Evil Incarnate

Evil Incarnate

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Aug 28th 2017

When it premiered 70 years ago yesterday in New York, Kiss of Death (1947) could have just registered as an assembly-line studio noir from a craftsmanlike director (Henry Hathaway) and smartly attuned screenwriters (Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer), featuring contract players of note (Victor Mature, Coleen Gray, Brian Donlevy, Karl Malden, Taylor Holmes, Anthony Holmes) going through their efficient motions of vicious crime, terrible retribution and hard-won justice just like many a tough, urban thriller of its time. But a secret sauce found its way into this particular mix. Playing a startlingly amoral, utterly conscience-free heavy was a lean, handsome, experienced stage and radio-drama actor making his first movie. Richard Widmark’s bravura off-the-charts portrayal of the sniveling gangster Tommy Udo, whom cinematic scribes ever since have seen as being inspired by the DC Comics baddie emeritus The Joker (who debuted in print seven years earlier as Batman’s first and longest-lasting arch-nemisis) and upon whom Frank Gorshin would base his later TV portrayal of another Dark Knight foe, The Riddler, transformed and immortalized this movie. In the view of historian David Thomson, writing in his essential 2008 Have You Seen…? An Introduction to 1,000 Movies, it meant something deeper for all movies afterward. He posits: “Tommy Udo – remembered by people who cannot recall anything else about Kiss of Death – is one of the most frightening people ever revealed on the American screen. It is not just that he is a thug, a villain. He is plainly sadistic – whatever emotional life he has is fueled and gratified by inflicting pain and suffering on others. Nor is this a grim, silent process. No, the pleasure he has is greeted with glee, with immense giggling fits of supremacy, with a simply evil reversal of all human values. Widmark played Udo in a fedora, a dark suit, a black shirt, and a light tie (and when he dies in the gutter, we see white socks – a dandy). It is my memory (I only saw the trailer of the film in 1947, before a mother’s hurried hands shut out the view – the giggle was another matter) that he resembled the Gestapo look. I don’t know how widely this was appreciated at the time, or even how calculated it was by the filmmakers, but Udo was the imprint of the great evil. He was nominated for the Oscar® as Best Supporting Actor. He stole the picture. And for several years thereafter he had to be nasty onscreen. He became, later, a hero – though he could do anger and hatred still, at the drop of a Stetson. But he changed pictures, and our safe view of their evil characters.” Seven decades hence, we’re talking again about a neo-Nazi subculture, and we’re still reeling from the blunt-force impact of a twisted tough guy unleashed in Kiss of Death. Featuring two Audio Commentaries, one with Film Noir: The Encyclopedia editors Alain Silver and James Ursini and the other with TT historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, plus David Buttolph’s gripping score on an Isolated Music Track, it’s a powerful Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray to make your blood run cold.