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.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY, 1947

ImageWho wasn’t a fan of Tyrone Power in 1947? He was all dreamy! He looked great in period costume, with a rapier, and with a lacy cravat. He made movie-love and swashbuckled like a champ. He was Zorro, for chrissakes. But 20th Century Fox’s biggest star wanted to prove his range, (being the heir to the Tyrone Power acting dynasty and all – following his Father, Grandfather, and Great-Grandfather, all named Tyrone Power) and he campaigned for the lead in the film version of William Lindsay Gresham’s gothic sleazoid carnival noir, Nightmare Alley. Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck wasn’t pleased about it, but eventually relented, giving top production value to a film that would’ve ended up with b-status. What results is a sordid little movie made by some very talented folks.

Not that it benefited from that at the time – Fox didn’t publicize Nightmare Alley’s release and unceremoniously dumped it into a few theatres, just long enough for it to be disliked by critics and then locked away for years due to copyright disputes. Eventually released by Fox’s Noir imprint, Nightmare Alley’s finally been getting the love it deserves.

ImageStanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) weasels his way into carnival work and is fascinated by two acts – the geek, a howling drunk who bites off the heads of live chickens and is paid off with whiskey (a sideshow act which is quite illegal), and mentalist Mademoiselle Zeena (an excellent Joan Blondell, ingenue days firmly behind her, all patient and world-weary with her dark roots showing) who works with her drunkard husband Pete using an ingenious code to predict and answer burning questions from her audience. Stan wants to know the code and work with Zeena, but she remains loyal to Pete (hoping to send him to detox) and to keeping the secret of the code, which she plans to sell someday.

Then, Stan *accidentally* gives Pete a bottle of prop wood alcohol rather than moonshine which leads to his death. With little choice, Zeena teaches Stan the code, they fool around a bit, and it all results in a successful carnival act. Stan ends up as skilled in fake mind-reading as Zeena.

His girl on the side is Molly – Coleen Gray, as steadfast and adorable as ever, with an electric act where she gets to look like this:

ImageZeena finds out, and Stan and Molly end up married and ousted from the carnival. Stan gets a real tux and they start a classy new act, using the code in nightclubs. The beginning of the end (maybe the mid-point of the end) is when Stan meets a calculating female analyst, appropriately named Lilith (Helen Ritter in predatory masculine-cut 40’s suits), and they plot to fleece Lilith’s rich patients with Stan fencing messages from beyond the grave.

nightmarealleyAnd it would’ve worked, too, if Stan didn’t enlist the help of naive young Molly to serve as a ghostly apparition, in a gorgeously shot garden scene where she emerges, back-lit in the woods while Stan and the dupe watch. After Molly’s ill-timed freak-out, Stan flees with the dupe’s money – or so he thinks.

Lilith, of course, is prepared with a double cross, and The Great Stanton ends up a poor old drunkard. What makes a geek, Nightmare Alley asks? Bad decisions. A God Complex. Analysts. Desperation. Alcohol.

Whether it’s the fault of the production code or Daryl F. Zanuck himself, here’s where Nightmare Alley cheats itself. Stan shows up at a carnival, inebriated, looking like this:

nightmare-geek…and tries to get a job. He is told there is only one job opening – the geek. He is asked if he can handle it, to which he responds memorably with “Mister, I was made for it.”

And that should be the end – pride goeth before a fall and all of that, but then we are treated to a sentimental coda where there is hope for Stan to reunite with Molly, as if the idea of Zorro spending the rest of his days out of his mind on moonshine and biting off poultry heads is just too much to bare.

But, it certainly wouldn’t be the first or last tacked-on ending to an otherwise hard-hitting film noir. It’s not a perfect film, but it is a consistently interesting one – without gangsters, detectives, or gun molls, Nightmare Alley manages to be genre defining with its carnival setting and strong performances. There’s something particularly seedy and anti-American about the carnival’s dirty underbelly. Some of Nightmare Alley’s strongest moments are veteran cinematographer Lee Garmes’ ambling tracking shots behind the carnival tents and away from the lights. There’s some great use of non-diegetic sound – at pivotal points in Stan’s downfall (mostly when he’s drinking and feeling guilty over Pete’s death), he hears the tortured howling of the geek. Brilliant.

Tyrone Power was quoted as saying “Charm is Bullshit”, and never has that sentiment been more apparent than in his portrayal of Stanton Carlisle. Power’s ‘The Great Stanton’ is a scheming opportunist – certainly, there’s no shortage of charm in his arsenal, but it has none of the warmth that made teen girls swoon. Handsome as ever (save the end, when Ben Nye transforms him into a hollow-cheeked ghoul), there’s still something markedly off about him, even in the early scenes with his narrowed, kohl rimmed eyes – swarmy through and through.

Alas, following one of his best performances, Tyrone Power never made another film noir. He did, however, go on a possibly romantic vacation with Cesar Romero and do a lot of critically acclaimed theatre.

‘Til we meet again – steer clear of the seers and stay out of the geek tent.

xo.