Henry Hathaway's 1947 film noir, Kiss of Death, is a durable melange of the director's semi-documentarian stylization, employed earlier in his previous crime drama, The House on 92nd Street (and to be used again in the following year's Call Northside 777), as well as his subtly dexterous command of mise-en-scene, the teaming of celebrated screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer and two wildly different but similarly persuasive performances by Victore Mature and Richard Widmark. Hathaway's visual prowess has sadly gone unappreciated in many circles, but what he presents—even in his sparest, most astuciously straightforward films—is an organically holistic helming that conveys the emotive undercurrents of his characters and narratives. This vein pulsates through Kiss of Death with greater certitude than the more documentary-like The House on 92nd Street, but it never distracts from Hecht and Lederer's adaptation of Eleazar Lipsky's story. Rather, Hathaway's confident framings and prismatic shots, well-composed by cinematographer Norbert Brodine, gently enhance the other components of the film.
Kiss of Death follows Nick Bianco (Mature), a physically imposing, sloe-eyed, potential gentle giant who, through being brined in a culture of desperate criminality, finds himself being a purloining hood. Bianco's most vivid childhood memory is of his father being fatally shot in the back by a policeman on a street twenty years earlier than the events of the film. This, narrator Nettie (Coleen Gray) informs the viewer, is mirrored by the opening set-piece of a heist attempt by Bianco and a few partners in crime. Nettie, who helped take care of Bianco's two little girls, as he wasted away in prison, is used by the screenplay to afford greater sympathy to Bianco. “Christmas Eve: a happy time for some people. The lucky ones. Last minute shopping, presents for the kids, hurry home to light the tree and fill the stockings... for the lucky ones. Others aren't so lucky.” Bianco is couched in the film's complete sympathy through Nettie's narration.
What makes this tendentious storytelling succeed, however, is Mature's underrated performance. He studiously maintains a likability that does not condescend to demanding the audience's unwavering fondness, but between his charismatic turn and the screenplay's deftness of action, that fondness does develop. Rarely has the archetypal role of the gradually reforming criminal and ex-convict been so persuasive in attracting the viewer's lasting interest. Mature makes his character more innately comprehensible than the rather blunt narration. That his Bianco finds himself entrapped, shot on a street by a policeman as he attempts to escape the heist, not only greatly establishes the picture as a noir, but naturally makes the character all the more amenable as the protagonist. After he has been arrested, he finds himself placed between the proverbial rock and hard place, as an ambitious crime-fighting Assistant District Attorney, Louis D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy), asks him to “sing” about his partners. Though Bianco refuses early on, going to prison, he eventually turns. As he walks into the warden's office, Hathaway uses the arching windows behind him to describe the character's state of mind. As the conversation between prisoner and warden concludes, the latter says the prisoner could use “more exercise... We'll put him on the ball team,” he says to another prison official. He asks, “Do you play ball, Bianco?” “I'm going to,” Bianco replies, delivering the screenplay's double meaning.
Kiss of Death is known best for the feral supporting performance that consumes the very subterranean fabric of the film. As Tommy Udo, a sadistic arrested adolescent of an animalistic criminal, complete with a hyena laugh, Widmark burns the screen. The part is in actuality quite small, spanning no more than approximately fifteen or twenty minutes, but it is not difficult to understand that the actor's very first screen performance was so arresting as to achieve controversial acclaim and an Oscar nomination in the supporting actor category. Hathaway believed Widmark was wrong for the part, seeing only the man's clean-cut and fair projection of self-possession. Producer Darryl Zanuck passionately disagreed, responding to Widmark's borderline boyish iniquity as Udo, a violent, uncontrollable force of nature with an equally beguiling and mystifying high-pitched voice and equipped with an arsenal of callow inflections and unnerving shifts in temperament. Zanuck aided Widmark with a hairpiece that lowered the forehead—intended to make him appear slower, but even more importantly, scarier. Widmark's turn is rightly legendary for a variety of reasons, but one is that he represents a clear, distinguishing break from the very cloth from which Mature's Bianco comes. Criminals had, from the gangster cycle of the very early 1930s, and even earlier, usually been endowed with a background that informed the characters' actions. Sometimes these back-stories were so disarming in their detailed myth-making and romanticization, audiences were nothing less than enraptured by the hoodlums' electricity, played as they were by charismatic actors who excelled in enthralling and tempting the audience all at once. (Even James Cagney in The Public Enemy, who was depicted as a ne'er-do-well from childhood onward, was, even at his most wretched, able to attract audience identification.) Widmark as Udo, by contrast, is a self-preserving kobold, a nearly unthinking sensorially-responsive demon with the countenance of a skull with piercing, glowing eyes.
