Kiss of Death (20th Century-Fox) illustrates a new and vigorous trend in U.S. moviemaking. One of the best things that is happening in Hollywood is the tendency to move out of the placeto base fictional pictures on fact, and, more importantly, to shoot them not in painted studio sets but in actual places. In making this kind of realistic "locale" movie, 20th Century-Fox has been the leaderwith The House on 92nd St., 13 Rue Madeleine and Boomerang.
Boomerang achieved a physical and moral portrait of an entire community. Kiss of Death, working in a darker, narrower field, among the criminals and policemen of a great city, lacks the older picture's richness of theme and its warmth, variety and brilliance. But in its own way it, too, is a clean knockout. It is also something new and welcome in U.S. crime movies. None of its criminals is glamorous, nor does anyone piously point out that crime does not pay. Nobody has to. The whole picture amply demonstrates the fact.
Kiss of Death is the story of a burglar named Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), and of the difficulties he encounters first as a criminal, then in trying to extricate himself from the underworld. Nick is paroled from Sing Sing when his wife's suicide, his love for his small daughters, and a partner's treachery cause him to turn state's evidence. Thereafter he belongs, body & soul, to Assistant District Attorney D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy). His liberty depends on his cooperativeness as a stool pigeon. His life, and the safety of his children and his second wife (attractively played by newcomer Coleen Gray) depend much too precariously on secrecy and on police protection. Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), against whom Nick is forced to appear in court, is unexpectedly acquitted; and Udo is a sure killer. The rest of the picture shows how Nick, with the helpand hindranceof the law, tries to win permanent safety for himself and his family.
The fright and suspense of the closing sequences depend largely on the conception of the pathological Udo and on Richard Widmark's remarkable performance of the role. He is a rather frail fellow with maniacal eyes, who uses a sinister kind of falsetto baby talk laced with tittering laughs. It is clear that murder is one of the kindest things he is capable of.
The earlier sequences of Kiss of Death are as hard, cold and clear as so many sheets of glass; but these relatively quiet scenes, too, are fascinating. They were well photographed (by Norbert Brodine) entirely in actual surroundingsManhattan's Tombs, Sing Sing, an orphanage, Manhattan's streets and tenements and dives, even a Chrysler Building elevatorwith none of the overhead lights which bathe all possible reality out of most Hollywood movies.
This bleakly beautiful actuality is so valuable to the movie that the writing (by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer), the direction (by Henry Hathaway) and the playing all take their measure against it. With hardly a moment's exception, they measure up. Particularly good are the performances of Taylor Holmes as a crooked lawyer, and of Victor Mature, who apparently needed nothing all this time but the right kind of role. For once, he has it.