Tag Archives: 1947

Noirvember II #5 – Kiss of Death (1947)

kiss_of_death_1947_b_posterKiss of Death (1947)
Directed by: Henry Hathaway
Written by: Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, Eleazar Lipsky (story)
Starring: Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Coleen Gray, Richard Widmark

Our last Noirvember feature, Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777, inspired me to check out another of the director’s more famous noir works.  Made just one year before the release of Call Northside, 1947’s Kiss of Death is arguably Hathaway’s more important contribution to film noir.  Written by the legendary Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, Kiss of Death diverts slightly from the usual tropes of the genre – but still features enough elements to be seen as a significant and important effort.  Shot almost entirely on location (much like Call Northside 777), and with narration by Coleen Gray, Kiss of Death feels less documentary-like than Hathaway’s next film, but the groundwork is certainly there.  While not a significant box office or critical success at the time of its initial release, Kiss of Death would slowly come to be recognized as one of the unsung greats of film noir.  It’s since been made famous and praised for its neo realistic feel – largely in part to Hathaway shooting on location, and for Richard Widmark’s star making performance as the villainous Tommy Udo.  The film was nominated for two Academy Awards in 1948 – Best Supporting Actor for Richard Widmark, and a Best Original Story nomination for Eleazar Lipsky.

Kiss of Death stars Victor Mature (My Darling Clementine) as Nick Bianco, a desperate man who lands himself in prison after a jewelry store robbery gone wrong.  Being the only one caught, Bianco is persuaded by the District Attorney Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) to name names in exchange for a shorter sentence – to which he declines and receives a twenty year sentence.  Prior to this, Bianco meets a sinister man by the name of Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark).  After learning of the rape of his wife committed by his former partner Pete Rizzo, his wife’s eventual suicide, and the transfer of his daughters to an orphanage, Bianco makes an arrangement with the DA. He agrees to help them solve a separate case in which Rizzo was implicated, being allowed to see his daughters in exchange.  Finally out of prison, Nick meets up with Tommy Udo – also out of prison – and the two strike up a brief partnership which sees Nick gather verbal evidence about a murder Udo committed.  Bianco reports his findings to D’Angelo to get Udo locked up again, but he is later acquitted by the court – leaving the psychopathic Tommy Udo out for revenge.  Can Bianco get away from the murderous Tommy Udo, or will he become another in a long list of Udo’s victims? Find out in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death!

There’s no denying that Henry Hathaway had an eye for realism, and a penchant for telling dark stories – at least with the two film noirs of his I’ve seen so far. Minor elements like shooting on location go a long way to stand out amongst the crowd, since most films of the time were still being shot on perfectly lit sound stages.  There’s something genuine about Kiss of Death, despite some of its more over-the-top elements.  It may not be the best the genre has to offer, but there’s a heck of a lot to admire about it.  The best example of this is the performance of Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo, far and away the best thing about Kiss of Death.  Widmark’s Udo is wonderfully villainous – bringing a palpable menace to the role.  It’s at times a little hammy (in a Joker sort of way), but it works in the context of the movie.  The film, shot by cinematographer Norbert Brodine, makes the city of New York feel fully alive – especially with it being almost completely shot on location.  Complementing the performances and photography is the writing by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, who create one of the most memorable silver screen villains of the 40’s, and manage to weave a suspenseful, captivating thriller in the process.  Unfortunately for them, censors of the time forced Hathaway to cut or change a number of scenes that were too dark in tone. These scenes would have done a lot to add to the film’s weight, and would have given our hero Nick Bianco some much needed development.
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What I Liked:

  • Richard Widmark’s performance here is terrific, turning Tommy Udo into one of the most menacing presences in film noir history.
  • Victor Mature’s performance as Nick Bianco is quite good as well, acting as an effective counterweight to the sometimes over-the-top Widmark.
  • The photography is wonderfully lit in many scenes, giving that dark, smoky feel that film noir is so famous for.
  • Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer’s screenplay is quite good – creating a fully realized world, an interesting concept, and writing some truly memorable characters.
  • Tommy Udo’s character gets away with some truly shocking and brutal acts – a relatively rare thing in highly censored 1940’s Hollywood.

What I Didn’t:

  • The film would have had much more impact with its original ending – which is far darker in tone.
  • Coleen Gray’s narration feels jarring and unnatural.  There isn’t a whole lot of it, but what’s there doesn’t work in the film’s favour.  
  • Nick Bianco’s character isn’t developed well enough to truly feel for. Mature brings his A-game to the performance, but as a character I found him pretty difficult to get behind at times.  His motivations feel inconsistent, as he’s constantly shuffling between sketchy ex-crook and docile family man.