Kiss of Death's screenplay, shaped by the illustrious Hecht and Lederer, is more ambitious than it may initially appear, as it builds Mature's Bianco up as a man steadily reformed by his love for his two daughters, and the budding romantic relationship between he and Gray's Nettie. Yet what may distinguish Hecht and Lederer's screenplay is what is not shown. Bianco's wife is a major focal point in the plot, but she is never seen. The verbal suggestion of her existence more than suffices. Bianco finally deciding to “squeal,” to “sing,” is what drives the picture's narrative, and yet there is not one shot of the interior of a courtroom. Perhaps Hecht and Lederer wanted to exclusively avoid making their film into anything resembling a courtroom drama, a sub-genre of sorts that many films of the era eventually became, at one point or another, in their narratives. In any event, the film is more greatly streamlined by the lack of these unnecessary scenes and adornments; what matters more than simple story beats, as in great noir, is the prominently displayed psychology of the characters.
What most superbly enlivens Kiss of Death is Hathaway's deft treatment of mise-en-scene. In the opening heist attempt, Hathaway uses the doors of an elevator—including in an excellently composed mirror shot—as a framing device that demonstrates just how entrapped Bianco is. The taut tension of the scene is made patently tangible by Hathaway's assured direction, as Bianco eyes the numerical symbols in the elevator, which glow one at a time in slow intervals. Mature projects the discomfited emotions with his steady, nervous gaze in this sequence. At the eighteen minute mark, Hathaway frames Widmark's Udo and Mature's Bianco, sitting in their jail cell together, Udo rambling about the reason he's locked up (“Big man like me getting picked up just for shoving a guy's ears off his head. Traffic ticket stuff.”), with the gray bars utilized as more framing devices. At the thirty-six minute mark Bianco is reunited with his two daughters, who emerge through the entrancingly framed door at a Catholic children's center. The scene is punctuated by the religious iconography that is found nearby as Bianco embraces his children. At the thirty-nine minute mark, Hathaway and cinematographer Brodine shoot Bianco's conversation with a lawyer with the background of crisscross-patterned shadows created by bars. A moment later, Widmark's Udo is captured through the frame of a door—he has just entered a place that used to be safe, now it is threatened by his very diabolical presence. Minutes later, as Bianco is conversing on a telephone with someone, Nettie looks down at him from above, which Hathaway and Brodine capture in an atypical Dutch angle. The shot describes their relationship, as Nettie looks down upon Bianco, who has so frequently found himself in the mire of illegality; he, meanwhile, looks above, towards her, seeing her as the true panacea and person greater than he. As Bianco finally leaves her to attempt to set something right, Hathaway gorgeously shoots him through the glass pane of the front door. At approximately the seventy-minute mark, as Bianco stews in the toxic juices of his own past life catching up with him, Nettie is caught through the frame of an opened door, ascending upwards, which is a visual contrast with the scene in which, the characters depressed, descended down the stairs together. The final exquisite framing device utilized by Hathaway is aptly reduced to a mere blade of light, a crack that separates two curtains in an Italian restaurant, through which one of Widmark's fiery eyes appears, malice beaming from its mesmerizing intensity.
Kiss of Death is a fine film noir and an exemplary case of a director telling a fairly simple story through the fantastic visualizations at his disposal. Hathaway's impressive visual schema serves as a fine complementary habitat for his actors, from whom he extracts highly engrossing performances. Kiss of Death, known as it is for Widmark's untamed performance, serves as a pointing to the future, both near—Cagney in White Heat—and far—so many psychopathic screen performances since the 1940s. A film with simmering angst and despair at its center, Kiss of Death leaves a lasting impression of downcast sensibility, and rightly pained emotions. What possibly most lingers, however, is the melancholic but affectionate depiction of a noir archetype, the man played by Mature, who, in this instance, must paradoxically attempt to capitalize on his past to try to escape it.