Monday, February 27, 2017


Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 98m 59s

With the calm voice of a female narrator, the opening sequence of director Henry Hathaway's KISS OF DEATH is designed to make the viewer identify with Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) on Christmas Eve in New York City. The 29-year-old ex-con Bianco has a list of robberies to his credit and, consequently, no job opportunities in the legitimate business world. But Christmas gifts matter to criminals too, especially someone like Bianco with two young daughters (Iris Mann and Marilee Grassini) to consider. Naturally his jewel heist goes poorly, with Bianco halted by police gunfire. In a further attempt to play on the sympathies of the viewing audience, a sense of genetic destiny is hardwired when the narrator explains Bianco saw his father shot to death by cops. A bad guy with a good heart, Bianco has that steadfast moral code that so often guides the film noir protagonist, and he refuses to play ball with Assistant D.A. Louis D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy). But the noir hand of fate is on Bianco when he is sentenced the same day as Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark's incredible debut), a giggling psychotic who would not give D'Angelo "...the skin off a grape." While serving his stretch, Bianco receives some horrible news and turns to D'Angelo for help. After three years of incarceration, he is now ready to "squeal" in the interest of family.

From the early moments, the narrative is structured over a liberal ideological foundation. D'Angelo recognizes the worth of Bianco, whose love for his children elevates his status above that of the common criminal who theoretically cares only about himself. "I'm the kind of a guy you can't hurt," Bianco declares, but this is a front. He cares more about his daughters than anything. Similarity is stressed between Bianco and Udo, our lead protagonist's suppressed dark half, only to create separation between the two later. Initially they are imprisoned together, even handcuffed together. Where Udo is a self-centered man who gives no thought to the wants and needs of others, Bianco is a father who must maintain a bond with his little children and devoted housewife figure Nettie (Coleen Gray, THE KILLING [1956]). Bianco is also a far better man than his slimy attorney Earl Howser (Taylor Holmes), who summons the likes of Udo to perform dirty work. Ultimately the film's progressive trappings are challenged by Bianco's moral compass, which remains intact from start to finish. Like so many moral but flawed protagonists we have witnessed since KISS OF DEATH, he must bend the rules for the greater good since the criminal justice system proves unable to contain demented sociopaths like Udo. In the film's concluding sequence, Bianco essentially assumes heroic qualities, able to survive multiple gunshots from close range.

Certainly one of the best-entitled film noirs, KISS OF DEATH was influential in terms of its location filming and character archetypes. Nick Bianco has his precursor in Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) from THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942), a formative film noir whose central character, a contract killer, finds redemption before the credits roll. I am not a huge fan of Victor Mature, but his controlled performance as Bianco holds up well today, especially upon repeat viewings. Mature is particularly effective whenever his character faces renewed pressure. Obviously the more influential performance was that of Richard Widmark, whose lunatic hood Tommy Udo would be channeled in countless gangster films that would follow KISS OF DEATH. Despite a borderline over-the-top turn from Widmark, it is easy to see where even more could have been done with the role of Udo. A fair amount of suspense is created in regard to the safety of Bianco's daughters with Udo loose on the streets, but the girls are never confronted directly by Udo; the potential encounter merely is suggested. Some missed opportunity aside, the Udo character is no less than a film noir legend of criminal evil. He shows no respect for the values of civilized society. His inclination toward violence is well illustrated when he delivers one of the great movie slaps of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Twentieth Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck recognized Widmark's emerging star power and encouraged the actor to recreate his role in the subsequent Fox productions THE STREET WITH NO NAME (1948) and ROAD HOUSE (1948).

Despite a deliberate attempt by the production team to imbue KISS OF DEATH with a heavy dose of location-based authenticity, stylized film noir visual tropes and themes dutifully inform the well-paced action. A sense of Bianco's entrapment is communicated in the early going when he and his cohorts sweat it out in an elevator, surrounded by potential problems to their escape. The entrapment theme logically transitions into a prison setting, with both Bianco and Nettie framed in terms of either vertical bars or the intricate web of a textile plant. By the film's third act, director of photography Norbert Brodine's compositions become much darker, with Bianco and Udo sometimes oppressed by their environments. Interestingly, some of the most unambiguously noir images feature Bianco in his own home, where the traditional family setting shows incompatibility within the boundaries of the film noir (this common noir theme is explored in depth by Sylvia Harvey in her excellent article “Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir” [WOMEN IN FILM NOIR, E. Ann Kaplan, Ed., 1978]). When Bianco checks on the safety of his daughters, one realizes the magnificent film noir THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) owes something to KISS OF DEATH. In a later sequence, darkness threatens Bianco, who awaits the unpredictable rage of Udo. In terms of locations, Sing Sing Penitentiary, a boxing arena, a bordello and various night clubs provide essential noir terrain. Another familiar noir motif is the staircase, which frequently is associated with peril, as seen in MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945), PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER (1951) and SUDDEN FEAR (1952), just to name a few examples. Without question, KISS OF DEATH contains the mother of all treacherous noir stairways!

