KISS OF DEATH (1947) Blog #2 Crime in Classic Films
Topics: Film-Noir, Crime, Victor Mature, Richard Widmark,
Director: Henry Hathaway
Writer: Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer (screen play) from a story by Eleazar Lipsky
Starring Victor Mature, Brian Donleavy, Collen Gray, Richard Widmmark, Karl Malden, Robert Adler
Crime in the Movies
This film, Kiss of Death (1947) raises some interesting topics for discussion about the way crime is portrayed in the movies during different eras.
Kiss of Death (1947), marks a transition in the portrayal of crime in a way that is difficult to perceive now, when we are so used to films that show all sorts of psychologically perverted and defective people.
When this film came out, however, it was the first time movies portrayed a killer that was this sick and sadistic. We have Richard Widmark to thank for this. I am not clear about exactly how this portrayal came into being. I have to do some more research to find out whether Widmark ever talked about it. I don’t know whether Widmark came up with this way of acting the part of Tommy Udo by himself or whether it was influenced (at least after the fact) by the direction. Part of it, though, was due to Widmark’s use of what became a characteristic bad guy giggle that chilled people.
Before we get to Widmark and his performance, there is another interesting discussion to be had about the way in which this movie portrays all crime and criminals.
In the first scene, we see Victor Mature (Nick) walking through a building lobby and a woman’s voice narrating the action. The woman tells us that Nick tried to get a job but couldn’t because of the stigma of a criminal past. So, we are told, Nick is going shopping for his family. He is shown robbing a jewelry store.
From the very first moment the film starts, Nick is portrayed as a person who has tried to do right, but faced with the enormous block of societal disapproval, is forced to do wrong. Also, Nick isn’t just out to steal some money so he can get high or have a good time. He is stealing to provide for his family at Christmas.
The use of a woman’s voice as narrator tells the listener that Nick belongs to some woman, i.e., Nick has a mother, or a lover, or a wife, or a sister. The woman’s voice, the claiming of him by a sympathetic woman, softens Nick from the very first word that is uttered.
This film is one of the very few Film Noir (perhaps the only one) that has a female as the narrator voice. We will find out later in the film that the narrator is Nick’s former babysitter, soon to become wife, Nettie.
During the actual robbery, Nick is not the one who hits the store owner over the head. Nick only commits a property crime, the burglary, but not the crime against a person (assault).
As the men are escaping, going down in the building elevator, the other men involved in the crime are nervous, panicky and sweating. Nick is brave (a positive characteristic).
When they get to the ground floor, the police are already cordoning off the building. Nick parts ways with the other men (who are bad) and goes his own way. This foreshadows his eventual path throughout the movie.
Nick tries to escape through a flower shop. He does hit a police officer who comes in the door of the shop, but he does not kill the officer. And, just outside the shop, Nick is shot. As he is lying on the ground, helpless, we are told (by the woman) that his father was shot in just the same way, by a policeman, and that Nick witnessed the shooting as a child.
So, Nick did not participate in the gratuitous violence of hitting the jewelry store owner, and while socking a police officer in an attempt to escape, he did not shoot anyone, and when the police shoot him, we are told about his traumatic childhood which can go to explaining everything that happened before.
Next, we see Nick in the office of the DA (Brian Donlevy). Again, Nick is portrayed positively. He refuses to squeal on his accomplices. Nobody likes a squealer. He’s wrong. He knows he’s wrong, but he is going to take his medicine and won’t rat out his accomplices.
The DA, however, provides him (and the audience) with the rationale for becoming a squealer and remaining the person in the film with whom we identify. The DA tells Nick that he couldn’t be a real criminal with the children he has. Donlevy says that no real criminal could have children like that. Once again, there is a distinction made between “real criminals” (people we are supposed to hate) and situational criminals (people who grew up in the wrong neighborhood and fell in with the wrong crowd). This distinction is drawn throughout the movie.
Everybody around Nick (accomplices, associates, and lawyers) are bad people, part of the “real criminal” category. One of them is having an affair with his wife. In the original film, the accomplice rapes Nick’s wife. The rape and the discussion of the rape were removed from the movie. The lawyer who is supposed to be taking care of his wife and family does not do his job.
Nick becomes a rat, but only after his accomplices fail to take care of his wife and his wife commits suicide. He squeals not for himself, but for his children and therefore the script writers provide a rationale that will keep him the sympathetic figure in the film.
Even when Nick is in prison, when he is summoned to the Warden’s office the guard escorting him there tells the warden that he’s a good guy. Can’t get a better recommendation than that. Even the prison guards think he’s not really a “criminal.”
When Nick rats, it’s for his children who are being taken to an orphanage. He rats because he loves his children*. Again, Nick would have been a stand up guy were it not for having to protect his family (a higher calling).
So we have everybody from the DA to the prison staff saying that Nick isn’t a real criminal. Then, the real criminal, Richard Witmark playing Tommy Udo, shows up.
Just as the film couldn’t do more to stress the fact that Nick is not a real criminal, the film couldn’t do more to stress that Tommy Udo is a real criminal, writ large. Udo isn’t just the usual criminal, greedy, selfish, - he’s a psychotic personality, a sadistic killer.
As I said above, it’s hard to imagine just how stunning Widmark’s portrayal of this character was in 1947. People were used to criminals in the movies, even killers, but they were rational actors – killing law enforcement who got in their way (and being punished for it by the end of the movie) or each other, but Tommy Udo was something different.
Tommy Udo was a disturbed man and you could see that he was disturbed. He enjoys killing. He pushes a woman (a mother) down the stairs in a wheelchair. She’s not even the person he goes looking for, wants to kill, she’s the mother of that person.
Later in the film, some dialogue casts the terrifying action in utilitarian light. One character points out to the other that killing Rizzo’s mother puts everyone in the criminal world on notice to behave. But, pushing an innocent woman in a wheelchair, a mother, down a flight of stairs is pretty shocking.
Udo is, of course, killed at the end of the movie, but audiences were shocked with by Widmark’s performance. They were however not uniformly repelled. College fraternities formed “Tommy Udo” Clubs and went around acting like the criminal Widmark created.
This film opened the door for the portrayal of a different sort of criminal and for the explicit distinction between “real criminals” and “situational criminals.” By 1961 and West Side Story, movies portrayed characters mocking the rehabilitative ideas promulgated by researchers, the idea that some offenders were situational and could be rehabilitated.
A couple of notes:
· This distinction between real criminals and people just caught up in a mistake, is characteristically used in the defense of white collar, corporate and political criminals. It is almost standard for lawyers represtning elite criminals to argue that their clients are not a “real” criminals and that the loss in status resultant in their being prosecuted is “punishment enough.” “He has suffered enough,” is the standard defense attorney mantra for upper class offenders. It is also argued that these elite criminals should not be sentenced to prison because they don’t “belong” with real criminals who inhabit prisons.
· In West Side Story (1961) the juvenile delinquents make fun of the rehabilitative ideal, mocking authority figures for seeing them as “misunderstood.”
· *I can’t for the life of me figure out why Nick loves these children. They are both horrible actors. Their presence in this film remind me of the immaculate casting and directing in Gone with the Wind which includes some of the worst child actors in the history of the movies. These two little girls act like they have never been in the same room with Nick (or Victor Mature for that matter).