Monday, October 7, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Kiss of Death" (1947)

"Kiss of Death" is a movie that's well-remembered, but mostly for the wrong reasons.

Like "From Here to Eternity," it's a film that's come to be summed up in the popular gestalt for a single scene, even though that scene isn't particularly representative of the movie around it. It's like putting an unexpected ingredient in the middle of a sandwich, say a chocolate bon-bon inside a turkey on rye.

It doesn't matter if the sandwich was bland or wonderful; people are going to remember the bon-bon.

For "Eternity" it was the beachside kiss. For "Kiss of Death," it's a soulless hood pushing a woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs to her demise.

Like many people I'd seen snippets of the wheelchair scene, but not the whole movie. Having recently viewed "Kiss of Death," it struck me that within the context of the story, it's a rather brief, almost throwaway scene. It exists not because the woman is important -- we're introduced to her moments before she dies -- or that her death plays a pivotal role in the story. It's simply intended as a shocking moment to depict how despicable the villain, Tommy Udo, really is.

To audiences in 1947, it surely must have been quite a surprise to see a disabled woman ("crippled" they would have said in those days) killed by a giggling lunatic for no good reason at all. But it's a shame that people more readily recall that act of depravity than the character behind it, or the actor who created him.

Truthfully, "Kiss of Death" is a rather flat and unengaging example of early film noir, a crime story that's meant to underscore the value of upright citizenship. But its real thrill is luridly exposing the audience to a wildly charismatic villain.

For my money, Tommy Udo should be right up there with Keyser Soze and Hannibal Lecter on the list of greatest cinematic villains. He's a jittery, shivery figure who makes you feel like bugs are crawling all over you whenever he's onscreen.

It was the first film role for Richard Widmark, who'd mostly been known for his stage work, and would earn him his first and only Oscar nomination. It also set the tone for his career, in which he largely played men who easily turn to violence during his younger years, and corrupt cops or misguided soldiers as he got older. Even his heroic roles like "Warlock" are shot through with moral ambiguity.

After Tommy Udo, straight heroics were out for Widmark.

Widmark's look and mannerisms in the film are highly stylized and memorable. He always wears dark shirts with a light-colored tie, the mark of an operator. He moves in a languid style, almost as if the world around him bores him. When he's talking to someone he tends to stare them straight in the eye, virtually without blinking, a rictus smile seeming to split his skull horizontally. His teeth somehow seem malovelent.

He speaks in a nasally Noo Yawk pattern, warping his vowels and swallowing his consanants, to the point where it can be hard to understand what he's saying. At one point on a train he announces that it's his birthday, but it comes out something like, "Ehz meeh boithdoy!"

If Widmark's Tommy Udo seems evocative of a certain other character, that's because he is. Widmark was reputedly fascinated with the Joker in the Batman comics of that era, and patterned his look, smile and laughter after the famed psychopath who would later be portrayed by Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger and others.

The only difference is there's no joking to Udo, despite his nearly non-stop laughter. That giggle seems to escape out of him like noxious gas out of cesspool, unable to be contained. According to biographer Kim Holston, Widmark would be approached by strangers for years afterwards asking him to reproduce the famous laughter, or even record it for them.

Udo laughs at those around him, whom he divides into two categories: "squirts," the everyday folks who deserve only to be browbeaten and murdered, and a "big man" who carries himself above the rest.

The only other person in the movie Udo regards as a big man is protagonist Nick Bianco, played by Victor Mature in a performance that can only be described as bored. Nick's a thief who gets shot by the police during a jewelery heist in the opening sequence, and eventually gets squeezed into being an informant for the assistant district attorney (Brian Donlevy).

The first half of the movie is utterly tedious, apart from a brief couple of scenes where Nick first meets Tommy in jail. It's basically a morality lesson where Nick tries to play the part of the proud criminal who refuses to become a snitch. But then his wife kills himself over being left destitute with two young daughters, and he sees the error of his ways.

That sets up the pursuit of Udo, which doesn't go very well when he's acquitted by a jury and comes after Nick. Or, more accurately, Nick -- now living under an assumed name -- seeks out Tommy to settle things between them once and for all.

That doesn't really make much sense, since it's doubtful Tommy could have even found him. But it's all part of the nitwit plot concocted by screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, based on a story by Eleazar Lipsky.

It's a decent-looking film (directed by Henry Hathaway) though it doesn't have much of the extravagant juxtaposition of light and dark that other noir films would use so expertly. The movie also opens with a strange scrawl assuring the audience that everything they see was shot in the actual location where it happened -- odd, considering it is a fiction film.

Interestingly, Widmark was not considered by the studio to be any big shakes when they were marketing the movie -- his name does not even appear on the poster. Coleen Gray, who was also making her film debut playing Nick's nanny-turned-new-wife (ick!), got the glamorous "and introducing..." treatment.

Frankly, if it weren't for Widmark's wonderfully off-putting Tommy Udo, "Kiss of Death" would have been a completely forgettable film -- even with the wheelchair push.

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