Saturday, November 14, 2015

Kiss of Death (1947)

Director: Henry Hathaway                              Writers: Ben Hecht & Charles Lederer
Film Score: David Buttolph                             Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Starring: Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Coleen Gray and Richard Widmark

Kiss of Death is usually only mentioned because of the bravura performance by Richard Widmark in his first film role--and the fact that he was given an Academy Award nomination for it--but there is so much more to this film that allows it to succeed in spite of Widmark. Director Henry Hathaway, who is better known today for his westerns, attempted a pseudo-documentary style noir film a year before Jules Dassin’s The Naked City. Rather than studio sets, the attempt was made to film entirely in New York City, as well as in Sing Sing and The Tombs, though it’s pretty evident that the finale was done on a sound stage. The film opens with Collen Gray doing a voiceover explaining how Victor Mature does his Christmas shopping. But her narrative only returns once again, and there is a definite sense of irony surrounding it, not only because Mature is playing a career criminal, but also the way in which her female voice plays opposite to expectations for a noir film. The fact is, the film could have benefitted from more of her voice-over, the knowingness of her lines an ironic contrast to her fresh-faced innocence. In addition to Widmark’s Oscar nomination, the film was also nominated for best original story by Eleaszar Lipsky, a real-life Manhattan assistant district attorney.

Victor Mature has been out of work for a year since being released from prison, and when he gets into an elevator a snippet of Alfred Newman’s “Street Scene” can be heard. He and two of his associates rob a jewelry story on the 23rd floor of the building. They take whatever’s open, without breaking anything, and leave. But the three have to watch with excruciating patience as the elevator slowly makes its way to street level, only to run smack into the police once they arrive. Mature makes a break for it and is shot in the leg, Gray explaining that the same thing happened twenty years earlier to Mature’s father, who died from his wounds in front of Mature. Next the scene shifts to the office of district attorney Brian Donlevy. He offers Mature a deal, inform on his partners, and he’ll be able to go home to his wife and kids. But Mature isn’t having any of it. He hasn’t squealed before, and he isn’t going to now. Mob lawyer Taylor Holmes tells him later that he won’t be able to prevent a conviction, that they’ll have to work on getting him parole, and that it could take some time. Mature is put into a holding cell with another criminal, Richard Widmark. Right away it’s clear the difference between the two men. Mature is a thief, a man with a family, and a loyal soldier of the mob. Widmark, on the other hand, is psychotic, a killer who only seems interested in who he can hurt and how badly.

It’s not until Mature has been in Sing Sing a few years that he becomes worried when he hasn’t received a letter from his wife in three months. When he learns from another inmate that his wife has committed suicide, he becomes desperate to get out. Then his kids’ babysitter, Colleen Gray, comes to the prison to see him and tells him of the affair his wife was having with one of the mobsters. It’s also clear she’s attracted to him. Finally Mature gets in touch with Donlevy and tells him he’ll do anything to be back with his kids. Police sergeant Karl Malden is in on the conversation, and when Mature tells them about the robbery he primarily implicates the guy who was having the affair with his wife. But before the police can get to him, Holmes sends Widmark after him. In the iconic scene from the film, Widmark discovers he’s skipped town and sends his wheelchair bound mother down the stairs to her death. Mature is let out on parole, with the understanding that he is going to help implicate other criminals. His first assignment: Richard Widmark. The rest of the film is an agonizing wait for Widmark to seek revenge on Mature, and the ending is one that would be used by Clint Eastwood sixty years later in Gran Torino. The film is also notable for an appearance by Karl Malden, who has only a few lines, and a nightclub scene featuring the great drummer Jo Jones and his trio.

The great Ben Hecht is credited with the screenplay. The dialogue is lean and to the point, not flowery and poetic like Abe Polonsky on Force of Evil, or humorous like the Epstein brothers on Casablanca. There are some subtle touches, however, that are very nice. When Mature tells the warden he wants to see Donlevy, the warden decides to put him on the baseball team as a reward. He asks Mature, “Do you play ball?” and Mature responds, “I’m going to.” There’s the standard morality at play here as well, with Donlevy reinforcing the fact that Mature is different from the rest of the hoods, and this is mirrored by Henry Hathaway’s shot selection: at one point when Mature is entering the convent where his children are, a crucifix in stained glass is seen over his head. For a noir picture, there’s an incredibly powerful humanity at work, though most of the social criticism isn’t fully explored. But then that’s not really the point. Unlike Michael Corleone, who complains in the third Godfather film that they keep sucking him back in, Hecht and Charles Lederer elicit a genuine pathos for Mature, who wants nothing more than to leave his old life behind and raise his girls. Kiss of Death isn’t a great noir film, but it has quite a few things to recommend it, the acting chief among them. Not essential, but certainly worth a look.

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