Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death is lean, direct, and rife with urban poetry, reveling in noir’s propensity for docudramatic haiku. The film elides scenes that might be deemed important to more routine narratives (and that were included in Barbet Schroeder’s 1995 remake), and abounds in prolonged silences in which the audience is allowed to regard the protagonist plaintively—clinically yet compassionately weighing his mounting frustration and fear.
The narrative has a progressive dimension as well: Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) can’t rehabilitate himself because most businesses won’t hire an ex-con, which is an irony and hypocrisy that continues to dog ex-cons in the United States. So Nick pulls a jewelry-store caper over Christmas with a trio of other hoods and is promptly caught and returned to prison. Assistant District Attorney Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) offers Nick an opportunity to inform on his associates in exchange for a lenient prison sentence, but Nick is an old-school criminal who believes in honor among thieves. Then, Nick’s wife commits suicide, and their children are turned over to an orphanage. And Nick begins to suspect that his co-conspirators aren’t so honorable anyway, inevitably rendering D’Angelo’s bargain more attractive.
Establishing this familiar scenario, in which an essentially decent-hearted crook can’t catch a break, Hathaway and screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer distinctively elide the death of Nick’s wife, whom audiences never even meet. There’s an emotional logic to this omission, as Kiss of Death is narrated by Nick’s second, obnoxiously worshipful wife, Nettie (Coleen Gray), who might not be too comfortable lingering on the destruction of her quasi rival. A vaster emotional logic also dictates this omission: The un-celebratory, pragmatic bluntness of this death’s acknowledgement in the dialogue bolsters an already casually merciless tone. Nick’s first wife isn’t afforded screen time because she doesn’t matter, and she was too weak to weather the hard knocks that Nick survives as a matter of routine. Hecht and Lederer were once newspaper men, and their screenwriting often exudes a charge of no-nonsense efficiency so pregnant and pronounced that it resembles a kind of working-man’s existentialism.
As diamond-hard as its title suggests, Kiss of Death is far less sentimental than many, more contemporary crime films, including Schroeder’s sporadically lively remake. The matter-of-factness of the plotting and the gritty images of faces and New York cityscapes collectively say with a shrug: “What else do you expect?” Many crime films are desperate to impress the audience with their cynical bona fides, whereas Kiss of Death doesn’t break a sweat. Even the film’s most famous and shocking scene, in which the villain, Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), pushes a woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs, is tossed off with a daring suggestion of the commonplace.
Mature under-acts with a poignant awareness of Nick as ostensibly an observer of his own life, who’s pulled back and forth between the judicial over-world and the criminal underworld, while Widmark phenomenally embodies the cackling, monstrous id that Nick suppresses. Ahead of its time, Kiss of Death doesn’t skirt around the fact that police officers and attorneys play as dirty as their outlaw antagonists. One of the film’s most evocative scenes shows D’Angelo as he plans with Nick how they will present his arrest to Nick’s gang, so as to obscure the identity of the real mole. The procedural specificity is bracing, and complements a nastier scene, in which an attorney, Earl Howser (Taylor Holmes), orders a killing in a manner befitting an obligatory white-collar appointment.
Late in Kiss of Death, there’s another startling elision: Audiences don’t actually see Nick ratting Tommy out in court, and so Tommy’s rage and feelings of betrayal linger over the third act, un-ignited and awaiting detonation. And this emotional coitus interruptus paves the way for the film’s greatest image: a close-up of a restaurant’s back curtain as Tommy gradually arises from behind it, his eye peeping out at Nick from behind the slit. The restaurant is engulfed in eerie, nightmarish silence, and Tommy suggests a demon arising from Hades, who’s on the verge of actualizing the hostility that threatens to topple a society built on intricate, interlocking castes.
The whites of the image are occasionally shrill in early portions of this transfer, with a glare that underlines a lack of detail in certain medium shots of faces. The blacks are rich and robust throughout though, and the transfer improves as it proceeds, eventually offering sharper and more precisely honed whites. An attractive grit pervades the image, lending it a rough, evocative texture. The soundtrack is consistently pristine, handling the high notes (such as the music of a piano) with particular subtlety, though the diegetic effects are also vividly handled, such as the click-clacking sound of an ill-fated women plummeting down a flight of stairs. A generally solid transfer, though there's room for improvement.
One of the great, reliable pleasures of Twilight Time discs are the commentaries with film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, and their discussion of Kiss of Death is characteristically excellent. Early on, Kirgo proposes that WWII veterans might have re-entered their country feeling like fugitives despite doing what their government asked of them, and that film noirs might’ve been subconsciously wrestling with this guilt in their endless enmeshing of veterans and criminals. Kirgo refines this sentiment throughout the commentary, casually detonating the myth of post-war America as a time of unsullied excitement, reminding viewers of HUAC and unemployment anxieties, among other things. Kirgo and Redman are also in fine form discussing the film directly, with Kirgo memorably celebrating Victor Mature’s visage as recalling a Greek statue. The commentary with film historians James Ursini and Alain Silver is also a must-listen, plumbing the film’s religious subtext, the relationship between Mature and director Henry Hathaway, and Hathaway’s underrated ability to marshal a variety of differing acting styles and energies into a singular, coherent tonality. The original theatrical trailer is the only other feature on this disc, but the commentaries more than compensate.
The well-versed and distinctively empathetic audio commentaries render this Twilight Time release a must-own, despite an attractive yet un-definitive transfer.