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Kiss of Death (1947)
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Kiss of Death

Kiss of Death (1947)

Grinning gangster Tommy Udo was the role of a lifetime for Richard Widmark, however atypical the characterization now seems in the context of the late actor's long and distinguished career. Many fans of Henry Hathaway's Kiss of Death (1947) may not realize, or may not remember, that the seminal film noir marked Widmark's screen debut. A Minnesota native whose first career goal was to be a lawyer, Widmark drifted from campus debating into student theatrics at Lake Forest College outside Chicago and became the protégé of drama director Russell Tomlinson. After his 1936 graduation (and a bicycle tour of Europe, where Widmark and a friend shot footage of Adolf Hitler's youth camps), he returned to Lake Forest for a job as the Assistant Director of the Speech and Drama Department. Widmark's academic career proved short-lived and he was soon bound for New York. A perforated ear drum keeping him from military service, Widmark's career benefited from the shortage of actors during wartime. He made his Broadway debut in George Abbott's 1943 production Kiss and Tell and was soon dividing his time between the stage and radio. Widmark was performing in an episode of the NBC radio drama Inner Sanctum when he was handed the script for Kiss of Death. The actor read the part aloud to his friends, laughing at the ridiculousness of Tommy Udo, never suspecting how a nervous laugh would help define his best-known character.

When Widmark made his first New York audition in 1938, for CBS Radio's Aunt Jennie's Real Life Stories, he won the part of a hayseed gas station attendant by braying like a jackass into the microphone. The laugh had been an eruption of nervous tension on his part but the show's producers were thrilled. Prior to seeing Widmark's screen test for the part of Tommy Udo, Henry Hathaway had entertained the notion of casting rubber-faced piano player Harry "the Hipster" Gibson in the role. A discovery of Fats Waller, Gibson (1915-1991) favored an aggressive, hyperkinetic style that made him a predecessor of Jerry Lee Lewis. The white, fair-haired but jive talking Harlem native (who claimed to have coined the term "hipster") saw his career flounder after he was black listed for his controversial novelty single "Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine?" Existing "soundies" of Gibson's stage act are certainly Udo-esque but once Henry Hathaway was left alone in the room with Richard Widmark there were no other contenders for the role. (Widmark was also favored by Twentieth Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, who likely cast the swing vote.) To meet Hathaway, Widmark had dressed for the part, wearing a big-brim Fedora, a black shirt and a white tie. True to his reputation for being a bully to his actors, Hathaway was rough on the Hollywood newcomer but Widmark had the guts to hit back. "Off the set, he was a charmer," Widmark said of Hathaway in later years. "On the set, he was Hitler."

Wearing a close cropped hairpiece to foreshorten his high-domed forehead (a bid to make the actor look less intelligent), Widmark bears a passing resemblance in Kiss of Death to Fredric March as the worse half of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), complete with the crooked smile and tombstone dentition (to which Widmark added a mad titter worthy of Dwight Frye's Renfield from Dracula [1931]). The character was a big hit with moviegoers (college fraternities allegedly formed Tommy Udo Clubs) and Widmark spent the next couple of years playing the same guy, in Jean Negulesco's Road House, in William Keighley's The Street with No Name and even in Hathaway's western Yellow Sky (all 1948) before he was given the chance to redeem himself as the hero of Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets and the tragic protagonist of Jules Dassin's Night and the City (both 1950).

Although Tommy Udo doesn't enter the picture (apart from a 3 minute introduction early on) until forty minutes into Kiss of Death, he became the focal point of the film's re-release. Exhibitors were exhorted to "Sell Richard Widmark," giving short shrift to the nicely nuanced lead performance of Victor Mature. Viewers coming to the film afresh over sixty years after the fact are just as likely to be impressed by early supporting turns from future big stars Karl Malden (as an in-your-face prosecutor) and John Marley (as Mature's cell block neighbor) some twenty years before his work for John Cassavetes and a quarter of a century before his own role of a lifetime as ill-starred movie producer Jack Woltz in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972).

Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer's screenplay for Kiss of Death was adapted from an original story by Eleazar Lipsky. An amateur novelist, Lipsky toiled by day as a Manhattan assistant district attorney while also serving as legal counsel for the Mystery Writers of America. Lipsky signed the nom de plume "Lawrence L. Blaine" to his 100-page manuscript, Stoolpigeon, Kiss of Death's first working title. The title was changed during production on the order of Darryl F. Zanuck to the rather incongruous Blind Date, before Zanuck stamped the film with its definitive title, a phrase that had jumped out at him from Hedda Hopper's gossip column.

Although a credit card crows that all shooting, interior and exterior, was captured in New York, some studio interiors are obvious late in the film. Nonetheless, Kiss of Death has a you-are-there freshness typical of the "docu-noir" popular at the time. Hathaway and crew shot in such standing New York City locations as the Chrysler Building (where the opening jewel heist is set), the Bronx House of Detention for Men, the Criminal Courts Building in lower Manhattan and The Tombs, as well as on a stretch of 14th Street in Astoria, Queens (under the impressive span of the 59th Street Bridge) and across the river at the Academy of the Holy Angels in Fort Lee, New Jersey. During location shooting at Sing Sing Penitentiary in upstate New York, Hathaway gave the order that Mature and Widmark should be processed through the system as incoming convicts to give the actors a true feeling for their roles as society's outcasts. Producer: Fred Kohlmar
Director: Henry Hathaway
Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer; Eleazar Lipsky (story)
Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Art Direction: Leland Fuller, Lyle Wheeler
Music: David Buttolph
Film Editing: J. Watson Webb, Jr.
Cast: Victor Mature (Nick Bianco), Brian Donlevy (Assistant D.A. Louis D'Angelo), Coleen Gray (Nettie), Richard Widmark (Tommy Udo), Taylor Holmes (Earl Howser - Attorney), Howard Smith (Warden), Karl Malden (Sgt. William Cullen), Anthony Ross ('Big Ed' Williams).
BW-98m.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
Richard Widmark: A Bio-Bibliography by Kim Holston
The Hipster Story by Harry Gibson
Film Noir: An Encyclopedia Reference to the American Style, edited by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward
Audio commentary by James Ursini and Alain Silver, Kiss of Death DVD VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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