The Twilight Time Limited Edition Blu-ray (3,000 units) is worth the premium price for the packaging alone, which highlights the classic film's most infamous event. Framed at 1.33:1, the feature presentation is the result of a sturdy HD transfer that displays strong contrast levels and deep blacks. The main audio tracks include English 2.0 DTS-HD MA and an English 1.0 DTS-HD MA option. Ported from the Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment DVD released in 2005 is the audio commentary track with film noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini, who have worked together on numerous studies devoted to film noir, most notably FILM NOIR: AN ENCYCLOPEDIC REFERENCE TO THE AMERICAN STYLE, first published in 1979, and the FILM NOIR READER series (1996-2004). The authors cite director Henry Hathaway as the architect behind the "docu-noir" style. Hathaway's THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET (1945), 13 RUE MADELEINE (1946) and KISS OF DEATH all make extensive use of location footage. An opening title card claims the film was shot entirely on location, though Silver and Ursini provide the amendment that the climactic shootout was shot on a Fox soundstage after the original location footage that took place on a bus did not pan out. Ursini identifies the high-key lighting typical of location-based docudrama that gives way to low-key lighting in tune with the storyline's noir sensibilities. The author also references various layers of Christian symbolism that he credits to co-screenwriter Ben Hecht. Ursini also mentions that Hathaway violence tends to be on the graphic side, i.e. THE DARK CORNER (1946), CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948). Hathaway was a volatile personality by reputation, though according to the authors he had a talent for subtle staging as well. Another good line of analysis from Silver and Ursini is the use of jazz music that fills sections of this noir city. Such locales may be alien to middle class whites, but not to the film noir protagonists in this film and other genre examples such as PHANTOM LADY (1944), CRISS CROSS (1949) and D.O.A. (1950).

A fresh audio commentary was recorded in December of 2016 for this new Blu-ray disc. This track features Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker and Twilight Time co-owner Nick Redman teamed with Twilight Time essayist Julie Kirgo, herself a contributor to the must-own FILM NOIR: AN ENCYCLOPEDIC REFERENCE TO THE AMERICAN STYLE. Kirgo places film noir within the context of a post-war, post-nuclear society mired in uncertainty. I was glad to hear her speak of film noir as a genre; I never have bought into the notion that film noir is something other than a genre (i.e. "mood," "tone," "style"). Kirgo discusses the Udo character's influence on Frank Gorshin, who modeled his Riddler's laugh after Udo for the TV series Batman (1966-1967), while Redman suggests the possibility that Widmark drew inspiration from the psychopathic villain The Joker, who DC Comics introduced in 1940. As one would expect, there is some duplication between the new commentary track and the one from Silver and Ursini, but similar observations are kept to a minimum. The Redman/Kirgo track is more descriptive than historical, not that the two voices do not pack plenty of background information into their discussion. Kirgo jokingly makes repeated references to the babysitter angle—were the film contemporary, assuredly more would have been made about when the flame began to burn between Bianco and Nettie! The other supplements include an isolated music track, the original theatrical trailer (2m 20s), a Twilight Time catalogue selectable by year (2011-2017) and a booklet essay from Kirgo.

KISS OF DEATH was nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Widmark) and Best Writing, Original Story (Eleazar Lipsky). The Hathaway classic was retooled as the Western THE FIEND WHO WALKED THE WEST (1958). The original noir title returned for director Barbet Schroeder's worthwhile 1995 remake, which starred David Caruso, Samuel L. Jackson and Nicolas Cage. The screenwriting team of Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer also combined for the fine film noir RIDE THE PINK HORSE, released the same year as their original KISS OF DEATH.

1 comment:

  1. The prison machine shop scene when via the prison grapevine Nick finds out why his wife stopped writing is classic