Kiss of Death (1947)

Kiss of Death (1947) is a psychopathic traumatic sttol-pigeon crime procedural film noir, featuring Victor Mature as a troubled ex-con; Brian Donlevy as a firm, fair and forgiving Assistant DA; Richard Widmark as a crazed psychopath; and Collen Gray as a sweet and innocent goody-two-shoes, the type of woman in fact beloved of all film noir scenarios, the guiding angel flying in the fateful face of sexual lust and loose living.

An all-American woman perhaps, certainly offering morality and everything else in line with the cinematic Code of operation.

The semiotic valuations which lead to the promotion of one family ideal, and the extinction of African American life in the process, was a bold attempt by Hollywood to attempt to mythify the American way of life into a set of values that all would adopt.

While similarly in this case being spooked up to high heaven by the emerging figure of the psychopath. And that with one of the greatest psychopath's in film history. Noir is its own set of cultures and ideas, and is roughly speaking, a set of conventions defining perception in limited and predictable ways within just about any picture of American life you might care to inject it into.

Noir does its fullest work in crime and criminality, whether this be in or out of prisons, and around the morality of crime; but also noir works as well in marriages and households, just as the film noir style its often suited to the boxing ring —  places of aspiration, and definition. 

Heist in Kiss of Death (1947)

Victor Mature in one of the slo-o-o-o-west elevator rides in all the movies
Kiss of Death (1947)

Kiss of Death (1947) is a classic film noir film title illustrating both sex and murder in a movie of course with no kiss of death as such, and murder which is more sadistic and psychopathic than gender-based or sex-fuelled.

Cops do deals with small-time crook Victor Mature in
Kiss of Death (1947)

Crime itself is perhaps the original kiss of death. In the original story it would appear that Nick Bianco, despite coming good or making an effort to, does receive death in the end. In the finished version of Kiss of Death he does not — although crime is his forte, almost like an addiction the way he sweats his way through it, unlike more confident criminals in other film noirs. 

Even in the way that Nick turns to crime on Christmas eve — crime is his natural way of Christmas shopping, and his crime is an interesting contrast to the busy street shoppers of December.

Crooked lawyer played by Earl Howser in Kiss of Death (1947)

Prison snitch — that's the Kiss of Death (1947)

Kiss of Death that tells the story of a small-time crook named Nick Bianco, played by Victor Mature, who gets caught during a jewellery heist and is forced to become an informant for the police. 

Kiss of Death features plenty of dark and shadowy scenes, which are typical of the film noir genre. The film's cinematography makes great use of light and shadow to create a sense of foreboding and tension.

Kiss of Death (1947)

A key element of many film noir movies is the femme fatale, a seductive and dangerous woman who leads the male protagonist down a path of destruction. In "Kiss of Death," this role is played by Bianco's ex-girlfriend, played by Coleen Gray, who tries to lure him back into a life of crime.

Victor Mature's character, Nick Bianco, is a classic anti-hero. He is a criminal who has made some bad choices in life, but he is also a sympathetic character who is trying to turn his life around and protect his family.

Brian Donlevy in Kiss of Death (1947)

Orphange of Love in classic film noir Kiss of Death (1947)

Of all the kisses and of all the ways of dying, it is the suicide of an innocent movie that provides the moral backbone upon which every incidental character and action hangs in Kiss of Death. 

A deleted scene involving Nick's wife Maria (who was played by Patricia Morison) was cut from the film. In this scene, a gangster (played by Henry Brandon) who is supposed to look out for her while Nick is in prison rapes her. 

Afterwards, Maria commits suicide by sticking her head in the kitchen oven and turning on the gas. 

Both scenes were cut from the movie at the insistence of the censors, who wanted no depiction of either a rape or a suicide, so although Morison's name appears in the credits, she does not appear in the film at all. 

Mention is made later in the film about Mature's wife's suicide and a now obscure reference is made by Nettie that the unseen gangster Rizzo contributed to the wife's downfall.

Kiss of Death features a voiceover narration that provides insight into the thoughts and motivations of the main character. This technique is often used in film noir to create a sense of intimacy between the viewer and the protagonist. The voiceover is offered by the final survivor of the tale, Nettie, and she talks up the sympathy angle for poor ill-fated, doom-laden, stoolie-to-be and full-time flop Nick Bianco, by saying that he had been trying to go straight for a year, but for the fact that he could not get a job because of his prison record. We are certainly supposed to feel for Nick because of this — it's the first social comment in this mighty noir.

The film takes place in the criminal underworld of New York City, and we see a variety of characters involved in various criminal activities. This setting is another hallmark of the film noir genre.

