KISS OF DEATH, 1947

ImageWhen I saw that there was a Great Villain Blogathon going down, as hosted by Silver Screenings, Shadows & Satin, and Speakeasy, I quickly narrowed my short list of noir bad guys I wouldn’t want to fuck with down to the giggling maniac himself, Tommy Udo in Fox’s KISS OF DEATH.

As we know, film noir is full of bad guys. It’s full of bad girls. It’s full of good guys who are kind of bad and bad guys who are a little bit good, but likely none are as irretrievably, murderously insane as Mr. Udo, as played by Richard Widmark in his unforgettable film debut. See, we’re not talking about a provocative, powerful James Cagney type. We’re not talking about a guy who fell off the deep end due to social misfortune, a flawed villain grappling with some kind of deep-seated moral quandary. Tommy Udo, in his black suit, white tie, and oversized fedora is just the kind of absurd, cartoonish nutcase who’d set the bar for all kinds of loose cannon socipaths to follow. Widmark was nominated for 1947’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar but lost to – get this – Edmund Gwenn as Kriss Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. Yep, passed over for Santa Claus, but at least Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck knew a good thing when he saw it, and a good deal of the film’s advertising centered on Tommy Udo, with theatre owners putting up WANTED signs.

ImageWe are introduced to Tommy in the holding cell he’s sharing with our ever-so humble hero, Nick Bianco (an intense Victor Mature). Nick Bianco’s an ex-con and consequently unemployed – that’s why he’s been picked up for a jewel heist on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, Nick’s also a family man, so, Merry Christmas, Bianco daughters – see you in therapy. Tommy’s watching the prison guard, then leans over to Bianco, “Lookit that cheap squirt, passing up and down,” he says in a high, nasal voice, “For a nickel I’d grab him, stick both thumbs right in his eyes…. and hang on till he drops dead.”

Yessir, that’s Tommy Udo, and by the end of the film, we’re left believing he’d do it for free. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to Nick. Assistant D.A. Louis D’Angelo is prepared to offer Nick a plea deal – if he names his accomplices, he’s looking at a lighter sentence. But there is honor among thieves, and Nick declines, knowing that his partners in crime and his crooked attorney Earl Howser will look after the wife and kids.

ImageThree years into Nick’s 20 year sentence, Mrs. Bianco Sylvia-Plaths her way into an early grave and Nick finds out from ex-babysitter Nettie Cavallo (Coleen Gray, always great as the love interest of the flawed hero, probably because hurting Coleen Gray is like stepping on a kitten) that his ex-accomplice Rizzo attacked his late wife. This motivates him to start all sorts of squealing, also telling slippery old Howser that Rizzo’s the rat to deflect any suspicion. Alas, Howser’s a closer and calls up Tommy Udo to dispose of Rizzo.

ImageUnfortunately for Rizzo’s wheelchair-bound Mom, Rizzo’s not at home, and Tommy doesn’t cotton to disappointments. It isn’t enough for him to drop his cigarette butt on her floor. So then he does… that thing that he does. Yep, in one of the more shocking moments of violence from the 40s, Tommy rips the cord from the floor lamp, restrains Ma Rizzo, and then PUSHES HER DOWN THE STAIRS. Here, let’s watch together. Note Tommy’s skeezy mouth wipe and ever-present chuckle.

Indeed, he didn’t get a chance to kill Rizzo, but he certainly took those lemons and made lemonade, as he relates the story of ex-Ma Rizzo to Howser with palatable relish. (It’s a particularly good scene, incidentally. Taylor Holmes as Howser is so cold.)

ImageA newly-paroled Nick is now free to marry Nettie and obligated to help D’Angelo by spending an evening out with Udo, mining information about his various crimes. Not that he has to mine too hard – Tommy is many things, but a criminal mastermind isn’t one of them. He alternates bragging about his crimes with urging boxers to tear each others eyes out, joking around with Nick at dinner, and being at once dismissive, insulting, and genuinely threatening to his lady friend. “Dames are no good if you wanna have some fun,” he chortles, after shoving his date in the hip.

Nick gleans enough valuable information to satisfy D’Angelo and when Udo’s trial comes up, Nick is called to testify. Reluctantly, he does, but it isn’t enough. Udo is then acquitted due to insufficient evidence (which is surprising, since he’s so obviously a ticking time bomb of crazy).

ImageCertain that the police can’t protect him or his family and not the sort of man who’s going to spend the rest of his life looking over this shoulder, Nick orchestrates a showdown, and no one comes up as the clear winner.

