Tuesday, July 29, 2008

CATCHING UP #2: Kiss of Death (1947)

The Parkway Theater in Minneapolis (http://theparkwaytheater.com/) is having a little mini-retrospective on the late great Minnesota boy named Richard Widmark. Every Monday night at 7:30 throughout August they will screen a classic Richard Widmark movie where he plays the heavy. The last night kicked it off, and the movie was Kiss of Death, a movie I'd heard much about, but never seen.

And boy, was it a disappointment.

Director Henry Hathaway is known mainly for three movies Call Northside 777, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer and Kiss of Death. I remember the other two from when I was a kid because they were actually available at the local Mr. Movies in their very sparse "classics" section. Jimmy Stewart was in Northside, a slick enough thriller, and Gary Cooper was in the whole lot of fun adventure flick Bengal Lancer. With the exception of three scenes and all fifteen of the minutes Richard Widmark's Tommy Udo is on screen (two out of the the three scenes feature Udo), this movie is te-di-ous.

After writing the last sentence, Howard Hawks's old adage springs to mind: all a movie needs is three good scenes and no bad ones. This movie only met half that requirement.

Which is fucking WEIRD because one of the all-timers penned this slow, sad little script, frequent Hawks collaborator Ben Hecht. Really, all I could think about was if Hecht had worked with Hawks on this script, how great it would have been. As it is, it is a decent enough tale told with such earnestness and directness that there is absolutely no fun to be had...except for Tommy Udo.

Tommy Udo is the template for all the bad guys we would see afterward. For its time, Richard Widmark's performance must have really shocked people. His giggle, his toothy sneer, his wide eyes - the whole thing is very groundbreaking. But what it all comes down to is Udo pushing a little old lady in a wheelchair down the stairs. It's a nasty scene, iconic even, and undoubtedly what most people think of when they think of Richard Widmark. But fifteen minutes of excitement within ninety-some minutes of borrrrrrriinnnnggg does not a classic make.

The movie opens with the second best scene of the picture. A gang of criminals go into a skyscraper and take the elevator to a high floor they get off and rob the jeweler on that level. They tie up the jeweler and call the elevator to go down again. Then we cut back and forth between the robbers waiting nervously to make it to ground floor, and the jeweler struggling to reach the alarm. It's a very intense, exciting sequence that ends in robber Nick Bianco (a predictably sucky perfermance from the always disappointing Victor Mature) being apprehended by the police.

He does time, resisting the D.A.'s offer to cut a deal by ratting out the other guys involved in the heist and serving a few years before tragedy strikes. His commits suicide and his kids are sent to an orphanage. And not only that, he finds out that one of his old pals had been fucking his wife, one of his old robber pals, to be specific. Now, it's squealing time.

But not only does he have to squeal on his heist partners but on Tommy Udo, an infamous killer who holds great admiration for Bianco. Once he sets up Udo, he's home free, wipes his hands of the whole deal. Gets a square job and lives in a nice house with his kids and their babysitter who always wanted Nick's dick.

But then Udo beats the murder rap and comes for Bianco's blood.

Really, it's an old story but still a pretty good one. One could easily see a pretty good time coming from this story well-told. Maybe if Hawks and Hecht had at it, came up with a bunch of snappy lines and even snappier-paced scenes. Maybe put a more solid guy in the lead like Holden or Bogart and a classic is born. But these are all hyphotheticals. Instead we're left with laborious exposition and no subtext. The film is just so fucking earnest. Dear God is it ever sincere. Oh, Bianco loves his fucking precious fucking kids just so fucking MUCH. Boo-hoo.

And aside from Udo, everybody around him is so fucking boring and actually pretty stupid. The D.A. could have been a cool character, fucking with Bianco and pressuring him, but he is just straight up. He wants to help Bianco because the guy has kids. How boring is that. It's so fucking noble I could puke. And Bianco's lawyer is completely retarded for being a mob lawyer with connections. He's a million miles behind at every turn. Then there's Bianco's new wife, a gold-hearted kid who used to watch Bianco's kids when their mother was alive. She throws herself at Bianco the minute he gets out of prison, telling him that she's always loved him and blah blah blah. Imagine if it had turned out that she had killed his wife instead of the wife offing herself.

And that's another thing: It takes like ten minutes for Bianco to figure out that his wife is dead. First he wonders why she hasn't written him in three months. Then he has to ask around about her to other inmates. Then he has to sneakily ask a guy in the textile factory he works at what he knows about her. Then he has to go to the library and find her obit in a newspaper from weeks previous. TEDIUM. And, shit, like the warden wouldn't tell him, maybe even let him attend her funeral. It could have been one minute of screen time instead of ten.

And don't get me started on the hilarious obit. To paraphrase, it says, "Maria Bianco, 32, committed suicide by putting her head in the oven. She is survived by two children. Sources close to her mentioned money troubles." Who would write that in an obituary? Can you imagine reading in the newspaper, "John Thomas, 42, was died from auto-erotic asphyxiation in the shower of his sad little apartment where he lives alone. He isn't survived by anyone because his wife left him. Police on the scene noted his small penis."

But in the end, there's the final way-cool scene of the movie. Bianco tells the host at an Italian restaurant to fetch Udo from the backroom, tell him Nick Bianco's waiting for him. Then there's this shot where we see Udo through the crack in the doorway a thin sliver of Udo's face as he's approached by the waiter. Then we watch Udo slowly walk towards us, his eye popping into view every other step. It's a great little scene. And right after that, Udo tells his two boys to leave him and Bianco be at their table, so the two hoods sit at a table where a square couple are enjoying dinner. It got the biggest laugh of the whole night.

After that scene, the actual showdown occurs and it is more than disappointing. That's really the word for this movie: disappointing. I'll probably watch it again thirty years from now, though, wanting to catch that really cool Widmark performance once more. Hopefully next time I'll have a remote on hand to fast forward through the eighty minutes of shit that are covering up the fifteen of gold.

Kudos to The Parkway, though, on setting up this tribute. I plan on attending all the other movies in this mini-retrospective. Up next week is an Andre De Toth movie called Slattery's Hurricane that co-stars Veronica Lake. De Toth is an under-appreciated B-movie guy who made some pretty sharp westerns and noirs back in the forties, fifties, and sixties. Veronica Lake is hot. I'm in.

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