Before Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and the neo-realism movement, 20th Century Fox started something similar which became known as film noir, based on shooting away from the studio at real locations with minimal technical assistance. Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 group would have applauded.

Kiss Of Death is a perfect example of the genre, directed with his usual blustering proficiency by Henry Hathaway, co-scripted by the legendary Harold Hecht (The Front Page) and starring Fox’s current box office beefcake Victor Mature, with a skinny young radio actor from New York, by the name of Richard Widmark, making his screen debut as a psychopathic killer.

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The plot, based on former assistant DA Eleazar Lipsky’s novel, is rooted in truth. On Christmas Eve, small time crook Nick Bianco (Mature), unable to find a job because of his criminal record raids a jewelery store at the top of the Chrysler Building, with three accomplices, in order to afford presents for his two little girls. After the heist, he is caught trying to escape, while the others get away. In prison, the assistant DA Louise D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy, who could hardly look less Italian) offers him a deal: squeal on his colleagues and receive a much reduced sentence, or keep his trap shut and watch the judge throw the book at him.

The relationship between Bianco and D’Angelo is handled with a sensitivity that avoids cliché. They are hardly friends and yet neither are they enemies. Within the rules of the game, they have what is known as wriggle room. It is a question of loyalty and trust, which, amongst lawmakers and lawbreakers, hardly ever exists.

Bianco’s involvement with gun-for-hire Tommy Udo (Widmark), a punk kid high on violence, begins in the slammer and, later, once Bianco is out on parole, it becomes personal. Udo is beyond dangerous, held together by a slither of respect for the gangster code that controls briefly, minute by minute, his murderous rush. By this time, Bianco has married his former mother’s help (Coleen Gray), after his first wife’s suicide, and thinks only of keeping the family safe.

There are moments of sentimentality (“Every time you kiss me, I almost pass out”) and there are moments of horror (Udo pushing the mother of an alleged stoolie down a flight of stairs). The characters are well drawn and beautifully played. This is Mature’s finest hour. Soon, he will be lost in sword-and-sandals epics, such as Samson And Delilah, The Robe and Demetrius And The Gladiators, before spending more time on the golf course.

Widmark steals the film. He epitomises the unpredictability and vicious mood swings of a natural born killer and is quite mesmerising. The ending is Hathaway’s only false note, not because of what happens but the consequences of what happens and the way the narrative voice (Gray’s) slides over the details like honey over burnt toast.

Reviewed on: 17 Oct 2007
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Kiss Of Death packshot
When the criminal code is broken, there's a killer loose in New York.
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Director: Henry Hathaway

Writer: Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, based on the novel by Eleazar Lipsky

Starring: Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Coleen Gray, Richard Widmark, Howard Smith, Karl Malden

Year: 1947

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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