While not the best of director Henry Hathaway’s noirs, Kiss of Death has a lot going for it. A title card at the beginning asserts that the film was shot all on location (notably at Sing Sing prison, where the inmates had to be cleared out as a law prohibited photographing real live criminals), and though some scenes do look like studio sets, Kiss of Death still has the docu-noir style that gives it a certain freshness. Further, Kiss of Death is not best work of writers Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht, (who have a ton of monster hits between them), however, there’s certainly a lot of meat in the story. It was definitely enough to piss off Joe Breen at the MPAA, who disliked the suggestion that law enforcement is “utterly futile ” and requires the testimony of a stool pigeon to convict criminals and felt that the script undermined the justice system and portrayed the courts as being ineffective. You bet it does! Despite these issues, all of this remains in the finished film, Bianco even notes, “Your side of the fence is almost as dirty as mine.” To which D’Angelo answers dryly, “With one big difference… we hurt bad people, not good ones.” The line is a paltry excuse to eschew the virtue of law enforcement – in Nick’s hour of need, law enforcement is typically ineffectual – the legal system doesn’t come through for him, echoing early in the story when his criminal cohorts hang him out to dry.

The MPAA x’ed one scene from the film, even though traces of it remain in a blink-and-you’ll miss it line – after dinner, Tommy takes Nick to a shadowy old house. “What’s that smell?” asks Nick, “Perfume!” giggles Tommy. Why, I do declare – it’s a drug den, and the original script allegedly contained more references to Tommy as a drug user.

ImageAnd speaking of Nick, Kiss of Death is often cited as one of Victor Mature’s best performances, and he’s marvelous – quietly believable as a hood and also as a loving, if misguided Father. However, despite the relatively low amount of screen time, Kiss of Death is Richard Widmark’s picture, and as good as Mature is, sometimes we’re just waiting for Tommy to show up, because shit gets real when a guy pushes an old lady down the stairs and all bets are pretty much off regarding what kind of mischief that crazy kid will get up to next.

ImageTommy Udo isn’t just Richard Widmark’s bravura debut performance. Udo is both a menace and a sadist, a cyclone of irritating habits, bleating obnoxiousness, and balls-out lunacy. He’s so over-the-top nuts that it all equals out to a kind of magnetism, and I’m not saying he’s the first berserk psycho that made audiences enjoy violence, but he’s certainly a front-runner. The early noirs brought murder into the home, made it acceptable to watch, but Tommy Udo made it fun which would prove an indelible influence on the crime dramas and horror films to follow.

‘Til next time, keep it on the safety brake.

ImageDefinitely do poke around the Blogathon for the silver screen’s best baddies, and if you’re not following me on Twitter, you should know that you’re missing out on shirtless Cary Grant beach running pictures.

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, 1945

ImageI know I’m not alone in the opinion that Fox’s top grossing film of the 40’s, John Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven is one of the all time great Technicolor movies. Naturally, the supremely filmic, highly saturated Technicolor was avoided for the majority of Golden Age noir – it’s a little “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” for your average tale of morally questionable urban woe (though Paramount did attempt a Technicolor noir in the kind-of-nuts Desert Fury, which also features a homme fatale and the screen debut of Wendall Corey) , but Leave Her to Heaven manages to be chilling not in spite of the Technicolor, but because of it. Indeed, Leave Her to Heaven’s eerie signature scene takes place not in a shadowy alleyway or a police interrogation room, but on a sunny afternoon in a clear lake near a scenic cabin. Worst. Vacation. Ever.

Here’s the rundown. A writer, Richard Harlan (Cornel Wilde), accepts an invitation to his attorney’s New Mexico ranch. On the train, he meets Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), and they’re mutually attracted to each other – Richard, because Ellen is gorgeous, and Ellen, because Richard is a dead ringer for her late Father. So there’s that.

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As fate would have it, they’re heading to the same ranch, and Richard becomes acquainted with the rest of the Berent family, including Ellen’s charming cousin Ruth (Jeanne Crain – she of wholesome beauty who makes plants grow) and Ellen’s Mother. Ellen and her Mother are clearly still sorting through Ellen’s extreme Electra complex, so there’s some pretty tangible weirdness there.

