Henry Hathaway's “Kiss of Death” is one of the best noir films of the 1940s, not least because of the stunning debut of Richard Widmark as a giggling psychotic who pushes old ladies on wheelchairs down the stairs.
On the surface, the plot seems routine noir. Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), a man with criminal record and no job, goes Christmas shopping for his children by robbing a jewelry store, but the jeweler trips the alarm, and Nick is wounded in the battle with the police. We learn that exactly the same thing had happened to Nick's father 20 years ago, and that Nick watched his father die from a police bullet.
After Nick recovers, he's taken to Assistant District Attorney D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy), who offers him a reduced sentence if he informs on the other criminals. Nick refuses and he is sent to prison. He begins to worry about his family when his letters are returned unopened, and indeed, soon learns that his wife had committed suicide and his children were put at an orphanage.
Nettie (Coleen Gray), who used to baby-sit Nick's kids, visits him in prison and relates good news of his children but she also relates his wife's affair with a gangster named Rizzo, upon which Nick contacts D'Angelo and offers information, even though he knows hit won't not free him. D'Angelo conceals Nick's cooperation from other criminals by implicating Rizzo as a police informant, and the mob sends out a contract on Rizzo. Out on parole, Nick visits Nettie and falls in love. They marry, but D'Angelo continues to demands information from Nick about criminal activities, thereby endangering his family's safety.
D'Angelo forces Nick to testify against a sadistic killer, Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). When Udo is acquitted, Nick lives in fear of the killer's revenge. Sending his family away, Nick seeks out Udo, but is ambushed and shot repeatedly. Eventually, Udo is killed by the police. Although he is seriously wounded, Nick is taken from the scene in an ambulance, and we are led to believe that he will survive and begin a new life reunited with his family.
Though praised in 1947 for its realism, “Kiss of Death” displays tension between its documentary-like location shooting and more stylized interiors and characterizations. Cinematographer Norbert Brodine contributes to this stylization by making a row house in Queens look like a soundstage set. For the sake of authenticity, the cast and crew visited both the Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York, and the Tombs Prison, Criminal Courts Building, Hotel Marguery in New York City.
Nettie narrates the story in voice-over, and the very use of a female narrator is a novelty in film noir. Though Nick's criminal record goes back to his adolescence, it's unclear whether Bianco's criminality is “inherited” through his family or socially conditioned by harsh economic conditions. Even so, Nick's behavior suggests a character trapped by his compulsive behavior and burdened by family past.
The theme of a “reformed” man, who's inevitably pulled back into the criminal world is interesting, and so is the depiction of illegal deals made by corrupt attorneys and shyster lawyers who protect the criminal and thus betray both the law and the reformed convict. As noted, today, the film is most remembered for Widmark's leering portrayal of Udo, a sadistic character who pushes women in wheelchairs down the stairs for kicks and gleefully empties his automatic into Nick's body.
Widmark received a Supporting Actor nomination for this role, which would typecast his for the rest of his career in mostly villainous roles. “Kiss of Death” was also nominated for Original Story Oscar (by Eleazar Lipsky), which was adapted to the screen by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer.
Widmark lost to Edmund Gwenn, who played Santa Claus in “Miracle on 34th Street” (with child-actress Natalie Wood), and that movie also won the Story Oscar for Valentine Davis.