5 March 2007 | tony-camel
Another strong Mature (Victor that is) film...
The bulk of Kiss of Death is a modest, based-on-a-true-story tale of crime and woe. There's nothing spectacular about Nick or his circumstances, and nothing particularly compelling about his turn as a stool pigeon. Kiss of Death is almost romantic-comedy-like in its execution: Man meets crime, man leaves crime, man hooks up with crime again. Crisis, resolution. Yet out of the nondescript foundation emerge a few noteworthy aspects.
The first and most noticeable is the realistic look of the film. Director Henry Hathaway goes straight to the source, shooting scenes on their actual locations. This is noticeable because the opening credits tell you so; how quaint to throw a little self-promotion right there in the intro! Fortunately, this hokiness doesn't detract from some truly beautiful camera-work achieved by cinematographer Norbert Brodine. New York has a distinct look, and Brodine makes the most of it. Establishing shots of lights and skyscrapers in silhouette lead into a New York in full seasonal glory, with Christmas shoppers amok in the streets. From posh nightclubs to gritty prisons, Hathaway and Brodine milk as much texture from the locations as possible.
The self-promotional focus on cinematography quietly gives way to Victor Mature's personable portrayal of Nick. Though he worked through six decades, Mature was never a big name or recognized star. Indeed, his relative lack of star quality allows him to succeed in this modest, intimate tale culled from the real life of a small time hood. Mature doesn't steal the show by any means, but he capably anchors it and gives Nick some plausibility and a sympathetic quality. When Coleen Gray arrives on the scene as Nick's former nanny, we can somehow buy their slapdash romantic entanglement. Gray is also capable in her role, sweet but not saccharine, petite but with a hint of spark. Her perkiness doesn't grate, and there seems to be more to her than just a pretty face and her status as Nick's love interest. She has the intriguing "I want to know more about this woman" vibe that characterized Judy Garland's stardom, though Gray would never reach those levels of fame.
Mature may not steal the show, but Richard Widmark does. Like Coleen Gray, Widmark made his debut in Kiss of Death. Unlike Gray's, his performance left an indelible mark on cinema and made Widmark a household name overnight. Tommy Udo is such a ruthless, depraved character, and his manner crawls under your skin so thoroughly, that Widmark is impossible to ignore. His characterization could so easily have spasmed across the line into caricature, or become smarmy or irritating. But Udo's manic, staccato laugh just skirts that edge, and his bitterly cold eyes and palpable menace invigorate later scenes. The unnecessary murder he commits on screen is shocking; it isn't hard to see why Joe Pesci would evoke shades of Tommy Udo in Goodfellas. In fact, Widmark's Oscar-nominated turn as Udo would inspire countless nods from subsequent maniacal mobsters.
These characters spice up an otherwise small, vague tale. Kiss of Death morphs though a series of focus shifts. It seems like a hardboiled crime saga at times, a political game at others, even a tale of family values and romance. It ends up in a dramatic knot of danger and redemption. Its inability to stick with one theme gives Kiss of Death a wishy-washy, gutless quality. But touches of depth, particularly the way Eleazar Lipsky's script makes the end of the film tense and involving instead of anticlimactic, keep the otherwise straightforward story fresh.
The tale is also enhanced by a couple of pure noir moments. The most obvious is Nick's nervous vigil when he knows Udo is coming for him. A car's headlights slice through the dark house and set off a game of hide-and-seek in the shadows. The pressure mounts, and you just know that someone is bound to die. I don't know how film noir can support such ludicrous amounts of shadow, but it does so to powerful effect. Noir jumps back onto the front burner when Nick takes matters into his own hands at the end of the film. A showdown with Udo over a restaurant table is fraught with peril and tension; mostly because of Widmark's scintillating menace, but partially because of the composition and the score.
A superb commentary by James Ursini and Alain Silver walks us through the nuances of the film without much pause or filler. The pair has an impressive understanding of film noir, and they're able to parlay that knowledge into an engaging commentary. Though I don't fault most of their specific points, Ursini and Alain Silver hold the film in higher esteem than I do. This is good for noir fans because the commentators highlight the positives in each shot, performance, and theme.