Approved, which basically means that there was no MPAA in 1947. If a movie came out, it had to be approved. Sure enough, this one was approved with people getting shot, thrown down a flight of stairs in a wheelchair, and moidered. It's just violence and more violence. People treat each other like dirt and that's the point. The word "Death" is in the title. There's going to be some questionable content in this movie, but who cares? It's 1947. Approve the movie because a checklist said so. Approved.
DIRECTOR: Henry Hathaway
Funny story. I had to watch one of the movies that was in my reading for my film noir class. There were a bunch that I wanted to watch, but then I read about one where an old lady gets thrown down the stairs in a wheelchair and my brain said, "I have to see that one." So I look it up and I find it of all places on YouTube. I don't like watching movies on YouTube. I only watch it there if it is wildly out of print. So I start putzing around in my basement, looking for an alternative to watch when, lo-and-behold, there's my copy of Kiss of Death. I not only have seen this movie before, but I own this movie. Not only that, but I have seen this movie, I own this movie, and it's not a great movie.
The film's conceit is beautiful and genius in its simplicity. If it really stuck to its guns (pun intended) and focused on the primary premise, the movie could have been something phenomenal. Instead, it really buries what should be an easy concept to nail. Protagonist betrays psychotic antagonist. Antagonist is going to get revenge. Two icebergs collide. That's all you really need to the movie. In the first ten minutes, Victor Mature should have ratted on Richard Widmark and the rest of the film should have been Nick Bianco running away from Tommy Udo. There's so much premise to that.
The movie absolutely rocks when the Bianco is trying to protect his family from an insane Tommy Udo. The last fifteen minutes of the movie are just that. We know that Tommy Udo is a complete psychopath. As I established, Udo pushes an old lady down the stairs and does it while laughing like the Joker. Between The Man Who Laughs and Kiss of Death, we get a perfect inspiration for the Joker character. But most of the film is spent justifying itself to its audience. There's something beautiful about a simple plot that reveals something about character. The plot tries to make Bianco into something complex. There's all these twists and turns. People whom we never meet betray Bianco, which gives him a turn of heart. It's odd what morality this movie plays with.
If film noir is meant to play with murky morality to begin with, Kiss of Death is trying too hard to give Bianco a murky moral code. He's a career criminal in the beginning of the movie. He's actually a second generation career criminal. His life is mirroring his father's tragic downfall. When he gets shot, he impresses psychopath Tommy Udo with his refusal to cooperate with the police. At this point in the movie, it seems like a very different film from what we ultimately get. It's in this moment that I get invested. I think that the movie is going to be about all of the hardships that the police and the criminal justice system put him through to talk. I thought that the dark morality that the movie would be promoting would be about the thief's honor, refusing to rat on his friends and the Job-like tragedies that accompany those choices.
But then he narcs. He gets a new wife, who is oddly the narrator as well. As a narrator, she doesn't really make a lot of sense. She has this weird insight into things that she wasn't really there for. She's able to comment on Bianco's fears and morality. She's somehow omniscient and still a character. I suppose that Bianco could have told her all of his thoughts, but he still seems secretive around his wife for the majority of the movie, so that doesn't really gel with me. But there's this whole subplot of his wife committing suicide and possibly cheating on him.
And this is where the movie starts really falling apart. It has all of this complication that it honestly doesn't it. Okay, it's fine that the wife commits suicide. (That's a dark sentence to write and it might haunt me for the rest of my days.) But complicating that suicide with a possible tie into other members of the gang that causes him to rat. His character goes through a moment of crisis. He weights his loyalty to the gang to the loyalty to his code. Having a member of the gang harm his wife is a good move, but the suicide by itself really does the job without overcomplicating the plot. Have Tommy Udo's murder spree be something that Udo does regardless. There's is a cool thing that happens by having Bianco kinda-sorta order the hit, but that moral change doesn't do much for the character. I don't mind having a morally complex character, but Kiss of Death sells Bianco as the redemptive hero. He's made mistakes that he's going to pay for, but he's not actually a hero at the end of the day.
The kids should be motivation enough for the redemptive hero bit. The kids apparently are having a ball in that orphanage and don't mind that Daddy "has been away on a job in South America" while their mother is dead. Having Nick narc on his peers already gives him enough complexity to hold the weight of the movie. We don't need a hamfisted revenge plot because that revenge plot doesn't really go anywhere. However, him trading his moral scruples for the well-being of his kids is important. That's a choice. Also, three years in prison is a long time. There's so much there that sells better than having a character that doesn't really play a part in the story pulling the strings.
The movie had the potential to crush. Again, I go on tirades about how much I love the 73 minute movie. When a root plot is as simple as Kiss of Death, there's no need to spread that to an hour forty. Yeah, there are longer movies, but there's so much fat to cut here. There are these scenes that don't make a lick of sense to me. Part of them is to have exposition...ultimately unnecessary exposition. But there's exposition nonetheless. I'm talking about this whole subplot with Bianco's lawyer. There's lots of discussion about how the criminal justice system works. This lawyer, who seems a bit corrupt, promises to get him out quickly. He doesn't. He shows up for two scenes in the the same location and in the same outfit, despite the fact that the scenes take place three years apart. He has one other scene, also expository, which doesn't contribute to the film.
The French were obsessed with the moral ambiguity and complexity of the protagonists of the film noir scene. Yeah, Nick Bianco is complex, but that's almost in response to a poorly written script. The movie is trying to be smarter than it is. In the process, they actually sully a pretty solid potential with simplicity. There's a really good movie in Kiss of Death that's just buried by overcomplicated trash. I don't care if its old. Old doesn't mean good and this movie has a lot that's standing in the way of a good story.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.