Kiss of Death (1947)

Former crook Nick Bianco turns informant so he can secure parole and look after his family. When he gets the goods on a psychotic hitman, Tommy Udo (Widmark), Nick testifies against him to maintain his parole. Trouble brews when Tommy beats the rap, and Nick finds himself and his family in his crosshairs. What really sets this noir apart–other than Hecht and Lederer’s sure-handed script–in a field crowded with them in the ’40s & ’50s is a combination of Hathaway’s deliberate craftsmanship and the small crackerjack ensemble led by Mature and Widmark. Movies like Kiss of Death and The Naked City spearheaded a new streetwise aesthetic to the crime genre. We find a documentary-like naturalism in its unadorned cinematography and production design–crisp, efficient, yet gorgeous in their simplicity. It takes a solid measure of confidence in front of the camera to accomplish Mature’s level of acting here. He takes time with each glance, gesture, and every word he speaks as Nick must weigh his love for family against certain peril to his own life at every turn; it’s a masterful performance from a generally underrated career actor. Mature’s gently mannered turn is overshadowed–understandably so–by Widmark’s more famous one as the combustible Udo, a guy who has no qualms about dealing out his brand of justice to old ladies in wheelchairs. With his unnerving sniggering, batty eyes, and sense of barely contained menace, Udo’s creepily clownish killer has stalked the darkened alleyways of noir lore ever since Kiss of Death’s release.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Henry Hathaway
Written by: Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer
Cast: Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Coleen Gray, Richard Widmark, Taylor Holmes, Howard Smith, Karl Walden

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