It would be no surprise to learn that Richard Widmark was a big Batman fan, as his star-making screen debut in Kiss of Death as grinning, cackling psychopath Tommy Udo (for which he received an Academy Award nomination) seems heavily indebted to the Caped Crusader’s arch-nemesis The Joker. Certainly, the live-wire actor’s amoral lunatic, a fiend who delights in pushing crippled wheelchair-bound women down stairs, is the primary (and perhaps only) reason to sit through Henry Hathaway’s over-praised 1947 noir, a jumbled piece of cinematic crime fiction that’s visually elegant (having been neorealistically shot on-location throughout Manhattan) but regularly confused about its own point of view. Nick Bianco (a powerfully dull Victor Mature) is a lifelong thief with a wife and two young daughters (and some lingering daddy issues) who gets picked up on Christmas Eve for a jewelry heist. Both the female narrator as well as assistant district attorney DeAngelo (Brian Donlevy) confirm that Nick is, at heart, an upstanding guy who only continues committing crimes because the stigma of his prior record makes gainful employment impossible. And thus when he sticks to “that good ol’ hoodlum complex” and refuses to squeal on his robbery cohorts, Nick seems to be a principled man who knows the value of loyalty and personal responsibility.
At least, that’s the position the film takes until it totally flip-flops its stance on the nobility of such male codes of honor once Nick, while in the joint, learns that his wife has committed suicide (despite Nick’s pal Rizzo promising to watch after her) and his kids have been packed away to an orphanage. This tragic turn of events immediately compels Nick to sing like a canary to DeAngelo about his accomplices in exchange for freedom, attempt to orchestrate the death of Rizzo (whose crippled mother instead takes that infamous headfirst flight down the stairway), and rat out—and later testify against—his buddy Udo, a strange, disingenuous shift in the movie’s moral bearings that screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer never fully resolve. Nick is championed as inherently “good” for both refusing to, and then wholeheartedly, squealing, a two-faced strategy that elicits only loathing for Nick—whose decision to inform on his friends may be the ethical course of action, but still comes off as disgracefully dishonorable—and, as a result, sabotages director Henry Hathaway’s efforts to have one root for the hero over Udo during their climactic showdown. Hathaway’s noir may pretend otherwise, but to use its villain’s vernacular, it’s the towering yet spineless Nick that’s a “squirt” and the insanely giggling Udo that’s Kiss of Death‘s genuine “big man.”