Kiss of Death is director Henry Hathaway’s greatest film noir. It’s a mix of the semi-documentary style of his earlier films The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) with the hard-boiled conventions of his private eye flick The Dark Corner (1946).
The film begins with the following words: “All scenes in this motion picture, both exterior and interior, were photographed in the State of New York on the actual locale associated with the story.”
Unlike The House on 92nd Street and 13 Rue Madeleine, however, this commitment to veracity isn’t in service of a true-ish retelling of World War II-era espionage, but of a hard-boiled crime drama about a three-time loser facing 15 years in stir after being nabbed for a jewel robbery.
His name is Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), and if he wants to watch his two little girls grow up, he’s going to have to stool for the district attorney’s office.
Bianco has been in this position before, and he took the full four-year rap instead of squealing.
“I’m the same guy now I was then. Nothin’ has changed. Nothin’,” he tells Assistant District Attorney Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy).
On his way up the river to Sing Sing, Nick meets a cackling, sociopathic hood named Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). Udo won’t show up again for awhile, but he’ll play a major role in Nick’s life when he does.
For awhile, Nick stays clammed up, but then his wife Maria commits suicide and he starts to rethink matters. When a pretty girl from his old neighborhood, Nettie (Coleen Gray), comes to visit him in Sing Sing and tells him that the driver on the jewelry job, a guy named Pete Rizzo, was responsible for Mrs. Bianco putting her head in the oven, Nick decides he wants to talk to the D.A. and secure his release in exchange for information. (In the original story, it was implied that Rizzo raped Nick’s wife, but that’s sidestepped in the final version, making it seem more as if she was having an affair with Rizzo.)
Nick trusts Assistant D.A. D’Angelo enough to tumble to a job in his past that he got away with — the Thompson Fur Company heist — to provide a cover for his trips to the D.A.’s office. D’Angelo promises that he’ll drop the charges later for insufficient evidence.
Things are looking up for Nick. He’s able to care for his daughters, and he’s eventually paroled, leaving him free to marry Nettie.
But as soon as Tommy Udo — Nick’s old pal from the trip up to Sing Sing — re-enters his life, things go very bad very quickly. Udo is the kind of guy who thinks nothing of wrapping up an older wheelchair-bound woman (played by Mildred Dunnock) in electrical cord and pushing her down a long flight of stairs, in one of the most enduring scenes of cinematic sociopathy.
Kiss of Death was Richard Widmark’s film debut, and his balls-out crazy performance is something to behold. The filmmakers thought that Widmark’s high forehead made him look too intelligent, so they outfitted him with a low-browed hairpiece. Like Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), Widmark’s performance as Tommy Udo straddles the line between gangster movie and monster movie. Director Hathaway had toyed with the idea of casting the manic Harry “The Hipster” Gibson, who sang the 1944 druggie classic “Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?” as Udo, but it’s impossible now to imagine anyone but Widmark in the role.
The screenplay for Kiss of Death was adapted by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer from a story by Eleazar Lipsky originally called “Stoolpigeon.” Lipsky was a novelist who worked as a Manhattan assistant district attorney. He was also legal counsel for the Mystery Writers of America. Perhaps because of Lipsky’s day job, the realism of the setting of Kiss of Death is matched by the actions of its characters. Brian Donlevy, in the role of Assistant D.A. D’Angelo, is neither a hero nor a villain. When he tells Nick that he’s going to have to testify in court after all, and later that it was all for nothing, and that Tommy Udo was acquitted and is probably coming after Nick, the viewer gets the sense that D’Angelo genuinely cares for Nick, but that at the same time, putting Nick’s life in danger is just part of the job. D’Angelo might not like it, but he accepts it as a necessary evil.
Interestingly, the fictional Kiss of Death comes off as a more realistic film than either The House on 92nd Street (1945) or 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), both of which touted the “true” stories that were their inspirations. Although not every scene in Kiss of Death was shot on the actual locale associated with the story, as the title card promises (some of the interiors were clearly shot in a studio), the use of real New York City and Upstate New York locations coupled with realistic dialogue, understated performances from all the cast besides Widmark, and extremely sparse use of background music makes for a powerful, engrossing drama. There are standout set pieces, like the jewel heist in the Chrysler Building that opens the film, and spectacular shots of the Manhattan Criminal Courts Building, the Tombs, and the Triborough Bridge from the Queens side of the East River, but there are also lots of little touches that give the film its sense of realism. When Nick watches his daughters during their music lesson at the Academy of the Holy Angels in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the piano is slightly out of tune. When Nick sits in his cell at Sing Sing, the toilet in the cell is clearly visible, which is something you’d never see in a prison cell built on a Hollywood soundstage in the ’40s. (Incidentally, prior to shooting the scenes in Sing Sing, Hathaway had both Victor Mature and Richard Widmark processed through the system to give them a better sense of the characters they were playing.)
Kiss of Death isn’t a perfect movie, but it stands up to repeated viewings, and its use of music and location are both revolutionary. If you don’t believe me, take it from Walter Winchell…