Kiss of Death (Blu-ray)Gordon Sullivan
From her lips there is no escape!
It’s difficult to convey just how radical film noir was when it debuted in the years just after World War II. Of course criminals and gangsters had been featured on the silver screen before. Heck, Warner Bros. practically survived as a studio by pumping out pictures about gangsters. But for all their portrayals of gangsters, the Warner Bros. pictures followed the general trend of making films about criminals into black-and-white morality plays. Cops were the good guys, gangsters the bad, and evil was always punished in the end. In very sharp contrast, noir films were willing to look at a world that wasn’t composed of black and white but in seemingly endless shades of grey. In noir films, good people do bad things, bad people can be redeemed, and everybody has a good reason for the sins they commit. Nowhere is this showcased more effectively than in Kiss of Death, a 1947 noir film that’s earned an excellent release on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.
Nick (Victor Mature, The Robe) is a burglar who gets caught, but rather than give up his friends to the D.A. (Brian Donleavy, Destry Rides Again) he does the time. However, when he learns that his wife has committed suicide after being raped by one of Nick’s accomplishes. This pushes Nick to cooperate with the D.A. in a case against young psychopath Tommy (Richard Widmark, Pickup on South Street). But things don’t work out as well as Nick hopes, and his family may be in danger.
Kiss of Death packs a lot of twists and turns into a 99 minute film. There’s Nick’s robbery, his capture, his incarceration, and his initial refusal to cooperate. And that’s just in the first act. Then his wife dies and he has to take on the nail-biting task of turning against a psychopathic killer. They play their game of cat-and-mouse for most of the film’s second half, and the decision to give Nick a family is a smart one. It makes his decision not to testify all the more heroic initially, but also gives him an iron-clad reason to turn rat.
The plot alone wouldn’t separate Kiss of Death from the pack of noir films released in 1947. Nope, it’s the way the characters are played by a top-notch cast that really sets Kiss of Death apart. Victor Mature was fresh off of playing Doc Holliday in John Ford’s My Darling Clemintine, and Nick is the kind of meaty role he can sink his teeth into. He has to go from confident criminal to steely-eyed refuser and then to grieving widower and reluctant rat. But we already knew that Victor Mature could act. The surprise to most folks was newcomer Richard Widmark. Though he’d go on to fame in Pickup on South Street and Judgment at Nuremberg, he makes a splash here in his first role. Tommy Udo is a great first role, all calm sociopathy and surprising violence. Coleen Gray also makes her debut, and she’s perfect as the ingénue Nettie. Though there are more iconic casts in the history of noir, this group gels perfectly with the material.
Twilight Time has lavished the film with the Blu-ray edition it deserves. Things start with the 1.33:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer, which is sourced from a recent restoration. Detail is strong, with appropriate grain. Black levels are deep and consistent. Contrast is rock solid as well. It’s hard to imagine the film looking much better than this, though there are a few compression hiccups as the blacks get blocky in a few shots. Overall, though, this is an excellent transfer. The film’s LPC 2.0 mono track is similarly strong. Dialogue is clean and clear, with the film’s score sound rich and balanced.
Extras start with a ported-over commentary by noir experts James Ursini and Alain Silver that really puts Kiss of Death in the context of noir. Then we get a new commentary with Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, who supplement Ursini and Silver’s commentary with a few new stories. The film’s score is also offered as an isolated track, and we get an illustrated booklet with an essay on the film.
If you don’t like noir, then Kiss of Death is probably not going to persuade you that the form amazing or anything. The film deals with a lot of mature themes – especially for 1947 – but it’s not nearly as hard-edged about the world as a lot of other noir films. So often a noir film ends in death and dissatisfaction, reinforcing a worldview that’s doomed. Kiss of Death departs a bit from that formula. I won’t give the ending away, but it’s not nearly as hard-nosed about the world as many noir films. Perhaps it’s the lack of a true femme fatale that means Kiss of Death ends on a slightly happier note than many of its contemporaries.
Kiss of Death is a solid noir film that shines a light on the criminal underworld and its interactions with the justice system. It features some excellent performances, including the debut of Richard Widmark. Twilight Time has recognized the film’s importance with this excellent Blu-ray release.