Thursday, March 12, 2020

Kiss Of Death (1947) New York Noir

You know right from the get go.

The Dutch Angled opening credits. The chiaroscuro Manhattan cityscapes and silhouettes.The hints of Street Scene on the soundtrack (by Alfred Newman). Victor Mature with a couple of hoods knocking over a jewelry shop on the 24th floor of the Chrysler Building. One of the few a voice over narrations by a woman Coleen Gray.

From these you know you're in for one of the great Classic Noirs.

Street Scene was originally used for Street Scene 1931) and was re-used for Cry Of The City, I Wake Up Screaming, Where The Sidewalk Ends, and The Dark Corner.

Directed by Henry Hathaway (The House on 92nd Street (1945), The Dark Corner (1946), Call Northside 777 (1948), Fourteen Hours (1951) and Niagara (1953). The film was written by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer with additional scenes by Philip Dunne, and based on the story by Eleazar Lipsky.

Cinematography was by Norbert Brodine (The House on 92nd Street (1945),
Somewhere in the Night (1946), Road House (1948), Thieves' Highway (1949). Music was by
David Buttolph.

The film stars Noir vets Victor Mature, six Classics Noirs as Nick Bianco, Brian Donlevy himself a vet of six Classic Noir, as Assistant D.A. Louis D'Angelo, Coleen Gray (five Classic Noir) as Nettie, Richard Widmark (seven Classic Noir) in his first starring role, as over the top hitman nutjob Tommy Udo. With Taylor Holmes as sleazy mob mouthpiece Earl Howser, Howard Smith  as the Sing Warden, Karl Malden as NYPD Sgt. William Cullen, and Anthony Ross as mobster 'Big Ed' Williams.

Nick Bianco (Victor Mature)
Assistant D.A. Louis D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy)
Nettie (Coleen Gray)
Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark)
NYPD Sgt. William Cullen (Carl Malden)
Christmas Eve. New York City. Last minute shopping for the wife and kids. Excon Nick Bianco and three other hoods knock over a jewelry shop located on the 26th floor of the Chrysler Building. The robbery goes off without a hitch the getaway by local elevator screws them over when one of the tied up jewelers is able to hit an alarm button before they make the lobby.

Times Square Christmas Tree

The  Chrysler Building lobby above, is lavishly decorated with Red Moroccan marble walls, sienna-coloured floor and onyx, blue marble and steel in Art Deco compositions.

Nick Bianco about to enter an elevator beautifully inlaid with intricate designs.

The jewel heist
What's amazing is how fast the NYPD is able to respond and the building is sealed off. Nick tries to scoot out a side entrance through an adjacent shop.

You can see an el in the dim background 

He socks a cop blocking the entrance and runs out onto East 43nd Street between Lexington Avenue and 3rd Avenue, can see the Third Avenue el* down the block in the background. He tries to cross the street and he gets shot down in the gutter.

* If you look closely at the el you can make out the main tack level and the sloping upwards center express track as it rises to the two level 42nd Street station one block South, (that rising center el track structure is blocking out the bottom of the "L" in the neon Hotel sign). Also to the left is St. Agnes Catholic Church which burned down in 1992 and was rebuilt with a newer structure.The old buildings past the church to the corner are still there.

Wounded Nick
Anyway the shooting of Nick causes enough distraction that it allows the other three goons to escape while Nick is arrested, tried and sentenced to four years up the river in Sing Sing.

Before he's transported the assistant D.A. D'Angelo asks Nick to be a squealer and give up his partners for the sake of his wife and two little girls. Nick tells him he's no squealer. Nicks mouthpiece Howser assures Nick that his family will be taken care of. While Nick is waiting for sentencing in a holding tank he meets hitman for hire Tommy Udo. Udo is a real piece of work.

Mob mouthpiece Earl Howser (Taylor Holmes)

Udo and Bianco

D'Angelo makes one last plea to Nick before he's sent up the river.

Not Squealing

Nick does three years in the barbed wire hotel. After three months go by and he doesn't receive a letter from his wife he finally finds out from another con just arrived that she committed suicide and his kids were sent to an orphanage.

Nick checks the obits and gets the details.

So much for is partners in crime taking care of things for him.  Nick gets visited by Nettie the woman who used to babysit his girls. She tells him she had moved away from the neighborhood and just found out what had happened.

* interesting note on wikipedia:

Deleted scenes

"A deleted scene involving Nick's wife Maria (who was played by Patricia Morison) was cut from the film. In this scene, a gangster (played by Henry Brandon) who is supposed to look out for her while Nick is in prison rapes her. Afterwards, Maria commits suicide by sticking her head in the kitchen oven and turning on the gas. Both scenes were cut from the original print at the insistence of the censors, who wanted no depiction of either a rape or a suicide, so although Morison's name appears in the credits, she does not appear in the film at all. Mention is made later in the film about Mature's wife's suicide and a now obscure reference is made by Nettie that the unseen gangster Rizzo contributed to the wife's downfall."

