Stool pigeon, squealer, informer – these words all evoke images of weak, low-life types who are willing to spill it all and damn their friends for personal gain. It’s not easy to portray such people without resorting to stereotypes like the tragic, pitiful dupe, or maybe the moral/political crusader. Kiss of Death (1947) is the tale of a man who happily shops his partners in crime, but he comes across as the hero mainly because his actions are guided by his devotion to his family and not greed or some trite ethical principle.
Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) is a career hood who’s spent his life on the wrong side of the law. The opening voiceover narration establishes the fact that Bianco’s record now precludes him from holding down any meaningful job, and thus limits his choices. When a pre-Christmas jewel robbery goes wrong he finds himself on a downward spiral where his already restricted options will be narrowed even more. Initially, Bianco holds firm to the doctrine of honour among thieves and spurns the approaches of Assistant DA D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy). So he takes the jail time and the criminal kudos that comes with it, choosing to leave things up to his crooked lawyer. It’s only when he hears of the suicide of his wife (who’s never seen incidentally) and the subsequent packing off of his two daughters to an orphanage that he undergoes a change of heart. Both his lawyer’s ineffectiveness and the news of the inappropriate behaviour of his former comrades cause him to reassess his position. Striking a deal with D’Angelo gets Bianco out on parole but that’s not the end of it. The law demands more from him and Bianco finds himself drawn deeper into the DA’s plans. The ultimate goal is to secure the conviction of one Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), a ruthless hoodlum with a psychopathic streak. Although Bianco secures the evidence the trial is a failure and Udo walks. It’s now that the real nightmare begins; Bianco has a new wife and a new identity, and all that will surely be swept away when (not if) Udo tracks him down and exacts his revenge. It’s in this second half of the story that the film shows its true noir credentials and moves away from the early melodramatic gangster movie feel. Bianco’s world shrinks to the point where he is eventually left with only one viable course of action.
Kiss of Death is a good movie for many reasons, but over the years it’s come to be remembered mainly for the debut of Richard Widmark. The performance is so intense and memorable that it’s hard to believe Widmark had never been on screen before. The fact that this giggling maniac who delights in shoving a crippled woman to her death down a staircase has featured in so many clips through time has maybe drained some of the shock value away. However, there’s no denying the chilling quality that Widmark brings to every scene he’s in – whether it all came down to the actor’s own nervousness or not he has a kind of electric menace that demands you give him your full attention. In contrast, Victor Mature is like a rabbit caught in the headlights when confronted with this raw aggression. That’s not meant as a criticism of Mature’s performance; his role is that of man trapped by his own past and some poor decisions, and he brings off the mounting sense of isolation, desperation and fear that any man in Bianco’s position must surely experience.
In the supporting parts, Donlevy is his usual strutting and brusque self as the Assistant DA who’s not averse to bending the law his way in order to achieve his ends. Coleen Gray, who also provides the voiceover, is the new wife who finds herself thrust into a perilous situation – although she must surely have expected that her life with Bianco would be less than smooth given her knowledge of his past – and she’s sweet and sympathetic in the role. Henry Hathaway’s no nonsense direction makes sure that the action moves along, and neatly avoids the kind of sermonising that could easily derail things. He also blends the extensive location work into proceedings and this does lend a touch of realism.
The US release of Kiss of Death on DVD (although it’s out in the UK too) via Fox’s noir line is a typically strong one, the transfer being crisp and clean throughout. There are some nice extras too: a commentary by James Ursini and Alain Silver, a gallery and the trailer. The movie has points to make about the inadequacy (and possibly the corrupt nature) of law enforcement, and the failings of the penal system. However, this stuff has all been done before and it’s therefore refreshing that the abiding memory one takes away from a viewing is that of Widmark’s sniggering nutjob. I think it’s fair to say that it’s this powerhouse performance that elevates the movie above other noir pictures.