Lost in the Movies: Kiss of Death

Kiss of Death

As American film language grew in the late forties, the term "film noir" came into fashion. Much noted was the "darkening" of theme and lighting palette, and the way they want hand-in-hand. But there was a "deepening" going on at the same time. Thirties films are gloriously kinetic and economical and I've grown to appreciate their direct, exquisitely chiseled charms in recent years. However, it was forties and fifties Hollywood that initially hooked me into the classics as a precocious film buff, and I think it was the depth that did it. Like the darkness, depth took on formal and thematic connotations: there's depth of field, so that backgrounds become less abstract and enrich the overall picture; depth of texture, a result of logistical as well as textual factors, as film shoots increasingly took place on location; depth of performance, with "the Method" creeping into and than exploding on the scene; and depth of the story, so that suddenly we aren't just seeing the "most important" element of a movie but a whole variety of elements, whether presented front and center or suggested peripherally.

I think postwar American cinema, and I think On the Waterfront with the gritty, lived-in Hoboken rooftops; the gestures and expressive allusions to a past life - thrown boxing matches, childhood bonds forged by poverty; or little details along the way like Brando playing with Eva Marie Saint's glove (something that apparently every viewer notices on their own, considering it their own private, cherished discovery). Or I think Vertigo with abstract but potent ideas like its sense of history's chasm yawning underneath our unsettled present, ready to swallow us up in its mad chaos - alongside evocations of lust and anxiety and painful but passionate frustrations which lurk in the character's eyes and suffuse the looming romanticism of San Francisco. And Kiss of Death fits nicely into this postwar depth, taking the crime genre and fleshing it out in several directions at once.

There's the most obvious aspect - announced proudly at the beginning of the movie with a title card: Kiss of Death was shot entirely on location in New York. And indeed this is no idle boast; the movie is deeply enriched by the lived-in sense its, well, lived-in locations provide. The oppressive claustrophobia of an elevator as a desperate criminal tries to escape from a robbery in a busy building. The steep, narrow, and crowded architecture of Nettie's (Coleen Gray) apartment as she welcomes Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) home from prison. Or the odd juxtaposition of an urban waterway and bridges with a tidy and tiny patch of land covered by a clean lawn and cozy little house - as if Nettie and Nick are trying to carve their own sliver of Americana out of the overwhelming urban jungle surrounding them.

It's in this little home that Nick and Nettie play at domesticity. Their giddiness (especially Nettie's) is infectious. This is one example of the film's depth: here as elsewhere, the screenplay (by veteran greats Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer) finds room to put down roots. Often a haunted character has his place of refuge which is left to our imagination or, more often, merely accepted as a shorthand convention. But the writers and director Henry Hathaway allow the scene to unfold separate from the rest of the film's crime milieu and in its roundabout way it strengthens the whole big picture. It also opens out into a wider context, indicative as it is of a whole postwar generation's yearning for the comfortable American Dream, before ennui set in. Of course, Nick and Nettie have a lot to worry about before they get to the ennui.

After all, the only reason Nick's there is that he's turned "stoolie," betraying his partners in crime to escape prison and be with his kids after his first wife dies. The assistant D.A. keeps using him, eventually putting him on the stand as a witness against psychopath Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), who's fond of curling his upper lip in a repellently fascinating grin, laughing like a goblin on helium, and pushing women downstairs in their wheelchairs (or preferably doing all three things at once). Widmark's performance is not an indication of depth but one of a long line of characters that take one element and push it to its hilt (think James Cagney or Mae West). In other words, it doesn't have much to do with the larger stylistic aspects I'm writing about, yet it's Widmark's picture that adorns this write-up. How could I resist?

Actually one could make the case that these more elemental figures were in fact a vital part of the new filmmaking depth, giving it context, shape, and direction. In uncharted, turbulent seas, elements like Widmark's performance stand like stony islands which the waves lap against, too firmly what they are to be eroded. In other words, because Mature's character is complicated and the film's texture is rugged and open and its story winds and turns and brings in different elements, Widmark's maniacal, single-minded, and ruthlessly tugging performance stands in sharp relief and gives the complicated, uncertain aspects of the movie something to react against. Fire and ice so to speak, though I'll let you determine which is which.

Indeed, Kiss of Death seems irrefutably of its time: a postwar noir which dovetails nicely with the domesticating impulses of its period. But that description indicates a disjunction within the film and the historical period it represents. Noir didn't just arise out of the (wartime) blue(s). There was a long tradition of crime and urban films in the thirties, and movies like Kiss of Death present one period meeting another: Warners Cagney, meet "Father Knows Best."

In the end, Udo and his simplistically evil cackle are drowned in a hail of bullets and Nettie's voiceover (which sound suspiciously like something added later on, to provide a happy ending) informs us that she got what she always wanted, Nick by her side. I don't mean to undermine the Nick-Nettie romance or the hood's acceptance of fatherhood, because those elements make the film more powerful than it would have been otherwise. Yet there's no denying we can't shake the impression of Widmark's piercing eyes and snarling smile, however single-minded they may be. The movies found a new, and wonderful, penchant for exploration but they never lost their fascination with the sharp and singular.


Tony D'Ambra said...

A great review, which goes beyond the usual fascination with Widmark's Uno, and I like the way you place the film in an historical as well as noir context.

Joel Bocko said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it - I definitely see why Widmark garners the lion's share of attention, but I was honestly just as fascinated by some of the film's other elements - the story, Mature's growth from criminal to husband/model citizen, the use of real locations, etc.

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