Not even Ellen’s existing fiancee, D.A. hopeful Russell Quintin (Vincent Price, y’all), can keep Richard and Ellen from each other, and they marry soon after, in spite of Richard’s misgivings. Ellen then accompanies Richard to Georgia to be reunited with his polio-stricken younger brother Danny. Ellen and Danny get on like a house on fire, and pretty soon Danny’s walking with crutches and accompanying them to their cabin in Maine, a tactical error on Ellen’s part. You see, Ellen has a pathological desire to do everything for Richard and have all of Richard’s love and attention, and Danny’s now a direct obstacle in the way of her single-minded goal. Bring the rowboat by – it’s time to take Danny swimming.

Incidentally, exactly what I would wear to a drowning.

Incidentally, exactly what I would wear to a drowning.

In a scene that has aged extremely well, Ellen, in a fabulous white overcoat and oversized sunglasses, coolly encourages Danny to swim out farther to impress Richard. So long, third wheel. The lack of score and cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s gorgeous and isolating wide shots clinch the scene and make it the bruiser it is – this is the one that’ll stay in your head, even years later.

Anyway, Ellen’s grand gesture has the opposite effect – consumed by grief, Richard is now more remote than ever. Ever resourceful, Ellen becomes pregnant, but finds this isn’t the perfect solution she’d hoped for. All the frothy blue peignoir sets and high heeled slippers in the world won’t change the fact that a baby would pull focus from Ellen, and besides, being pregnant allows Richard to pal around with Ruth. In one of noir’s more cold-blooded killings (and the screen’s first Production Code approved abortion!), Ellen is then no longer in a family way.

bannerleavehertoPredictably, this doesn’t help, so Ellen is driven to the ultimate sacrifice, but not before taking everyone else down with her. For the record, I felt very dramatic writing THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE. For the film’s third act, we’re treated to a somewhat expressionistic courtroom drama, led by Vincent Price’s particularly theatrical D.A. character. It’s a worthy denouement, and as ever, I’d watch Vincent Price eat cereal, but the real meat of Leave Her to Heaven is anytime Gene Tierney is onscreen.

Leave Her to Heaven may sound like a grand melodrama on paper, it certainly could be one of those trashy movies that W plays in the late afternoon, but it ends up being one of the most subversive studio films of the 40s. The deceptively slow start only solidifies the psychological horror to follow – in another life, a chance meeting on the train, a love affair in sun splashed New Mexico – we’re talking about a typical technicolor romantic comedy. Not the case – the promise of domesticity becomes a nightmare of manipulation and murder, in Richard and Ellen’s very own brightly-light and exquisitely photographed backyard.

Gene Tierney is at her best as Ellen with her icy, otherworldly beauty never used to greater effect. As the ideal wife, she’s charming, with disarming moments of genuine warmth, then instantly childish and withholding when the veneer slips and she fails to get what she wants. Her most shocking decisions are clinical and logic-based – if this obstacle was removed, I will get what I want. It’s a surprisingly modern and balanced portrayal of mental illness, even in her coldest moments, we never entirely dislike her; such is the pull of her sociopathic allure. Also, she wears immaculately tailored trousers and cute one-piece bathing suits and commands the screen like boss bitch. Gene was nominated for a what would have been a well-deserved academy award, but ultimately lost to Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce.

In a major coup for art over censorship, the MPAA ‘strongly cautioned’ Ellen’s ‘miscarriage’, which is certainly a touching euphemism for throwing yourself from a flight of stairs on the pretense that you slipped on a throw rug while wearing fabulous satin bedroom mules. You know how it is. The MPAA warned that it was necessary to establish that the fetus would have to go because it would be a competitor for Richard’s affection, and not because Ellen believed the child would be born imperfect or misshapen. (Yes, ‘misshapen.’) They believed that this way, it would not be considered an abortion. Oh, bless.

Heaven2_zps94aaf8baLeave Her to Heaven is a prime example 3-strip Technicolor used to the height of its dramatic promise. Photographed by the great Leon Shamroy, Leave Her to Heaven was one of his Oscar winners, and it’s not hard to see why – the hyper-real colours and intense saturation, the gorgeous sets and locations – they just don’t shoot ’em like this anymore, friends. So much of the film occupies a familiar dream world –  the gorgeous homes, the beautiful cabin in the country, the attentive, perfect wife, and the loyal, loving husband – and never before have the noir shadows been quite so close.

Up next, I’ll be participating in the Great Villain Blogathon:

banner_villain2Who’s my villain? Well, let’s just say it’s the film noir bad guy you’re least likely to allow to care for your elderly, invalid grandmother.

‘Til then, no high heels on the area rug. xo.