You know what I do to squealers? I let ‘em have it in the belly, so they can roll around for a long time thinking it over.
Films have played fast and loose with the fourth wall since Edison’s The Great Train Robbery, but Kiss of Death begins with the camera on, notionally, the shooting script for Kiss of Death, its title covered by a holdout revolver. The gun is lifted, a page is turned, and the credits are revealed. A narrator then sets the opening scene for us: Christmas Eve, in New York. We’re meant to sympathize with Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), a cold man but not a brutal one, as he robs a jewelry exchange.
The Assistant DA (Brian Donlevy) shares the narrator’s opinion of Bianco after learning that he has two young daughters. Criminals aren’t all psychos, perverts, or morons, you see; some of them just get trapped in crime by bad luck. The film, in vouching for Bianco’s character, almost veers into the phrenological: the warden at Sing Sing and a guard evaluate Bianco’s handwriting as the work of a “good guy.” It’s because of this glowing potential that the ADA gives Bianco an offer: they’ll spring him and fix him up with a new identity if he squeals on his cohorts. They’re thugs and lowlifes, but Bianco’s different. He “isn’t one of those mugs that doesn’t belong in normal, decent human society.”
That distinction belongs to murderers like Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), who giggles as he recounts his crimes. Kiss of Death is best remembered as Widmark’s star-making turn, and he’s impossible to ignore: white ties on black shirts, his lips either pursed in a childish pout or split in an insane grin. He’s into the worst habits of the criminal underworld: marijuana, jazz, you name it. In his most memorable scene, he pushes an old woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs for covering for her gangster son. Bianco’s testimony earns him Udo’s ire, and the threat of discovery by that psychopath hangs over Bianco’s head in the later acts.
Kiss of Death is bookended by slow, tense action: a 27-story elevator ride after Bianco and his cohorts knock off the jewelry exchange to begin the picture; a confrontation at an Italian restaurant between Bianco and Udo to end it. But between those setpieces, it continually tries to rehabilitate us to Bianco’s character. When he’s briefly escorted from Sing Sing to visit his daughters at a Catholic orphanage, he embraces them and rubs his faces against theirs, his eyes shut in seraphic ecstasy. Such a man can’t be that bad!
It’s this sort of familial connection that makes a man good in Kiss of Death‘s moral universe. Intellect and breeding aren’t enough: while in Sing Sing, Bianco is cajoled by a crooked lawyer, who lies to Bianco about his chances for parole when he’s not orchestrating the murder of suspected squealers with Udo’s help. The side of law isn’t fully staffed by angels, either. When the extent of his scheme to entrap Udo is laid out, Bianco observes that “your side of the fence is almost as dirty as mine.” It’s the simple, honest joys – home and family – that redeem a man.