Shocking murder from Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) in
Kiss of Death (1947)

Kiss of Death deals with some complex moral issues. The protagonist is a criminal who is working with the police to take down other criminals, which blurs the lines between right and wrong. The film also raises questions about the effectiveness and ethics of using informants in criminal investigations. The DA played by Brian Donlevy is fair and tough and straight-talking and clever-clever and given the stress on Victor Mature's character — including his wife's suicide and maybe even rape —  as well as his newfound status as prison stoolie — he creates a moral force of iron strength, crushing the life out of the small time crook. In the nicest way.

Promise in Kiss of Death (1947)

Female Saviour Coleen Gray in Kiss of Death (1947)

The morality of Kiss of Death is what gives it its hard noir chops. Although it is known for its psychopathy.

The production code of the time demanded that crime and immorality could never be portrayed in a positive light. For example, the Hays Office made the ending of The Big Sleep more violent and decisive than the one originally planned.

Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death (1947)

The Reveal in Rebecca (1940) also suffered as a result of this rule in The Code. Originally, the cruel and faithless Rebecca is murdered by her husband Maxim, but in Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 film version, her death is accidental and Maxim covers it up because he feels nobody will believe his innocence.

In the 1935 film adaptation of David Copperfield, when the thief who robs young David of his money takes off in his cart, the authorities are shown chasing after him, something not present in the original novel and very obviously added to comply with the code.

Shout at the bout — boxing match in Kiss of Death (1947)

Films  could only present what were called correct standards of life, which for the times were self-evidently segregational and even meant  some directors avoided taking on films that talked about on poverty, as it could have conflicted with the Code.

Nudity and portrayals and references to sexual behaviour could not be shown at all, and this meant that pregnancy and childbirth weren't allowed. In Gone with the Wind, when Melanie Hamilton Wilkes is giving birth, she and Scarlett and Prissy are in fact only shown only as shadows on a wall because of this rule.

There are plenty more fulsome code stories and details at TvTropes.

Paranoia in  Kiss of Death (1947)

Post-suicide, post-orphanage, post-heist and post-traumatic psychopathic murder, there is paranoia. They really are coming for you in Kiss of Death (1947) and they are coming for you in the figure of Tommy Udo. Everything is about fear of Tommy, and the DA cannot compete with these levels of insecurity. Where Tommy Udo came from, we don't know — he does not appear to be a product of World War 2 but more of a by-product of America's lack of interest in its men.

Psychopathic characters are common in film noir, a genre of dark and suspenseful crime films that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s. Here are a few notable examples of psychopathic characters in film noir:

Tom Powers in "The Public Enemy" (1931) - Tom, played by James Cagney, is a ruthless gangster who is willing to do anything to get what he wants. He is violent, impulsive, and lacks any moral conscience, making him a classic example of a psychopathic character.

Phyllis Dietrichson in "Double Indemnity" (1944) - Phyllis, played by Barbara Stanwyck, is a seductive and manipulative woman who convinces an insurance salesman to help her murder her husband. She is willing to go to any length to get what she wants, even if it means sacrificing those around her.

Harry Lime in "The Third Man" (1949) - Harry, played by Orson Welles, is a charismatic and charming black-market dealer who is also a cold-blooded murderer. He has no regard for human life and sees others as mere pawns in his game of power.

Bruno Antony in "Strangers on a Train" (1951) - Bruno, played by Robert Walker, is a disturbed man who becomes obsessed with a stranger he meets on a train. He proposes a twisted plan to exchange murders with the stranger, which ultimately leads to a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse.

The approach of Tommy Udo — Richard Widmark in
Kiss of Death (1947)

If film noir is ultimately about morality then good film noir should be pressing the limits, and pushing its characters to face up to and often fail at life's more important questions. Nick Bianco as portrayed by the nervous, sweating, wary and worried face of Victor Mature, is a man with decisions.

Kiss of Death begins, as some other film noirs of the 1940s do, with a little social commentary on crime, recidivism and how society treats its criminals. In films like Invisible Stripes we explore the tropes of character reform, and how people deal with life after prison.

For Nick Bianco, this is a pain and refrain at the start of Kiss of Death - - which opens on Christmas Eve - - is that Nick cannot get a job anywhere because of his prison record.

This is what turns him to robbery, we are told, and it creates an immediately harsh message and set of terms of engagement.

When Nick is caught for the robbery —  shot in the street by the cops  —  interestingly this was his father's fate, we are informed —  he is brought before Brian Donlevy, representing the law in the shape of the Assistant District Attorney.

Kiss of Death's moment of bravura madness comes when Richard Widmark, playing psychopath Tommy Udo, pushes a woman in a wheelchair down a flight of steps. Even now, this scene is shocking and surprising, and it seems to top of a performance as that most novel beast for the 1940s - - the cinematic psychopath. 

In its sudden erupting nature, this burst of violence is a little like the scalding hot coffee thrown over Gloria Grahame by Lee Marvin in The Big Heat.

