Tag Archives: Richard Widmark

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 #8 – Night and the City (1950)

NightandthecityNight and the City (1950)
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Jo Eisinger (based on Night and the City by Gerald Kersh)
Starring: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Herbert Lom

Director Jules Dassin fits perfectly into many of the themes our Noirvember marathon has seen so far.  Many of the filmmakers covered have been those who sought asylum in Hollywood before or during the rise of Nazism in mid-1930’s Europe.  Many of these men came to America in order to hone their craft and continue working under the freedoms they had once enjoyed in their native lands.  Dassin’s story is the complete opposite of those other filmmakers.  Jules was an American born director who would seek asylum in Europe shortly before the release of his famous film noir Night and the City.  His reason for fleeing a country that many considered to be the freest in the world?  The infamous Hollywood blacklist – which accused Dassin of being a Communist sympathizer.  From there, Jules Dassin would end up in France, and would go on to direct one of the greatest films ever made, Rififi.  Night and the City, along with his film The Naked City, would establish Dassin as one of the great film noir and crime directors of the time, and would help to establish his legacy as one of the great filmmakers of his time.  The film stars the extremely prolific Richard Widmark, as well as Gene Tierney (who also starred in Noirvember feature #1, Laura) one of the best actresses of the time.  Night and the City has been criticized since its release for having no real moral characters for the audience to get behind, and for being hopelessly bleak – even for a film noir.

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Night and the City is the dark and sleazy story about an almost unredeemable man named Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark).  Fabian is a hustler out to con anybody he can, and he isn’t particularly good at it.  Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney) is Fabian’s main squeeze, with whom he maintains a somewhat unstable relationship.  After seeing proverbial dollar signs in his eyes during a wrestling match, Fabian goes into business with famous former professional wrestler Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbyszko) and his protege Nikolas (Ken Richmond).  Having put his famous sleazy charm on the two famous pro wrestlers, Fabian attempts to gain financing for his new sports enterprise.  Gregorius has just had a falling out with his son Kristo (Herbert Lom), and is eagerly looking to go into business with a new partner in order to undercut his son.  After being denied financing from an assortment of characters, Fabian finally settles with acquaintances Phil (Francis L. Sullivan) and Helen (Googie Withers) in exchange for a forged nightclub license.  Soon enough, our main character is approached by associates of the now alienated Kristo, who attempt to dissuade the silver-tongued Fabian from entering the wrestling promoter business.   What follows for nearly our entire cast of less than perfect characters is a complicated web of double crosses, senseless murders, and misfired conning.  Will the charismatic Harry Fabian succeed in the wrestling world, or will the forces working to eliminate his presence win out?  Find out in Jules Dassin’s excellent Night and the City.

The criticisms about Night and the City having no likable characters for the audience to rally behind may be true in theory, but that’s exactly what I admired most about Dassin’s last American production.  The entire film is filled to the brim with some of the sleaziest, most dour characters I’ve seen in film noir up to this point, and every single moment of it is riveting.  The professional wrestling backdrop works in my favour as a fan of the sport, and serves well because of the amount of real life slime balls in the wrestling business, past and present.  The character of Harry Fabian is incredibly captivating because it keeps the audience wondering how and when he’s going to screw over another of his associates or colleagues.  He digs himself into a hole so deep than not even the most talented minds could lift themselves out of, and every minute of it is glorious.  Richard Widmark’s performance as Fabian is the standout in the film, and Widmark absolutely brings the character to life in a realistic and dramatic way.  The supporting cast is terrific as well, all performers bringing a level of sleaze to the picture that goes unmatched by other film noir’s.  The wrestling world backdrop and the slimy cast of characters makes me an incredibly easy watch, and even helps viewers forget about the sometimes overly complex plot unfolding on screen.  Things that happen in Night and the City don’t always make complete sense, but the story still ends up in the right places, and manages to still keep the viewer hooked and knowing the intentions of each and every character.  The highlight of the entire film is a long, intense, and brutal wrestling scene between Gregorius and a rival wrestler under the tutelage of Kristo, The Strangler.  The two men battle until they both collapse from sheer exhaustion, putting on an absolute wrestling clinic in the meantime.  The scene works well to shift the story into its final tragic act, and is an absolute sight to behold.

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I can’t say much more about Night and the City without spoiling many of the twists and turns that take place during the short run-time, but I can say without a doubt that most reading this will enjoy some aspect of the film.  The dark, moody atmosphere, the seedy cast of characters, the complicated, the almost mob-like underworld of wrestling, and the terrific performances and direction by Jules Dassin makes Night and the City an absolute must-see for all viewers.  Much like many film noir’s I’ve covered, it may not always make sense – but even in it’s overly complicated story it’s a terrifically fun and compelling watch.  I can say without a doubt that Jules Dassin’s Night and the City is highly recommended.

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