Cast & Crew
On Christmas Eve, down-on-his-luck Nick Bianco, an ex-convict, and his three cohorts rob a jewelry store located on the top floor of a New York skyscraper. Before they can exit the building, however, the proprietor sets off his alarm, and Nick is apprehended by the police. Later, Assistant District Attorney Louis D'Angelo tries to persuade Nick, who has two young daughters and a wife, to name his accomplices in exchange for a light sentence. Sure that his lawyer, Earl Howser, and cohorts will look after his family while he is incarcerated, Nick refuses and is given a twenty-year sentence. Three years later, at Sing Sing Prison, Nick learns that his wife has committed suicide, and his daughters have been sent to an orphanage. When Nick then is visited by Nettie Cavallo, a young woman who used to babysit his girls, and learns that his wife had been attacked by Pete Rizzo, one of his accomplices, he decides to tell all to D'Angelo. Because so much time has elapsed, however, D'Angelo cannot use Nick's information to reduce his sentence, but makes a deal that if Nick helps the police on another case, he will be allowed to see his children. To that end, D'Angelo questions Nick about one of his previous, unsolved robberies, which he pulled off with Rizzo, and has Nick inform Howser that Rizzo "squealed" on him. Howser, who also acts as a fence for his clients, hires Tommy Udo, a sadistic killer, to murder Rizzo, but when Udo shows up at Rizzo's tenement, only Ma Rizzo is present. Annoyed, Udo pushes the wheelchair-bound woman down a flight of stairs, killing her. Soon after, Nick is freed on parole at D'Angelo's behest, and immediately pledges his love to Nettie. To stay paroled, Nick then continues his work with D'Angelo, conniving to run into Udo, whom he knows from Sing Sing, at a boxing match. The unsuspecting Udo takes Nick to various clubs, including one at which narcotics are being smoked, and Udo reveals enough information to Nick about a murder he committed to enable the police to arrest him. When Udo later comes up for trial, Nick, who is now married to Nettie and living in the suburbs under her last name, is reluctant to testify against him, but realizes he must in order to maintain his parole. Despite Nick's testimony and other evidence, Udo is acquitted. Sure that the killer will be after him, and that the police will not be able to protect him and his family, Nick sends Nettie and the children to the country. Nick then searches for Udo at his favorite haunts and finally finds him at Luigi's restaurant. Before confronting Udo, Nick telephones a concerned D'Angelo and instructs him to go to a police station near the restaurant and await his call. Nick tries to reason with Udo, but when the psychopath threatens to harm Nick's family, Nick warns him that if he does, he will go to D'Angelo with information about other crimes he knows Udo committed. Although Udo is aware that, as a "three-time loser," he will spend the rest of his life behind bars if he is found guilty of any crime, he leaves the restaurant and prepares to have Nick gunned down from the back seat of his car. Deducing Udo's plan, Nick calls D'Angelo to tell him that a confrontation is about to occur. Nick then walks to Udo's car and dares him to shoot, which Udo does, repeatedly. Before Udo can escape, however, the police capture him. Though badly wounded, Nick survives, and he and Nettie look forward to a happy, peaceful life together.
J. Scott Smart
Arthur Foran Jr.
Harry Malcolm Cooke
W. D. Flick
R. A. Klune
Charles Le Maire
J. Watson Webb Jr.
Best Supporting Actor
Best Writing, Screenplay
Kiss of Death (1947)
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 ). 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).
by Richard Harland Smith
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
Kiss of Death (1947)
Kiss of Death - The 1947 version on DVD
Bianco is brought up before Assistant District Attorney Louie DeAngelo (Brian Donlevy), who offers him a lighter sentence if he will name his accomplices. Bianco balks at the idea of turning stool pigeon, even when DeAngelo points out that he has two children who need him, and that cooperating with the authorities will drastically reduce his sentence. But Bianco adheres to a strict code of honor and refuses, earning him the maximum sentence.
Three years into his stretch Bianco learns that his wife has committed suicide, and that his daughters have been taken to an orphanage. Naturally distraught at the news, he offers to do a deal with DeAngelo, which will at least allow him to visit his children. In an effort to keep Bianco's fellow criminals from knowing that he was the one that shopped them, DeAngelo instructs Bianco to contact his lawyer, the shifty Earl Howser (Taylor Holmes), who has made a fortune striking shady deals for gangsters. Bianco is to tell Howser that he believes that one of his confederates has talked, choosing as the fall guy a thug named Rizzo, whose affair with Bianco's wife led to her suicide.
Instead of sowing seeds of doubt among the thieves that will lead to their capture, this act unexpectedly sets in motion a dangerous and violent chain of events when Howser contacts psychopathic ex-con Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark, in his film debut), who has a pathological dislike for "squealers," to "take care of Rizzo."
Bianco obtains his early parole and is reunited with his children, eventually marrying long-time friend Nettie (Coleen Gray) and settling down to a normal home life, resolved to leave the past behind. But DeAngelo is not quite finished with him: During Bianco's time in prison he met Udo, who boasted to him of one of the murders he committed. Determined to get Udo convicted, DeAngelo pressures Bianco to appear on the witness stand against him, sure his testimony and that of an eye-witness will ensure that the crazed killer will go to the gas chamber. However, when Udo is unexpectedly acquitted, he goes gunning for Bianco, who has to take matters into his own hands to save his family.
Written by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, Kiss of Death is a fascinating study in retribution and redemption. The film is heavy in religious imagery and draws a fine line between the actions of the criminals and the machinations of the good guys. In the scene in which Bianco receives his initial instructions from DeAngelo, he observes, "Your side of the fence is almost as dirty as mine," to which DeAngelo replies, "With one big difference: we hurt bad people, not good ones." And in one of the film's few amusing moments, when Bianco arrives at the orphanage to see his children, flanked by the DeAngelo and a detective, they are greeted by a nun who asks which one of them is Bianco. Her failure to immediately discern the crook from the cops causes the three of them some noticeable discomfiture.
The film is centered by Mature's finely textured performance as Bianco, with the metamorphosis through which his character passes reflected in his posture and the way he moves: In the early scenes, Mature smoothly demonstrates the studied cageyness of a con who will not give anything away, physically holding himself in reserve. In the shattering scene in the prison mill in which he receives the news that his wife is dead, and he is forced to go on working, his movements become indistinct and faltering, as if he literally doesn't know which way to turn; and his mental confusion as he enters new ground by squealing is palpable. Mature manages to convey all of this effortlessly and with no sign of artifice, subtly shifting to more assured movements as his character becomes more familiar with his new role.
It is truly one of Mature's greatest performances, which is only overshadowed by the startling debut of Widmark in the necessarily more showy role of Udo. Widmark won an Oscar nomination for his performance as the leering, giggling psychopath, with the legendary scene in which he pushes an old wheelchair bound woman down a flight of stairs so pungent that it's amazing it didn't end his career before it began. Despite the somewhat dated quality of the performance, Widmark still packs a wallop as the mad-dog killer, and makes such an indelible mark early in the film that his presence seems to loom over the action when he is not onscreen.
Director Henry Hathaway, who proved himself a master of the "docu-noir" subgenre with films such as The House on 92nd Street and Call Northside 777, provides complex and subtle imagery that reflects the transformation of the characters, with Mature's wardrobe growing lighter as he moves from criminal to good-guy, while the environment ironically grows darker: during the first third of the film, while Bianco is on the wrong-side of the law, the action is played out in sunlight and brightly lit rooms (even the initial robbery takes place on a bright morning), while the scenes following Bianco's change of sides slowly descend to night, until the ultimate midnight showdown.
With its sure-handed direction, unforgettable central performances, and the sharp screenplay, Kiss of Death stands as one of the finest examples of 40s film noir.
Released to DVD as part of Fox's Film Noir series, the film is showing signs of age with some general wear to the source, though generally the transfer is excellent. The disc includes an informative feature-length commentary by noir historians James Ursini and Alain Silver, as well as the theatrical trailer and a still gallery.
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by Fred Hunter
Kiss of Death - The 1947 version on DVD
I'm askin' ya, where's that squealin' son of yours?- Tommy Udo
You think a squealer can get away from me? Huh?- Tommy Udo
You know what I do to squealers? I let 'em have it in the belly, so they can roll around for a long time thinkin' it over. You're worse than him, tellin' me he's comin' back? Ya lyin' old hag!- Tommy Udo
The film's working titles were Stoolpigeon and Blind Date. According to the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department, located at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, studio production chief Darryl F. Zanuck changed the title from Stoolpigeon, the name of Eleazar Lipsky's original story, to Blind Date, then retitled it Kiss of Death after reading a newspaper column in which Hedda Hopper referred to an event in a politician's life as "the kiss of death." Lipsky, who submitted his story under the name Lawrence L. Blaine, was a former New York assistant district attorney.
The film's opening credits conclude with the following written acknowledgment: "All scenes in this motion picture, both exterior and interior, were photographed in the State of New York on the actual locale associated with the story." Contemporary news items note that among the New York City locations used were The Tombs, the Bronx County jail, the downtown Criminal Courts Building, the Louisa M. Alcott house on Sullivan Street, the Chrysler Building and the Hotel Marguery. Other locations included Sing Sing Prison and Astoria, NY, and Fort Lee, NJ. A Life magazine article about the film noted that when the company filmed inside Sing Sing, all rooms and cell blocks had to be cleared out before any shots were taken because of a law that prohibited the photographing of real convicts. Voice-over narration, spoken by Coleen Gray as the character "Nettie," opens the story and is heard intermittently throughout the film.
Correspondence from the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library indicates that the PCA rejected initial drafts of the picture's screenplay. In a January 30, 1947 letter to Twentieth Century-Fox public relations head Jason S. Joy, PCA director Joseph I. Breen stated that the "basic story seems to violate the provisions of the Production Code by appearing to present the processes of law and order and the administration of justice in such a light as to cast discredit on the effectiveness of the court system." In an internal memo, Breen complained that the script depicted law enforcement agencies as "utterly futile in their efforts to bring criminals to justice without the aid of stool pigeons." Breen also objected to references to "Tommy Udo's" drug use and the inclusion of a "dope den" in the film. On February 12, 1947, however, Breen wrote to Joy to say that because of the "assurances to us that this picture will be made with the full cooperation of New York law enforcement authorities, our original concern...is quite fully alleviated." Although Breen reiterated his objections to the drug references, the film does depict Udo as a drug user. Some state censor boards demanded that the scene in which Udo pushes "Ma Rizzo" down the stairs be eliminated.
In January 1947, the Los Angeles Times announced that James Cagney was being considered for the film's lead. Information in the legal records indicates that several scenes shot for the picture were deleted from the final film, including ones featuring characters "Maria Bianco" and "Pete Rizzo." Maria, who was played by Patricia Morison, and Pete, who was portrayed by Henry Brandon, are mentioned many times in the film's dialogue, but never seen. Other actors whose roles were cut from the completed picture were Robert Keith, Gioia Lombardi and Ronnie Marie Morse. Richard Widmark made his screen acting debut in the film, and many reviewers commented favorably on his performance. In its review, Variety proclaimed Widmark the "acting sensation of the piece...the most shuddery menace of the year." Bosley Crowther remarked in his New York Times review, "Mr. Widmark runs away with all the acting honors." For his work, Widmark received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Lipsky also was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Story. Studio records affirm that the final cost of the film, with advertising, was $2,523,000.
According to an October 14, 1948 New York Times item, independent movie theater owners in London removed Ben Hecht's screenwriting credit from prints of Kiss of Death because of his anti-British attitudes, including statements made in a published advertisement. The same owners also voted to ban future Hecht films from their theaters. According to the legal records, Twentieth Century-Fox's Foreign Department in New York inquired about the exclusion of Hecht's credit and was informed that such exclusion would constitute a breach of contract with Hecht and the Screen Writer's Guild. Studio records also indicate that in December 1948, novelist Lawrence B. Bachmann filed a $125,000 lawsuit against Zanuck, producer Fred Kohlmar, Lipsky, Penguin Books and Twentieth Century-Fox, claiming that the title of his 1946 novel The Kiss of Death had been appropriated by the filmmakers. Bachmann argued that by using a title almost identical to his novel's, the studio had taken unfair advantage of publicity generated by his publisher, Knopf, and had misled the general public by suggesting that the film was based on his work. Penguin Books published a novelization of the film, also titled Kiss of Death, in August 1947. On December 10, 1951, Bachmann agreed to drop the suit.
On January 12, 1948, Widmark, Victor Mature and Coleen Gray reprised their screen roles for a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast. Mature and Widmark also reprised their screen roles for three Screen Guild Theatre broadcasts, the first of which aired on October 28, 1948. Kiss of Death has been remade two times as a feature. In 1958, Twentieth Century-Fox released a Western version of Eleazar Lipsky's story and Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer's screenplay, entitled The Fiend Who Walked the West, directed by Gordon Douglas and starring Hugh O'Brian and Robert Evans. Fox also released a 1995 version, titled Kiss of Death, directed by Barbet Schroeder and starring David Caruso, Nicholas Cage and Helen Hunt. Gun in His Hand, a teleplay that aired on April 6, 1956 on the 20th Century-Fox Hour, used many of the same plot elements as Kiss of Death, but was not based on the Hecht-Lederer-Lipsky script. The television version, which was set in the West, starred Robert Wagner, Debra Paget and Ray Collins, and was directed by Lewis Allen.