Kiss of Death, directed by Henry Hathaway, is a fairly by-the-numbers noir crime drama. Nick Bianco (played by Victor Mature) is a thief who gets caught on a heist, stealing for Christmas presents because his previous criminal record prevents him from getting regular employment. While serving time he hears that his wife has commited suicide and his children have been put in an orphanage, and so he strikes a deal with the district attorney Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) to get released on parole if he provides evidence against his old underworld friends, including the vicious killer Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). When the case falls flat and Udo is acquitted, Bianco has to defend himself.

Kiss of Death is now the third film in a row I have seen with Richard Widmark, and yet again he steals the show. Although he isn’t the starring lead, Widmark’s portrayal of psychopathic gangster Tommy Udo is surely one of the greatest feature film debuts in the history of cinema, and netted him his only academy award nomination, and a Golden Globe win for “best promising newcomer”. His maniacal giggle, and an infamous scene where he pushes a wheelchair-bound woman down a staircase, secured him a rich, but ultimately criminally unrecognised career in Hollywood.

Victor Mature is merely adequate, and doesn’t seem to test himself in the role. The character of Bianco brings a lot of opportunity to express emotion, yet Mature seems content to play it fairly flat and cool. Not a bad performance, but there was a lot of room for him to stretch his legs, and he didnt take it. This is highlighted by the above-mentioned, simply brilliant performance of Widmark, who steals scenes from under Mature like taking candy from a baby.

The rest of the cast are fairly bland, along with the plot, which doesn’t really step up a gear until the final act of the movie, after Udo is acquitted. The first half of the film is devoted to justifying Bianco’s decision to become a “stoolie”, but it seems to try a little too hard in spelling out his reasons. When the plot does step up in the last 30 minutes though, it does a great job of creating a tense, paranoid atmosphere as Bianco waits for the repercussions of his court testimony. Two scenes stand out; Bianco waiting in his home in silent darkness waiting for the inevitable home visit from Udo is brilliantly tense, as is the entire final act where Udo and Bianco go head to head.

If it wasn’t for Widmark, this film would likely have been lost to history as yet another crime drama amongst a sea of low-budget equivalents, but his performance guarantees it a place in the hearts of every noir and crime fan, and laid down a blueprint for future characters of the same ilk. An average crime drama made worthwhile by Widmark. Worth watching for him alone.

3.5 / 5

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