Most actors have to pay their due before they make it as a big star. Maybe do some low-budget movies, a TV show, Broadway plays. I'm hard pressed to think of many who make the jump from complete anonymity to instant stardom. Only two really come to mind, Burt Lancaster and Richard Widmark.
A veteran of stage and radio, Widmark made the jump to movies in 1947 in a film noir classic called Kiss of Death. Making his screen debut, the 33-year old actor received fourth billing as a supporting character with three more established actors taking the lead roles. Even with a role that has him on-screen for maybe 20-25 minutes of a 98 minute movie, Widmark steals the film with a part that catapulted him to stardom and almost threatened to typecast him early in his Hollywood career.
Given a lengthy prison sentence for a jewel heist, low-level hood Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) refuses to squeal about the other men who took part on the job and accepts his sentence. Several years pass and then Bianco finds out his wife has killed herself and his two daughters have been sent to an orphanage. Cutting a deal with the assistant district attorney, Louis D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy), Bianco agrees to be a snitch for the cases D'Angelo is trying to put away. Bianco's first case? Get evidence on a suspected killer and a previous acquaintance, Tommy Udo (Widmark). Bianco gets the evidence and even testifies in court, but a jury acquits Udo and he quickly eludes his tail. Now living with his wife (Coleen Gray) and his two daughters, Bianco knows it's only a matter of time before Udo shows up looking for revenge.
With Mature and Donlevy taking the starring roles, Widmark leaves an instant impression as psychotic, cackling killer Tommy Udo. Mention 'Kiss of Death' and most people will associate Widmark with the movie, and more specifically one scene. Looking to catch a snitch, Udo infamously ties an old woman into her wheelchair and pushes her to her death down a flight of stairs, watch it HERE starting at the 2:40 mark. Widmark's Udo seems to revel and delight in administering punishment and death. His distinct giggle sends chills down your back, and hard to place accent with his low voice just add layers and personality to this character who is impossible to take your eyes off of.
In fact, Widmark was so good in the part that over the next three or four years, he was only offered similar roles, deranged psychos and villains in film noirish type movies. Granted, no actor wants to be typecast, but he's incredible in this part. The rest of the movie is entertaining enough, but when he's not onscreen it does lag in places. After the wheelchair incident, you're just not quite sure what he's capable of. Apparently audiences and critics agreed, Widmark was given his only Oscar nomination -- as best supporting actor -- for the part. On the irony meter, this one gets a 10. He lost to Edmund Gwenn who played Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. The most villainous guy around vs. the sweetest guy ever, too perfect.
The story takes a little while to develop, but the momentum picks up once Mature's Bianco cuts his deal with Donlevy's D'Angelo. Mature could be a little stiff in certain parts, but this is one of his stronger parts. Bianco has never really amounted to much and has spent several years behind bars, but when his daughters are in trouble he decides to do anything he can to make their lives better. Coleen Gray's Nettie used to babysit the girls and then marries Nick -- which has some creepy undertones as we see their marriage. Donlevy has a thankless role as the district attorney but always a professional still makes the character interesting. Also look for Karl Malden in a small part working with Donlevy.
The highlight of the movie is by the last 30 minutes following Udo's acquittal. The black and white shadows of film noir come to life and Henry Hathaway's direction creates an incredible mood, a sense of impending doom about to be unleashed. Mature sits in his home waiting for Udo to show up, only to decide he'll go on the offensive and seek out Udo instead. There's a great confrontation between Mature and Widmark in the finale although the climax does have a bit of a cop-out.
An above average, very professionally made film noir. Mature, Donlevy and Gray are decent enough with their respective leading parts, but this movie belongs to Richard Widmark in his screen debut. He'd go on to play more heroic parts, but this may be his most well-known role. Check the whole movie out at Youtube, starting with Part 1 of 10.
Kiss of Death <----trailer (1947): ***/****