Exploding into view after the epic bloodletting savagery of World War II, the dark and dangerous genre known as Film Noir reached a new height with 1947’s KISS OF DEATH.
In possibly his best performance of a quite capable career, Victor Mature stars as a career criminal who ends up in jail when arrested for a jewel robbery. Police Commissioner Brian Donlevy offers him a deal–finger his co-conspirators (who got away) and he won’t have to go away from his wife and kids for nearly as long. But Mature is, by criminal standards, an honest guy–he won’t double-cross his buddies. He assumes the others will also honor their ‘code’ and take care of his family.
Later, he learns the others haven’t follow through on their promises and his despondent wife has killed herself; his 2 little girls are in an orphanage. He contacts Donlevy and agrees to ‘sing’–earning early release (under the guise of parole, which should enable him to gain info on other mobsters).
While out, he is befriended by a particularly creepy thug (a very young Richard Widmark), who admires “the big man” for supposedly telling the law to bug off. Widmark’s character is a giggling psychopath and played so deliciously over-the-top that the role earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in his screen debut.
Colleen Gray, Mature’s former neighbor (who often babysat the kids), serves as the film’s narrator and at this point re-enters his life. They get married, retrieve the kids and go into an early form of witness protection in a new town, with a legit job and a new name as he prepares for court.
Meanwhile, Mature’s secret testimony and Donlevy’s manipulation of the situation lead the bad guys to mistakenly think a different member of the robbery team has sold them out. The guy runs for the hills, but Widmark pays a visit to the escapee’s wheelchair bound mother. This results in one of the more infamous scenes in all of Film Noir history–when the unfortunate old lady won’t help the giggling lunatic find (and kill) her son, he murders her by throwing her wheelchair down a long flight of stairs.
This is too much and Mature uses what he’s learned in palling around with Widmark to testify against him in open court. The crooked lawyer who has been a behind-the-scenes key to much of this outmaneuvers Donlevy in court, however and the crazed killer gets off.
Widmark comes gunning for Mature, who sets himself up as bait after sending new wife and kiddies safely off into the country. An unarmed Mature decides to sacrifice himself by goading the unstable villain into a shooting spree. Widmark is killed by the cops; his thug pals are all either killed or captured. Mature is badly wounded, but as the film ends Donlevy attends to him and Gray’s final voice-over assures us know that–against all odds–a happy ending has been gained, complete with Mature surviving.
Veteran Director Henry Hathaway comes through big-time in KISS OF DEATH, perfectly capturing the dark look and brooding mood of Noir, while getting nothing less than fine performances from all the lead players. The lesser characters are understandably less developed, but sharp-eyed viewers will also spot (another very young) Karl Malden in a bit part as one of Donlevy’s cops.