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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 II #4 – Call Northside 777 (1948)

call-northside-777Call Northside 777 (1948)
Directed by: Henry Hathaway
Written by: Leonard Hoffman, Quentin Reynolds
Starring: James Stewart, Lee J. Cobb, Richard Conte, Helen Walker, Betty Garde

Without a doubt my favorite thing about film noir as a genre is its versatility – with the exception of usually featuring a few trademark elements, the classics of the genre are all so different in scope and size.  Henry Hathaway’s 1948 film Call Northside 777 is a perfect example of this – blending common noir elements with the structure and pacing of a procedural crime investigation. Henry Hathaway directed numerous film noirs during his career, with Call Northside being the most successful of the bunch.  Hathaway is probably most notable for directing one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite films, the Oscar-nominated The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, as well as his work with legendary tough man actor John Wayne, directing him in North to Alaska, Circus World, The Sons of Katie Elder, and his Academy Award-winning performance in 1969’s True Grit.  The legendary director’s filmography consists of more than 60 feature films, featuring some of the greatest American actors to ever live, and spanning a wide variety of genres.

Call Northside 777 stars the always charming James Stewart as P.J. McNeal, an ambitious and brash reporter for the Chicago Times.  McNeal unexpectedly becomes involved with a ten year old murder case involving a young man named Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte), who is serving 99 years in prison for the alleged murder of a Chicago police officer.  Wiecek’s mother has put up a $5,000 reward for whoever can present information about the “true” killer’s of the officer, effectively proving her son to be innocent.  After learning of the reward, McNeal’s Chicago Times editor Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb) quickly assigns P.J. to the case. Though McNeal believes Frank Wiecek to be guilty of the killing, the young reporter reluctantly accepts the job in order to prove himself as an investigative reporter.  Not wanting to be embarrassed or exposed by the investigation, Chicago police and state attorney’s become involved in the case – giving the skeptical McNeal more resistance than expected.  Will P.J. McNeal crack the case and prove young Frank Wiecek innocent, or will resistance from law officials prove too much for the young reporter?  Find out in Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777!

The addition of Call Northside 777 into this year’s Noirvember schedule was a last minute decision based entirely on two things – the film’s star, James Stewart, is one of my all-time favorite actors, and the fact that I had never seen a Henry Hathaway film.  After finding out about the movie’s procedural and investigative nature, I knew that I had made the right decision.  Call Northside 777 is nowhere near as stylistic or suspenseful as other, more-revered classics of the genre, but Hathaway’s film is a highly intriguing and graceful effort.  Northside lacks most of the trademark elements that make film noir such a captivating genre, but makes up for it with solid, uncompromising film-making, and an intriguing true story adaptation.  The procedural style of storytelling (which I have an unabashed love for) works wonders for the film’s mystery, which is small in scope but grand in its implications.  It’s often said that Hathaway never had a distinct style as a director, being known rather as something of a journeyman filmmaker. His apparent lack of a “trademark” style ultimately works in Call Northside 777’s favor – with Hathaway delivering an intriguing, concise, uncomplicated, and grounded investigation in realistic, documentary-like fashion.  James Stewart turns in a typically solid performance as P.J. McNeal, who is incredibly easy to get behind as an investigative journalist.  McNeal remains skeptical for much of the film, completing the job mostly out of obligation to his editor.  Once he’s thrown up against the resistance given by the law, he begins to question his own morals and proves that he is unafraid to go over the heads of those above him. Stewart’s performance goes against his stereotyped “golly-gee” personality, with the veteran actor instead coming off as hardened and sardonic.  All in all, Call Northside 777 isn’t a perfect film by any means, but it’s certainly quite a good one.
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What I Liked:

  • The opening minutes of the film are presented in an unflinching, documentary style that lays the groundwork for the film’s mystery.
  • James Stewart ventures slightly out of his comfort zone, giving a rock solid performance as P.J. McNeal.  
  • Henry Hathaway’s lack of a distinct style allows for the director to focus on what is most important about this film – the storytelling.
  • The pacing is slow, but deliberately so.  Stewart’s McNeal follows all possible leads, reports back to his superiors multiple times, and thwarts resistance efforts by Chicago law enforcement.  Not a minute feels wasted.
  • The scene in the final act with witness Wanda Skutnik (Betty Garde) adds some effective and much needed suspense to the story.

What I Didn’t:

  • Lee J. Cobb’s character feels undeveloped to a fault.  At times it feels like he has ulterior motives for assigning McNeal to the case, but this point is never really clearly presented or followed up on.
  • The film’s conclusion, while unique, feels a little too rushed and convenient for my liking.  
  • With the convenient conclusion comes an odd and out of place tonal shift from stark and cynical to suddenly much more hopeful.

With it being a last minute addition to this month’s lineup, I couldn’t have been more surprised with my experience with Call Northside 777.  It’s no doubt a flawed film – largely due to some of its overly-convenient writing – but Henry Hathaway’s focused direction and the attention and respect paid to procedure and investigation makes this a more than worthy film noir.  James Stewart brings a good performance to the film, serving as the perfect leading man in a performance-driven piece.  It won’t ever be considered to be one of the greats of the film noir genre, but it is a solid crime film with an incredibly intriguing mystery at its core.  Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777 is recommended.

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