KISS OF DEATH, the film noir especially remembered for Richard Widmark's stunning film debut as a psychotic killer, is an excellent film which also features what may be Victor Mature's career-best performance.
Mature plays Nick Bianco, a small-time hood who, having been out of work for a year, resorts to robbing a jewelry store in order to try to provide Christmas for his wife and kids. Not too smart! Three years into Nick's jail sentence, his despondent, financially strapped wife has killed herself and his two little girls are in an orphanage.
Nick decides to play ball with the Assistant District Attorney (Brian Donlevy, in a sympathetic performance) and help him nab some criminals in return for being able to visit his daughters at the orphanage. Soon thereafter Nick is paroled. He marries sweet, adoring Nettie (Coleen Gray), his children's one-time baby-sitter who has had a crush on him for years, gets a job as a bricklayer, and for a time the Biancos live a happy life raising Nick's daughters.
Things go south in a hurry when Nick is compelled to testify against extremely dangerous killer Tommy Udo (Widmark) and the jury lets Udo walk free. Nick will do absolutely anything to protect his wife and little girls, resulting in a memorable showdown with Udo.
Although Coleen Gray -- who will be 90 this fall -- had previously filmed her role in RED RIVER (1948), this was the first movie to be released in which she had more than a bit role. I was quite taken with her performance, which seems very natural and emotionally open, whether she's greeting Nick like an excited teenager or sobbing at the dining room table as Nick explains just how bad their situation is. Her acting almost has a modern feel to it that seems rather unlike other performances of the era. Her scenes with Mature are all quite gripping and among the best in the film; in fact, I went back and replayed each one after the movie had ended. I was touched by the progression of their relationship, which is depicted in what is really just a few scenes.
It's interesting to me that while this film is rightly remembered for Richard Widmark's electric, Oscar-nominated film debut as Tommy Udo, some reviews found online are a bit tepid about the rest of the film, including Mature and Gray's performances. For me, Mature and Gray make the movie; and in fact, Mature's quietly played role provides a perfect opposite to Widmark's very flashy part. The contrasting dynamic between the two actors is a part of what makes Widmark so effective. Needless to say, Widmark's giggling killer is a hard character to forget.
Victor Mature may not have had a lot of range -- he never really worked for me in musicals like MY GAL SAL (1942) or MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID (1952) -- but at the same time, in the right types of projects, he was simply terrific. He's underestimated as an actor; there's a great deal going on in his performance in terms of expressions and body language, and he has soulful eyes few could match. The love he lavishes on his little girls is quite touching, especially coming from a man with such a troubled past; Nick's own father was a criminal, but Nick finally gets his act together and turns his life around. Mature's mix of tough and tender makes the transition believable.
Speaking of body language, it's fun to carefully observe the scene where Nick visits Nettie after his release from jail. She's very excited and seems to keep herself from touching him by clasping her hands behind her back and then folding her arms over her chest. Nick, meanwhile, stands with his arms spread open. When Nettie walks past Nick to get him some dinner, he reaches for her and the emotional dam breaks.
I came across a YouTube video in which Coleen Gray discusses being cast in KISS OF DEATH and working with director Henry Hathaway. I must say I was taken aback by her interpretation of the ending and choose to view it differently. Besides, Walter Winchell voices agreement with my interpretation in the trailer!
It seems as though director Henry Hathaway could be a bit of a pill to some actors until they'd had enough. Gray describes Hathaway picking on her while they were on location filming the charming kitchen scene, to the extent that she finally fled upstairs in tears. Hathaway followed her, told her she was doing fine, and from then on they were great friends. Similarly, I've read that Richard Widmark was so exasperated by Hathaway he walked off the set at lunchtime, saying he didn't need the hassle of a movie career, but Hathaway followed him, apologized, and from then on they were friends and worked together again on later films.
KISS OF DEATH illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of the Production Code. After Udo and Bianco are admitted into a high-security building, as they walk up the stairs Bianco asks "What's that smell?" Udo replies that it's perfume. It's quite clear to adults what sort of establishment the two men are entering, but at the same time a child wouldn't have a clue. It's so much more sophisticated than something blatant, a great example of less being more.
On the other hand, in the real world there's no way a pair of loving newlyweds like Nick and Nettie sleep in twin beds, a rather absurd convention which seems to have existed mainly in the movies.
The film has a great look, with terrific location shooting in New York. I love Nick and Nettie's house, which is just right, a comfortable but lower-class home they could afford, including ancient, too-loud wallpaper. The film also has plentiful noir style, including the men's wardrobes -- love the hats -- and creepy shadows. The finest noir moment is the headlights which shine on Nick and Nettie as they sit at their dining room table, a visually stunning, memorably scary couple of seconds.
Look for Karl Malden in a small role as a police investigator. Millard Mitchell is effective as a cop. Taylor Holmes is a slimy lawyer to lowlifes, and Mildred Dunnock is a woman in a wheelchair who has a most unfortunate encounter with Tommy Udo. Iris Mann plays Mature's older daughter, Connie; IMDb doesn't list a credit for the little girl who played Rosie. (2013 Update: IMDb has been updated and Marilee Grassini is credited as Rosaria.)
An intriguing bit of information is that Patricia Morison filmed a scene or scenes as Maria, Nick's first wife, but was edited out of the picture. Her name appears on some posters, along with the name of actor Robert Keith, who was also cut. Henry Brandon, who played the often-talked-about mobster Pete Rizzo, ended up on the cutting-room floor as well.
The script by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer was based on an Oscar-nominated original story by Eleazar Lipsky. IMDb indicates Philip Dunne also did uncredited work on the script. KISS OF DEATH runs 99 minutes.
The theme music heard as the film draws to a close, and also heard in the trailer, is Alfred Newman's "Street Scene." First used in the 1931 film STREET SCENE, the music was used in at least two other Fox noir titles starring Victor Mature, I WAKE UP SCREAMING (1941) and CRY OF THE CITY (1948). It also appeared in THE DARK CORNER (1946) and HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE (1953).
KISS OF DEATH was released on DVD as Fox Film Noir No. 11. Extras include a commentary track by Alain Silver and James Ursini. It's available from Netflix.
It's also been released on VHS.
KISS OF DEATH can also be seen on Fox Movie Channel, which will next show the movie on February 7, 2012. Incidentally, there's a still on the Fox Movie Channel webpage which misidentifies Coleen Gray; the scene does not appear in the film, and I suspect the woman shown in profile is Patricia Morison.
Update of related links: A Birthday Tribute to Coleen Gray, A Visit With Coleen Gray, Farewell to Coleen Gray, and The Victor Mature Centennial.