Kiss of Reality
Kiss of Death (1947) is “a hard-hitting, often frightening crime drama from the [Ben] Hecht – [Charles] Lederer typewriter [that] has the look and feel of a real police lineup. It pulls no punches and shows exactly what it’s like on the seamy side of the street. [The] script is taut and clever, even literate for a gangster film, with well-developed characters and a starkly believable plotline” (Jay Robert Nash and Stanley Ralph Ross, The Motion Picture Guide). Directed by versatile ace Henry Hathaway, then in the middle of a hot streak at Twentieth Century Fox of noir, crime and espionage gems that included The House on 92nd Street (1945), 13 Rue Madeleine and The Dark Corner (both 1946) and would continue with Call Northside 777 (1948), the film offered a juicier-than-usual starring opportunity to rising star Victor Mature, a prime showcase lead to newcomer Coleen Gray (who’d follow up with memorable turns in Nightmare Alley, Red River, Arrow in the Dust and The Killing) and a now-legendary movie debut to Oscar®-nominated sensation Richard Widmark. But another significant character that adds to the movie’s allure is New York itself; Hathaway shot most of the movie in the city (courtesy of cinematographer Norbert Brodine) on such practical locations as the Chrysler Building, the Criminal Courts Building at 100 Centre Street, the old Hotel Marguery at 270 Park Avenue (now the JP Morgan Chase Tower) and the now-demolished Bronx House of Detention for Men. Other locations cited on Wikipedia include a house in Astoria, Queens, with side trips upstate to Sing Sing Penitentiary in Ossining and across the Hudson River to the Academy of the Holy Angels in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Realism was the goal, and the authentic feel galvanized the potentially over-the-top (but reportedly based on a true story) exploits of a habitual criminal (Mature), jailed for a bungled Christmas Eve jewel heist and persuaded by a zealous district attorney (Brian Donlevy) to rat out his former underworld associates, particularly the insidiously blood-chilling Tommy Udo (Widmark), in order to build a new life with his second wife (Gray). Not only is this prime film noir with a documentary sheen, it now serves as a Big Apple time capsule of the postwar era. Film Noir: The Encyclopedia’s evaluation is more circumspect. Eileen McGarry’s essay therein questions “an uncomfortable alliance of documentary-like locations and stylized script and characterizations” and goes on to observe that “the overt theme of a ‘reformed’ man inevitably sucked back into the criminal world is less innovative than the brief scenes of illegal deals made by corrupt district attorneys or the intrigues of the script’s truest villain, the lawyer who protects the criminal and betrays both the law and the reformed convict,” resulting in “a narrative of facile social consciousness.” Nonetheless, the film, surprisingly not a box-office hit in its time, has grown in stature across the decades to become a key genre touchstone, thanks to Hollywood veteran Hathaway, Mature, Widmark and its New York pedigree. Marking its 70th anniversary, the gorgeously black-and-white Kiss of Death on Twilight Time Blu-ray includes 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, covering the film in all its glory and infamy, plus David Buttolph’s gripping score on an Isolated Music Track. Brace for its February 14 arrival. Preorders open February 1.