and the original True Grit (John Wayne’s only Oscar [which, let’s face it, should’ve been for The Searchers or Liberty Valance, but that’s neither here nor there]). Kiss of Death isn’t the most stylized of the noir genre (not when you had guys like Wilder or Lang plugging away), but he keeps things moving at a steady clip and shows a solid eye for ratcheting up the tension in the film’s big moments. And, if nothing else, Hathaway knew when to back up and let Widmark dominate the frame and carry the action.

Like a lot of films of this era, Kiss of Death suffers somewhat from an obviously tinkered-with ending that undercuts the nasty punchline that the entire film was building towards (no movie got this worse than the otherwise-terrific The Woman in the Window, which had a fantastically bleak endgame ruined by an idiotic twist at the censor’s behalf). Censors also messed with important plot information early in the film, making Kiss of Death seem more convoluted than it really is.

And that’s a shame because Kiss of Death possesses a brutish sort of simplicity that really works. A guy makes a very bad decision and then makes a series of equally bad choices as he tries to untangle himself from the original mistake. If this era of filmmaking is to your taste, then Kiss of Death should be a great fit for the home collection.

(P.S. If the title sounds familiar to you, Kiss of Death was remade in the early ‘90s with David Caruso and Sam Jackson. The remake removes the Udo character [I’m unclear on how that works] but it does feature Nic Cage benchpressing Hope Davis. So it has that going for it. Which is nice.)

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