Henry Hathaway proves again with Kiss of Death that he had a terrific eye for film noir, but maybe didn’t have the skills or the budget to bring to life a true masterpiece.  His 1947 film features some very memorable elements and shocking moments, but ultimately falls short of being one of the greats.  When Kiss of Death is good, it’s very good – overcoming the production code by delivering some very brutal moments, creating a sadistic and very memorable villain, and featuring a realistic setting through its use of location photography. Henry Hathaway’s film certainly deserves a place in the film noir canon, but it just doesn’t do enough to sit with the all-time greats.  Kiss of Death is recommended.

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Noirvember Feature #4 – Nightmare Alley (1947)

220px-NightmarealleyposterNightmare Alley (1947)
Directed by: Edmund Goulding
Written by: Jules Furthman (based on Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham)
Starring: Tyrone Power, Coleen Gray, Joan Blondell, Helen Walker

This monthly theme idea just keeps producing better and better results, I couldn’t be happier with the way Noirvember has unfolded so far.  The latest in a series of surprisingly terrific films is Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley, a noir much different from what we’ve taken a look at this month.  Goulding is probably best known for directing Bette Davis in 1939’s excellent Dark Victory and the so-so Best Picture winner Grand Hotel in 1932.  Nightmare Alley came towards the end of Goulding’s directing career, and has proven to be one of his most acclaimed and memorable films in the years since his death.  The film stars swashbuckling Hollywood heartthrob Tyrone Power as Stan Carlisle, the charming noir regular Coleen Gray as Molly Carlisle, and the terrific and prolific Joan Blondell as Zeena.  Reviews of the time were initially mixed, but Nightmare Alley has slowly but surely earned the reputation as one of the best film noirs of its time, and an incredibly dark and morally ambiguous one at that.  Due to this moral ambiguity Nightmare Alley wasn’t exactly a success after its release, and probably ended up costing 20th Century Fox more money than it worth to the studio.  The film has a notable cast, an Academy Award winning director, and a big budget, so why was it considered a failure for so many years?

nightmare-alley-blondell

Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power) and Zeena (Joan Blondell) in Edmund Goulding’s noir masterpiece Nightmare Alley.

Nightmare Alley follows Stan Carlisle (the aforementioned Tyrone Power) as a seedy carnival con man trying to claw his way to the top of his travelling circus.  Our main character soon finds himself wrapped up in a love affair with his new boss Zeena (Joan Blondell), but his intentions are far from innocent.  Zeena reveals to Stan that she and her husband were once a major act in the travelling carnival world.  She tells him the two developed a code that would allow the couple to communicate, yet remain undetected by the audience.  Zeena would feign mental powers, and her husband Pete (Ian Keith) would ask her questions written by the audience.  Upon hearing of this famous “code” Stan begs Zeena to go into business with him, and after an accident involving her husband she decides to go ahead with the plan.  Unfortunately for Zeena, Stan likes ‘em young.  He soon sets his sights on the talented Molly (Coleen Gray).  Molly is a beautiful young act who falls head over heels for our main character before she even knows it.  Stan soon begins yet another affair with young Molly, and are both forced to leave when the two are found out by the other members of the carnival.  With knowledge of the famed code Carlisle and his new lady now have the world in the palm of their hands.  Will the two prosper with their newfound fame and talents, or will Stan’s seediness and criminal history catch up to him?  Find out by watching Edmund Goulding’s excellent Nightmare Alley; I promise you it’s absolutely worth your time.

nightmare-alley

I wasn’t initially sure what to think when Nightmare Alley began unravelling, but the film slowly ramps up tension and builds the world and characters involved in it.  The film starts to truly shine once these elements of the film are established, and I can absolutely say that I adored it because of them.  All of our main characters are incredibly fun to watch because of how morally confused many of them are, and because of how real they feel for the time.  Tyrone Power’s turn as Stan Carlisle is absolutely one of my favorite film noir performances to date, and the supporting cast of incredibly talented actresses like Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, and Helen Walker only helps to solidify the film’s greatness.  The carnival setting is truly unique in the film noir world, and is a place where Hollywood rarely dared to venture at the time.  The carnival acts and personalities are all believable, and much of the goings on inside make the film feel seedy and dark as it should.  Nightmare Alley doesn’t adhere to typical film noir conventions and easy storytelling elements, but instead opts to blaze its own thrilling and dramatic trail.  I found myself wishing that more films in the genre were this unique and easy to follow, and hope that I come across more on my month-long journey through noir.  

The acting, setting, storytelling, and direction make Nightmare Alley an absolute treat from start to finish, and has me guessing character motivations as well as constantly changing favorites.  It’s a noir the likes of which I’ve rarely seen before, and I highly recommend everybody check it out.  I don’t want to reveal too much about the twists and turns taken throughout, and I really hope you all decide to seek it out because of that.  It’s dark, challenging, and still feels relevant nearly seventy years later.  Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley gets my highest recommendation.

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