Wednesday, October 17, 2007

10/17: Kiss of Death

Kiss of Death is a solid mid-level noir that really comes alive in its second half, with a powerhouse supporting performance from Richard Widmark (his first role ever!) that makes it more than worthwhile all by itself. The film starts out slow and conventional, with Nick (Victor Mature) going to prison after a failed jewelry robbery, and refusing to squeal on his cohorts to get a better deal. He is a crook with a sense of honor, and moreover a crook basically forced into this life by lack of options — he can't get a job, and he has a wife and two daughters. While he's in prison this time, he befriends Tommy Udo (Widmark), a psychopathic hitman who inserts an eerily unhinged laugh at the most inappropriate places in his sneering speech. Nick also learns that while he's in prison, his wife has engaged in an affair with one of his former partners and wound up killing herself, leaving their daughters in an orphanage. The incident jolts Nick into taking action, and he goes to the DA to agree to turn over on his gang and testify against them. He also falls in love with his kids' former babysitter, Nettie (Coleen Gray), in a relationship whose basic creepiness is largely left unexplored (later, Nettie tells him, as they kiss, that she wanted him ever since she was a little girl... um, ewww).

This setup largely takes up the first half of the movie, and it's hardly compelling stuff for the most part. It is, however, necessary to establish Nick as a family man at heart, a basically decent guy who made some bad choices and now desperately wants to fix his life. This makes the film's second half, with its increasing focus on Widmark's sadistic, sociopathic Tommy, all the more terrifying and intense. We sense Nick's fears because we've already seen how much he cares for his family, how much he wants to go straight, and we feel his frustration at the continuing obstacles thrown in his path. Before he's totally free of his old life, he must live up to his deal and testify against Tommy, but the jury fails to convict the killer, and Nick knows that he's sealed his own fate and that of his family. He knows this, and the audience knows it too, because Tommy has already been established as one of the most unforgettable movie psychos of all time.

In a scene before Nick's testimony, Tommy chases another suspected stoolie, but finds that he has already fled the country. Denied his revenge, he settles for attacking the thug's crippled mother instead, tying her to her wheelchair and pushing her down a staircase. It's a stunning and horrifying moment, and one that Widmark amplifies with the intensity of his performance. Director Henry Hathaway also shows his instinct for capturing a fine performance, cutting to and holding a closeup of Widmark as he stands, leering over his wheelchair-bound victim. The shadows accentuate his twisted, cartoonish grin, his petulant whining voice seeming creepily ill-fitted to the sheer evil of his visage. And Widmark himself actually steps into the closeup, moving closer to the camera to get the effect of a de-facto zoom. Otherwise, the camera stays still for this, letting Widmark's unhinged brilliance dominate the screen. When he steps forward and looms even larger in the frame, his brows arching wildly and his mouth twisting to the side as he spits out veiled threats, the effect becomes overpowering. The moment is so intense, its mood so sustained, that it hangs over the whole rest of the film's second half. After he pushes a crippled woman down a staircase to her death, looking so gleefully creepy while he does it, Tommy takes on a totemic power for the remainder of the film. He is a symbol of death and destruction for Nick, a powerful threat to everything he holds dear.

If the rest of the film doesn't quite live up to the staggering intensity of that single closeup moment, it's more than understandable. Even so, the tense standoff between Widmark and Vic Mature (who is surprisingly good in this, considering how much I hated him in Anthony Mann's least interesting Western The Last Frontier) is very satisfying. The film as a whole provides more than enough energy to its standard script, and Widmark's scene-stealing is reason enough to check this one out.

[This post is, considering the importance of Widmark's performance here and the screencap above, my contribution to the Close-Up Blogathon currently going on until October 21, 2007.]

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