Nick racked with anguish asks to see the warden and tells him that he's ready to make a deal with D'Angelo.

Nick in Sing Sing Prison, Wardens office with Tappan Zee and Hook Mountain State Park seen out through the window

Nick decides he wants out and contacts D.A. D'Angelo to tell him he'll be a stoolie. D'Angelo fixes it so that it looks as if one of the appeals Howser filed got approved. Nick is transferred back to a NYC jail where the D.A. makes it look as if he's being now held for a previous fur robbery. Nick tells Howser that it could only have been his partner Rizzo who ratted him out.

Howser contacts Tommy Udo to put out a contract on Rizzo. Udo finds his wheelchair bound mother at the apartment.  She tells him that Pete is out but that he will be back later that evening.

Tommy searches the apartment and susses out that she is lying. He ties her to the wheelchair and rolls her out in the hallway and in one of the most shocking sequences in Classic Film Noir pushes her down the tenement stairs.

Mrs. Rizzo (Mildred Dunnock)

After Nick is freed on parole for lack of evidence, D'Angelo arranges for Nick to meet up with Udo. He wants Nick to get chummy and give him enough leads and evidence for a murder conviction. They meet in a club, Udo is with a hooker (it's subtly alluded to). Udo basically tells her to go back to the house. Udo takes Nick on a tour of the underworld including, though it's not obvious (because of the MPPC), a fancy whorehouse with a doorman where Nick smells something funny (marijuana). Nick succeeds in getting the goods on Udo.

Susan Cabot 

The whorehouse with the strange smell....

Nick is given a new identity, and a job. Nick marries Nettie and gets his kids out of the orphanage and is living in Astoria Queens my home neighborhood BTW. It it all goes Noirsville when Udo is acquitted and set free, and he knows it was Nick who squealed. And Tommy hates squealers.

14th Street, Astoria with Astoria Park the Triboro Bridge, and The Hell Gate Bridge 

The house with the brick columns and wrought iron fence in the screenshot above, is still there.


New York Central

New York Central tracks in Ossining going through Sing Sing Prison with a guard tower on right

Nick with his two daughters

3rd Avenue el

14th Street Astoria with Astoria Park in the background

Scarboro Station

 The St. Nicholas Arena

There's a lot to like about Kiss Of Death. It's got a great performance by Victure Mature who I've liked ever since I saw him as a kid on Saturday afternoon Sword & Sandal epics like Samson And Delilah, The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators and in Western Classics like My Darling Clementine. 

I got to enjoy him all over again when I discovered his even earlier Film Noir. Actually he is in one of the first WWII era Film Noir I Wake Up Screaming. He plays a suave professional Broadway promoter Frankie Christopher. It's a unique Noir for other reasons as explained in the review.

Matures next Noir was The Shanghai Gesture where he has a small supporting roles as an oily fez wearing pimp, a role 180 degrees different from I Wake Up Streaming. This was followed by Kiss Of DeathCry Of The City and later The Las Vegas Story.

The ultimate downer Noir ending. Originally, Nick Bianco was supposed to die after he allowed Tommy Udo to shoot him full of holes, so Udo could be prosecuted for his murder. Not for just having a weapon and attempted murder as in the final version of the film. So once again the studios changed the finale. In the closing narration by Nettie (Coleen Gray), she tells the audience that Nick survives.

The film of course also has Richard Widmark in his scene stealing breakout role with Brian Donlevy and Coleen Gray providing Noir cinematic memory.

I like the use of Street Scene as a sort of signature New York City theme and the fact that for a New York based Film Noir the producers did a surprising amount lot of actual New York City and it's environs location shooting.

"Kiss of Death was shot between March and May 1947, with additional scenes being shot in June. Much of the filming was done in New York, using locations as practical sets, including the Chrysler Building, the Criminal Courts Building at 100 Centre Street, the old Hotel Marguery at 270 Park Avenue at 48th Street, the St. Nicholas Arena, and the now-demolished Bronx House of Detention for Men (later known as the Bronx County Jail) at 151st Street and River Avenue. Additional locations include Sing Sing Penitentiary in Ossining and the Academy of the Holy Angels in Fort Lee, New Jersey. " (Wikipedia)

Also add to the above Scarboro Station (scene where Nick puts Nettie and the kids on the train). For any interested the St. Nicholas Boxing Arena was converted to a television production facility in 1962 and eventually demolished in 1982 to make way for the main offices of the ABC Network.

Finally this film is one of the few Classic Noirs that was partially shot in my old home neighborhood of Astoria, Queens. As a kid I remember spending some sunny afternoons sitting on a blanket on a grassy hillside in Astoria Park watching the New York City ship, tug, and railcar float traffic on a very busy East River. Back in the 1950s the trees were still small and there was a beautiful view of the river.  The park sits on a patch of ground whose boundaries are roughly the Triboro and Hell Gate bridges.

Screencaps are from a recent TCM screening. 10/10

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