Kiss of Death begins with seemingly benign portrait described by a narrator over shots of a bustling Manhattan: “Christmas eve in New York a happy time for some people; the lucky ones. Last minute shopping, presents for the kids, hurry home to light the tree and fill the stockings…for the lucky ones. Others aren’t so lucky.” Here we are introduced to Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), a former jail-bird now trying to fly the straight and narrow. After a year of his prison record impeding his efforts to get a legit job, we see Nick and a few cohorts enter a jeweler’s office and rob them as our narrator informs us, “This is how Nick goes Christmas shopping for his kids.” At the conclusion of this scene, Nick is mere seconds away from eluding the police who have been tipped off to the burglary. Fleeing the building he attempts to escape their grasp by running into the crowded streets of New York. Before Nick is able to make his flight, a cop in pursuit shoots him in the leg - dropping him to the ground and ensuring his Christmas will be spent at the graybar hotel. Nick’s robbery gone wrong mirrors the fate of his father. Twenty years earlier the old man was escaping from a robbery he just committed when he ended up with a copper's slug in his back. The young Nick Bianco witnessed his father’s death and to compound the trauma of the tragedy, it was one of Nick’s earliest memories. However in present day, when the violins die down, Nick is looking at plenty of jail time - but he does have a way out.
Assistant D.A. and family man Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) tells Nick if he sings about the failed heist, he can get out of serving time in the big cage. But Bianco is no canary and refuses to chirp about his crew. Not even when D’Angelo tries to push his guilt buttons about his two young daughters growing up without their dad does Nick show signs of budging. The Assistant D.A. believes that Nick is a good guy at heart and attempts to give him a means to avoid incarceration. We see Nick’s wheels turn at this prospect and persuasion put forth by D’Angelo. To the core though Nick is old school and decides to do his time with his beak shut.
Three years into doing his bit in the joint, Nick finds out that his wife has killed herself by sticking her head in a gas oven because of her assorted woes; Nick in jail, financial hardship, single motherhood and her penchant for hitting the bottle hard. Upon hearing this news Nick wants to get out and take care of his kids who have landed in an orphanage with nobody to care for them. In prison he gets a visit from Nettie (Coleen Gray), a young lady who once was his daughter’s nanny when Nick was on the outside and things weren't quite so grim. Nettie subsequently quit the nanny gig and moved away long before Nick’s wife did herself in by treating her melon like a bundt cake. A minute into her visit with Nick it's obvious that he and Nettie have a connection. Additionally he asks her to keep tabs on his daughters which she agrees to do out of fondness for them, and of course Nick.
Beside himself with guilt and concern for his daughters, Nick is motivated to cut a deal with D’Angelo and give up his crew. Unfortunately this is where Nick must cross paths again with Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). Tommy and Nick had met before during Nick's sentencing, winding up in the same holding cell for little while. Tommy expressed to Nick his surprise at being behind bars noting, “Imagine me in here? Big man like me gettin’ picked up just for shoving a guy’s ears off his head? Traffic ticket stuff.” With that statement we understand Tommy’s idea of a moving violation differs drastically from yours and mine. Tommy Udo’s capacity for violence is proven later in the film when he silences a potential informer by lashing the stoolie’s mother to her wheelchair with an electrical cord and pushes her down a flight of stairs. Cementing his dark disposition, Udo gives his legendary creepy cackle at the sight of his maternal manhandling.
Under the guidance of D’Angelo, Nick "accidentally" bumps into and pretends to be pals with Udo to get some dirt on him for the Assistant D.A. The plan works and the D.A.’s office is taking Tommy to trial for murder, Nick testifies against him and everything seems rosy. Nick and Nettie have gotten married; he now has a regular job and a new identity. His daughters are finally out of the orphanage, living with the newlyweds and happily improving their roller-skating skills on a daily basis. The picture can’t get any more perfect until the frame the D.A. tries to hang on Tommy Udo doesn’t take and his slick shyster manages to get Tommy acquitted of the charges he faced. Now Nick has the psychopath Tommy Udo gunning for him and his family. While he wants to help Nick, the assistant D.A. can only wait for Tommy to violate his parole in order to get him off the streets. That may be too little too late for Nick, Nettie and the girls with a lunatic like Udo looking for payback. Nick sends Nettie and the girls packing to the country and decides to take care of Tommy Udo himself. At this point the cat and mouse game between Nick and Tommy plays out with both parolees having to tread carefully under the watchful eye of D’Angelo.
This movie is entertaining in patches, but it’s not sustained on the whole. Director Henry Hathaway doesn’t cover any unique ground or bring anything very original to the table with this picture. He had already incorporated filming in actual locations and utilizing the quasi-documentary style with his previous work The House on 92nd Street and would do the same (with more effectiveness) a year after Kiss of Death with Call Northside 777. The movie looks fine and there is some nice editing in several key scenes such as the opening heist, Udo’s wheelchair pushing scene and the ending which nicely bolster the tension. The script is solid but lacks some panache -leaving the narrative flat in many places. While there are some great lines, the bar was set fairly high in my book with writers Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer at the script’s helm. Between the two, they’ve penned such gems as Notorious, Spellbound, His Girl Friday, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Thing from Another World and Oceans Eleven - just to name a few (even more impressive is Hecht’s unaccredited contributions to many scripts over several decades. Check out his IMBb page and be in awe). That being said, the performances of Mature and Widmark are the elements that elevate Kiss of Death above mediocrity.
Victor Mature is effective in his role as Nick Bianco, balancing a believable hood with a genuine guy who is motivated by his kids to straighten up from his crooked ways. It could have been played very sappy (especially in the scenes with the saccharine sweet little girls) but Mature nicely acts out the role and not the dramatic story. The result is a performance that elicits just the right mix of sympathy and compassion for his character and his wistful eyes also seal the deal when necessary too. Perfect casting and acting combined for the crucial role of our protagonist Nick.
The main reason to recommend watching this film is the screen debut of Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo: his performance is outstanding. As Tommy Udo, he doesn’t so much give you the creeps as he force-feeds them to you. He’s a perfect storm of menace, sadist and sociopath. Widmark commands every scene he’s in with such a forceful presence and performance that as the film continues, you find yourself simply waiting for him to appear. He also gets some classic lines such as telling a cop fishing for info that he wouldn’t give him “the skin off a grape.” Without Victor Mature’s understated performance Widmark’s Udo may have lost some of his effectiveness by seeming too over the top or out of place contrasted by a less convincing Nick Bianco. The two portrayals, however, balance each other perfectly and create a solid foundation of tension and excitement for this otherwise moderate noir