A crook turns stoolie so that he can see his kids again. The basic plot of Kiss of Death would work perfectly in high-concept Hollywood. Sadly, these days, Hollywood would leave out the terrific touches that have made this movie such a memorable example of film noir. (In fact, Hollywood did just that with a half-hearted remake in 1995.)
The movie begins with jewelry-store thief Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) and his gang pulling off a heist at a jewelry store in a New York City high-rise. Director Henry Hathaway tightens the suspense by showing the gang trying to escape on an elevator that makes far too many stops for fresh passengers, and the gang members start sweating out every new stop. When a movie takes the time for little nuances that a lot of big movies would brush off, you know you’re in for a great feat of storytelling.
At first, Nick is the stoic gangster, willing to go to Sing Sing rather than squeal on his fellow hoodlums. But when his family is thrown asunder while he’s in jail, Nick caves and starts naming names to the assistant district attorney (Brian Donlevy). Nick also gets in good with gangster Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark in his screen debut) so that he can get some juicy info on him for the ADA. The movie is quite eager to show us that Udo is not someone whom you double-cross lightly. This is depicted most graphically in what is probably the movie’s most famous scene, dramatically demonstrating that Udo is…well, not terribly sensitive to the physically disabled.
The screenplay by Hollywood veterans Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer (from Eleazar Lipsky’s original story), and Henry Hathaway’s taut direction, give the movie a straight-from-the-headlines tabloid feel. This is further aided by Norbert Brodine’s straight-to-the-point photography, which beautifully captures the movie (as is boasted in the opening titles) at authentic New York locations. And the flawless cast further punches the movie’s gritty tableau across. Mature, Widmark, Donlevy, and utterly charming Coleen Gray (also making her film debut here) provide a riveting movie experience.
A lot of films-noir make their points with heightened dialogue and stylized photography. Kiss of Death gives you the refreshing feeling of seeing an Everyman placed in the middle of a film-noir situation and doing his best to escape it. (Talk about stylized, though — if you ever hear anyone laugh like Richard Widmark, run for the hills.)