Kiss Of Death (1947)

KISS OF DEATH“I’m askin’ ya, where’s that squealin’ son of yours?”  A shocker in 1947, its signature scene is still jarring today: a wheelchair and a hyena giggle that made a movie star. Thirty-two-year-old Richard Widmark had been acting on radio and the stage for nine years.  His startling film debut in this noir thriller stole the show from veteran leads Victor Mature and Brian Donlevy, wowed critics, fascinated audiences and nicked him an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor. The cackling psychosis of his hoodlum ‘Tommy Udo’ lost the industry trophy to Edmund Gwenn’s gentle holiday totem of Miracle On 34th Street, and though Widmark never received another Academy nod (they should at least have given him an Honorary Lifetime recognition) his career was secured.

I wouldn’t give you the skin off a grape.” 

Nabbed for a robbery, ‘Nick Bianco’ (Mature) goes to the slammer, but after a few years in Sing Sing circumstances convince him to turn informer for Asst. D.A. ‘Louis D’Angelo’ (Donlevy), hoping his cooperation will result in a parole so he can take care of his young kids, now motherless and in an orphanage. More hope for redemption comes via ‘Nettie Cavallo’ (Coleen Gray), who babyset for the kids and has always had a thing for Nick. But the way into the light turns pitch dark thanks to the presence of Tommy Udo, whose viciousness knows no bounds.

Hard-nosed Henry Hathaway directed, mostly on New York City locations, with sharp-edged b&w cinematography from Norbert Brodine accenting the unease quotient. The script by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer shows its age a mite by portraying Nick’s turnabout from loser to swell fella as more convenient than convincing, and the D.A. as a lot more understanding than real-life evidence would indicate. But the underrated Mature is quite good (along with My Darling Clementine this is his best work) and Donlevy (busy that year in six films) is reliably solid.

Widmark’s cackling fiend was so memorable that it—and some subsequent essays into evil like No Way Out—forever branded him to one segment of the public (and too many lazy critics) as a villain type. But for many Boomers who first saw him in his later tough-hero roles (Halls Of Montezuma, Hell And High Water, The Alamo) he was more than compelling on the good-guy slate.

Along with Widmark, an Academy nomination went to Eleazar Lipsky for Best Story. Placing 78th in noir-crossed ’47, the grosses of $4,500,000 weren’t spectacular, but were enough to cover the $1,520,000 outlay. Look sharp in the 98 minutes for Mildred Dunnock (the ill-fated invalid), Karl Malden, Millard Mitchell, John Marley, Jesse White and Frank DeKova. Remade in 1995, to little effect. *

1947’s happier hits—winners like The Egg And I, Life With Father, Road To Rio, Miracle On 34th Street and The Farmer’s Daughter—brought some relief from the shadowlands prowled by Dark Passage, Pursued, Crossfire, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Brute Force, Boomerang!, I Walk Alone, Out Of The Past, Possessed, Johnny O’Clock, Dead Reckoning, T-Men, Framed, Ride The Pink Horse, The Lady From Shanghai, Nightmare Alley and Odd Man Out.

Widmark had to play baddie in his three more projects—The Street With No Name, Road House and Yellow Sky—before being granted something that reflected his actual humane and decent personality, Down To The Sea In Ships.

 

 

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