Sunday, September 6, 2009
Day 224: Kiss of Death (1947) - Rank 4.5/5
This has to be one of the darkest film noirs I've seen to date. The tone of the story in saturated in an uncomfortable sense of dread and hopelessness - not that it's a bad thing, mind you. I rather enjoyed it. Upon reflection, I'm actually surprised it was made in teh era it was, because many of the film's themes are of a darker ilk that wasn't prominent until the mid-1950's (about the time the French New Wavers started showing up American filmmakers).
When Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) is arrested for robbery in a jewel heist, he's offered a lighter sentence by D.A. D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy) if he rats out the rest of the men who were part of the heist that happened to evade the law. Bianco turns him down, reasoning "I ain't no squealer" despite D'Angelo's pleas of "Do it for your wife and kids." Several months later, Bianco's wife sticks her head in the kitchen oven, overcome with grief and debt, and Bianco's kids are slapped in an orphanage. The result is tough guy goes squealer so he can get out and be with his kids. The downside is that the primary thug Bianco rats out, a crazy son of a bitch named Tommy Udo, is found not guilty, despite Bianco's testimony. It's at that point that Bianco realizes that he's, for lack of a better word, fucked.
I never understood what the hype was about for either Victor Mature or Richard Widmark prior to watching this film. I do know, especially for Widmark. The madness he infuses into Udo is absolutely terrifying and elements of his character can be seen in later screen villains, from Frank Gorshin's Riddler (especially the laugh) to Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth.
He personifies that instability that makes the audience hold its breath whenever he steps onto the screen, because you aren't sure what he's going to do next. The most infamous of his cruelties is his torture of a crippled, elderly woman who refuses to rat out her son. Udo quickly tears the electrical cord from a nearby lamp, binds the woman to her wheelchair and then shoves her down the stairs, cackling as her next is snapped in the process. Not many film noirs have a moment that warrant exclaiming "Holy Shit!" but when one does, it definitely deserves kudos.