As you might imagine from the title, Kiss of Death (1947) is a film noir. It marks the screen debut of Richard Widmark, who would become one of the iconic actors of film noir (and was still appearing onscreen into the 1990s). Widmark stars as the psychotic killer Tommy Udo.
The story is over a down-on-his-luck ex-convict called Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) who tries to rob a jewellery store in New York with some cohorts on Christmas Eve. The try to escape, but during the effort he assaults a police officer, is shot in the leg, and is arrested. The District Attorney tries to convince Bianco to name his accomplices, but as he’s convinced that his lawyer will take care of his wife and family while he’s inside, he refuses. After arriving at Sing Sing, however, he learns that his wife has committed suicide and his daughters are now in an orphanage.
Sometime later he is visited by Netty Cavallo (Colleen Grey), who used to babysit his children. From her he learns that one of the accomplices that he is protecting raped his wife, so Bianco decides to tell all. He has to give information on cases to get his parole, and then to stay out of jail. This brings him into conflict with former jailmate Tommy Udo who he is sent to hang out with so he will spill the beans on past crimes.
Grey, of course, also stars in Nightmare Alley —made the same year—and numerous other truly great films like The Killing and Red River. The film was one of the first noir films to shoot mostly on location, still an uncommon practice at that time but more typical of the 1950s. It adds energy and realism to the story’s urban setting.
Mature gives a good performance, but Widmark steals the show with his villainous Tommy Udo. Richard Conti had been the director’s first choice for the part, but as Widmark plays one the most psychotic noir bad guys ever, it’s good that he got his chance. Having been turned down for military service, Widmark had been a radio and stage actor before Kiss of Death.
Tommy Udo borrows a lot from the Batman villain The Joker, of whom he was a big fan and it’s a shame he never played the Joker himself. Tommy Udo became such a cultural trope that college frats formed “Tommy Udo Clubs” with an intent to “put women in their place.” Widmark’s wicked laugh was so well-known that some fans requested he record his laugh for them on vinyl. Karl Malden also makes one of his earliest film appearances, as a police sergeant.
While not the greatest film noir ever made, it’s reputation is done to Widmark’s psycho performance. The happy ending is obviously tacked-on, but it’s still a rock solid noir, and has been remade twice first time was just 11 years later as a Western, The Fiend Who Walked the West, and a 1995 version with Nicholas Cage that for some strange reason got rid of the Tommy Udo character all together.
This version has a 4K transfer and is fully restored. It comes with an 80-minute BFI talk by Richard Widmark, the original trailer and commentary from James Ursine and Alain Silver, the film historians who compiled the rather excellent Film Noir Reader series.