Although the lead players are all strong in Kiss of Death (1947), it is in one key respect Richard Widmark's film. In the cruel handsomeness, Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo sets the tone for what a real criminal should be like - - a man so cruel in fact there will be no remorse, no ceasing of his wicked ways, and unremitting and unrepentant crime.

Brian Donlevy who plays the Assistant DA with a heart argues on more than one occasion for the fact that there are two type of criminal - - the unforgiving and unredeemable criminal who will always do and act the worst - - and then criminals like Nick Bianco, who are somehow, deep down, still good people.

And this is the morality of Kiss of Death. Through a process almost as inexplicable as pre-destination, the morality of this story states that there are people, and in this case men with children, who are not really bad at heart and who have a chance of going straight. Even if the odds are stacked against you, as they are stacked against Nick Bianco, it is incumbent upon you to keep on trying.

The kicker however is that to achieve this taintless state, a criminal must become a stoolie, a rat, a squealer, and a snitch.  

And Kiss of Death also ships with that most salacious of film noir attributes - - being the title. Kiss and Death of course both evoke sex and murder, which of course have no place within the family structure. 

Tommy Udo, played by Richard Widmark, is a classic example of a psychopathic character in film noir. In "Kiss of Death" (1947), Udo is a sadistic and violent criminal who delights in causing pain and suffering. He is introduced in the film when he giggles while pushing a wheelchair-bound woman down a flight of stairs to her death.

Throughout the film, Udo is shown to have no empathy or conscience, enjoying causing harm and destruction to others. He is also unpredictable, with a short fuse and a tendency to lash out violently at those around him. Udo's behavior is characterized by impulsivity and a lack of concern for the consequences of his actions.

What makes Udo particularly terrifying is his jovial and almost childlike demeanor. He seems to take pleasure in the pain he causes and often laughs as he inflicts harm on others. This combination of sadism and apparent cheerfulness creates a disturbing and unsettling portrayal of a psychopathic character in film noir.

A host of tropes comprise this classic film noir. Many of these have moulded the crime cinema of the following decades, being used multiple times every year in fact, in many crime films. 

Unhinged Tommy Udo says he likes to shoot victims in the stomach to see them suffer.

Tommy is none too pleased with Nick after Nick testifies against him.

As Tommy and Nick are being taken away to their separate jail destinations, Tommy remarks that it's his birthday. Then he giggles creepily.

Bury Your Disabled: Poor, poor Mrs. Rizzo...

Chiaroscuro: An outstanding example of artful black-and-white photography being used to establish mood, like in the scene where Nick waits in a dimly lit house, expecting Tommy to arrive and kill him.

Nick's first encounter with Tommy Udo is when they are both in a holding cell waiting to be sentenced for separate crimes. A guard walks by. Tommy giggles and talks about how he'd like to stick both thumbs into the guard's eyes and jam them right into his brain.

Tommy and his super-crazed giggle might be the supreme take away. Tommy is especially prone to giggling when committing violence, like when he flings a lady in a wheelchair down the stairs. The character of Tommy is said to have influenced how The Joker is played in various incarnations of Batman. Frank Gorshin stated Udo was his inspiration for The Riddler in the Batman (1966) series.

Sweating out the addiction to crime — Victor Mature in
Kiss of Death (1947)

— SPOILER —  The original idea for Kiss of Death (1947) had Nick sacrificing himself, tracking Tommy down and letting Tommy shoot him so that Tommy would go to jail and Nick's family would be safe. Instead, to try and figure out a happy ending, Nettie's narration then tells of how Nick survived and lived H.E.A with his wife. This is despite being shot by Tommy Udo five times at close range!

Medium awareness is alive and well in film noir as the opening shot of Kiss of Death is a closeup of the "Shooting Script" of Kiss of Death. The pages of the screenplay then flip by, showing the credits.

Nick's second wife, Nettie (Coleen Gray), narrates the beginning and end of the film; noir voiceover.

This is a also a non-Indicative Name Noir. There is no Kiss of Death in Kiss of Death. This is despite Victor Mature's character Nick being in the grip of something throughout, although the kiss itself may be the relationship with crime he cannot shift.

There is an orphanage of love in this classic film noir. The orphanage where Nick retrieves his kids seems to be a pretty decent place.

Hunted — paranoid — film noir Kiss of Death (1947)

The most famous scene in the movie features a giggling Tommy taking Rizzo's wheelchair-bound mother and pushing her and her chair down a flight of stairs to her death. Among all noir an action of most memorable menace.

Tommy remarks that when he kills people he likes to shoot them in the belly so that they suffer for a while. This is a staple of evil if ever there was one.

Tension-filled elevator ride. Nick and his gang binding and gag jewellers and take the slowest elevator ride to the lobby in all of film noir, hoping they can get down and get away before the alarm is sounded.

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