[box cover]

Kiss of Death

One of the great film noir classics, Kiss of Death (1947) is memorable partly for being filmed entirely on location in New York, bringing a gritty sense of immediacy to the picture. Mostly, though, folks remember Richard Widmark's portrayal of snarling, giggling rat-faced gangster Johnny Udo and the moment when he pushes a woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs. Udo, however, isn't the focus of the film — his character appears early on when Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) is sent to prison for armed robbery and then disappears for about a half an hour, returning to play a significant, but mostly off-stage, role in the film's third act. When they first meet, Udo attempts to befriend Bianco by bragging, "Imagine me in on this cheap rap, big man like me — picked up just for shoving a guy's ears off his head. Traffic ticket stuff!" But Bianco's not impressed by Udo — nor is he impressed by Assistant District Attorney Louie D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy), who offers Bianco a deal if he'll rat out his partners on the robbery. Bianco's no squealer, and he holds firm in prison hoping that his crooked lawyer will get him out on parole — until he hears, three years into his sentence, that his wife has committed suicide and his two small children have been sent to an orphanage. But making a deal with D'Angelo is both complicated and dangerous, and ultimately Bianco's told to set up Udo, which puts his new wife (Coleen Gray) and his children in danger.

Kiss of Death is an edgy, textbook noir thriller from director Henry Hathaway (Call Northside 777, The Dark Corner) that pulls no punches with its carefully doled-out violence. It's a picture that's also, exquisitely, about tension — the film's opening sequence has Bianco and his gang robbing a jewelry store on the 22nd floor of the Empire State Building, then riding a packed elevator all the way to the bottom, agonizing over the time its taking. Scenes with Bianco, gun in hand, waiting for the insane, terrifying Udo in his darkened living room and, later, at a table in a restaurant, push anxiety to the limit. Widmark is so good as the creepy, loose cannon Udo that he was typecast for several years, and the character's hyena-like giggle and twitchy mannerisms were widely parodied. Director Hathaway, inspired by the Italian neo-realism film movement and earlier noirs He Walked By Night and The Naked City, used real locations like Sing Sing prison and the interior of an actual, moving train to make Kiss of Death far less stagy and much more absorbing than other films of its era that were shot entirely on soundstages. It's a gripping film, and one of the best examples of the genre — and make sure to keep an eye out for a very young Karl Malden as a cop. Fox's DVD release, part of their "Fox Film Noir" collection, offers an excellent full-screen black-and-white transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a source-print that's exceptionally clean, with only occasional specks and scratches, and one or two scenes that show a bit of wear. Overall, though, it's excellent, with wonderful contrast. The DD monaural audio (English, with optional English or Spanish subtitles) is fine, clean but a little uneven — the volume drops in some scenes with heavy dialogue while the music is occasionally overloud. Extras include a commentary track by noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini, which would be an excellent primer for anyone wanting a beginner's course on the genre — the pair point out specifics throughout the film regarding the framing of shots, lenses used and editing choices, as well as discussing the "determinism" that defines noir storytelling. Also on board are trailers for other films in the "Fox Film Noir" collection, the film's theatrical trailer, and a stills gallery. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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