The fourth and final film in our online season of classic films is the 1947 crime thriller ‘Kiss of Death’. Arguably (in this writer’s opinion at least!) the best film in our season of movies, ‘Kiss of Death’ was directed by Henry Hathaway, a director who established his reputation in the 1930s and early 1940s shooting Westerns and drama adventure pictures. In the late ‘forties, Hathaway made a remarkable series of five film crime thrillers for 20th Century Fox studios – House on 92nd Street (1945), The Dark Corner (1946), 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), Kiss of Death (1947) and Call Northside 777 (1948) – a sequence now generally regarded not just as Hathaway’s finest movies, but also some of the best pictures to be made during the Golden Age of Hollywood film production.
By framing these films from a semi-documentary perspective and shooting on location, Hathaway loaned a depth of realism to the crime thriller. This combined with the character performances he drew from actors make the films’ sensibilities seem almost contemporary. It comes down to a case of splitting hairs, but Kiss of Death is arguably the greatest of these five movies. Featuring wonderful location shooting in New York and Queens, the result is partly a time capsule of post-war New York landmarks and neighbourhoods. These locales establish a sense of realism that is further pinned down by superb character performances from Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy and Coleen Gray.
In the film, Victor Mature plays an ex-convict called Nick Bianco who, finding himself down on his luck and unable to provide for his family, takes part in a jewellery store robbery. Captured by the police, he refuses to turn state’s evidence, believing his former cronies will take care of his family. When he learns that the mob has instead victimised his wife and helped caused her suicide, he turns informer. Unfortunately, the mob suspects his actions and has hired a killer to pursue his remaining family and thus force his silence.
The actor Richard Widmark (who also starred in last week’s film) get fifth billing on the credits, but is in many ways the driving force of the film. Kiss of Death was Widmark’s first film and his performance as the giggling smirking killer Tommy Udo was one of the most stunning debuts in film history. Jack Nicholson was undoubtedly influenced by Widmark’s terrifying performance and channelled the character’s cackling psychosis into his own roles in the Stanley Kubrick directed horror ‘The Shining’ (1980) and particularly as the character of The Joker in the 1989 Tim Burton adaptation of Batman.
In fact, Widmark barely managed to get the role, as director Henry Hathaway did not like the actor and relentlessly bullied and needled him on the set. For his part, Widmark persevered and gave a performance that stunned audiences, landing him the Golden Globe Award for New Star Of The Year – Actor, an Academy Award nomination and a seven year contract with Fox. Though he mostly played gun-toting playing antiheroes in the years following, such was his extraordinary range as an actor, he soon broke free of typecasting and became as established leading actor and film producer. His capacity to loan humanity and depth to villains, heroes and ordinary characters led to one of the longest careers in Hollywood history, with his final filmic performance in the 1991 drama True Colours.
Richard Widmark’s career in two minutes – a Vanity Fair video production:
Featuring a taut, character-driven plot, double-crosses and intrigues, the final film of our spring season will have you on the edge of your seat! Click the link below to watch the film: