Film Notes: Kiss of Death (1947)

Dread, family, and performances make this gangster film on squealers and snitchers a highly engaging experience.

3.5 out of 4 stars

The Power of Dread

Kiss of Death is an absolute tough gangster thriller that takes hold of you with its ability to evoke dread. It begins with Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) executing a heist with two other men. A fourth man is waiting for them with the car, This heist is not the same as today’s robberies. But its suspense is more gripping than most modern special effect scenes. This is because we are subjected to dread and anticipation. Fear grips us right from the moment the three robbers come and stand in front of the door of the jewelry store. As Nick enters the store to rob, years later he will be afraid of a similar situation, when three other men will walk up to the door of his own house.

The robbery goes smoothly. But the elevator is taking a long time to go down. It is situations like these that make the movie so tense. There is no gunshot, no action, no sound effects, just anticipation in complete silence. By the time they are on the ground floor, the alarm has been turned on. The following events do not go down well for Nick and he gets arrested pretty soon.

The assistant DA tells him to snitch. But Nick is more dignified than that. He will not squeal, even if it means that his two little girls go hungry. The DA still bears sympathy for him, and he tells him that the offer will keep standing. Years later, Nick finally snitches. He gets out and gets back his family, but the most dangerous criminal is waiting for him and his family.

A Creepy Laugh

Thus we have a protagonist and an antagonist pitted against each other. Of course, we have seen this a trillion times before. But the performances make the film a standout. As Nick, Victor Mature is a perfect example of a good human who does wrong because of circumstances. His very face suggests that all his emotions are real. When he hugs his daughters, we feel that this is who he is. Nick Bianco is a humanist behind bars.

Against him is Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). Thinking of his laugh still creeps me out. The script gives him ample shades. But it is Widmark who makes the character so palpable that it carves a distinct space in your memory. When he says to Nick that he will like to meet Nick’s family, we know what he is talking about. What’s more, we know that he is capable of just that.

The chemistry of Mature and Widmark is one of the best in a genre that has produced countless such films. Mature’s scenes with the DA (Brian Donlevy) pales out in comparison.

A True Blue Gangster Film

For an absolute gangster film, Hathaway’s direction is effective in a reserved manner. The long stretches of silence elevate the thrill of the film. Nick learns about his wife’s death while working in a factory. The rows of machines evoke a claustrophobic impact. Their sounds and whirling movements reflect Nick’s nauseating pain.

Kiss of Death has been categorized as a film-noir. One of the earliest identified characteristics of film-noir was the acute presence of a treacherous female character. The only woman directly present in this film is Nettie (Coleen Gray), who is Nick’s lover. She is a woman so simple to the point of appearing bland. The only clearly noirish trait of the film is its play of light and shades. Some scenes stand out because of this interplay.

But otherwise, it’s a true blue gangster film on squealers and snitchers that effectively sets the parameters of this genre. Modern gangster and action thrillers play on these very lines. But few of them are this effective. This might be because this film keeps the family at its core. We care for Nick because of his beautiful family. Like him, we fear that he will lose it all.

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