Showing posts with label Henry Hathaway. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Henry Hathaway. Show all posts

Monday, May 14, 2007

Kiss of Death (1947)

Posted by Mappin & Webb Ltd.

Dir. Henry Hathaway

As our film begins a narrator informs us over the opening shots of a bustling Manhattan that, “Christmas eve in New York a happy time for some people; the lucky ones. Last minute shopping, presents for the kids, hurry home to light the tree and fill the stockings… for the lucky ones. Others aren’t so lucky.” Here we are introduced to Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) a former jail-bird, trying to fly the straight and narrow. After a year of his prison record impeding his efforts to get a legit job, we see Nick and a few cohorts enter a jeweler’s office and rob them because, “this is how Nick goes Christmas shopping for his kids.” Nick gets caught at the end of this tense scene where he is seconds away from eluding the police who have been tipped off to the burglary. As he is about to escape their grasp, into the streets of New York, when a cop shoots him in the leg, dropping him to the ground and ensuring his Christmas will be spent at the graybar hotel. The narrator informs us that this event mirrors the fate of Nick’s father who died twenty years earlier with a policeman’s bullet in his back. He was escaping from a robbery he just committed when young Nick witnessed his father’s death and sadly enough it was one of his earliest memories. When the violins die down Nick is looking at plenty jail time but he has a way out.

Assistant D.A. Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) is a family man who tells Nick that if he sings about the failed heist, he can get out of serving time in the big cage. But Bianco is no canary and refuses to talk even when D’Angelo tries to push his guilt buttons about his two young daughters growing up without their dad. The Assistant D.A. believes that Nick is a good guy at heart and tries to give him a way to avoid incarceration. We see Nick’s wheels turn at the prospect and persuasion put forth by D’Angelo, but Nick is old school and decides to do his time with his mouth shut.

Three years into doing his bit in the joint, Nick finds out that his wife has killed herself by sticking her head in a gas oven because of financial worries and her drinking too much. Upon hearing the news Nick wants to get out and take care of his kids who have landed in an orphanage. In prison he gets a visit from Nettie (Coleen Gray) a young woman who used to take care of his daughters and quit and moved away before Nick’s wife treated her melon like a bundt cake. Nettie and Nick have a connection and he asks her to keep tabs on his daughters.

Beside himself with guilt and concern for his daughters, Nick decides to cut a deal with D’Angelo and give up his crew. Unfortunately this is where Nick must cross paths again with Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). Tommy and Nick had met before when Nick was being sentenced and they wound up in the same cell for little while. Tommy expressed to Nick his surprise at being behind bars noting, “Imagine me in here. Big man like me gettin’ picked up just for shoving a guy’s ears off his head. Traffic ticket stuff.” With that statement we understand Tommy’s idea of a moving violation differs drastically from yours and mine. Tommy Udo proves it later when he has to silence a potential informer and ends up lashing the stoolie’s mother to her wheelchair with an electrical cord and proceeds to push her tumbling down a flight of stairs. Cementing his dark disposition Udo gives his legendary creepy cackle at the sight of his maternal manhandling.

Under the guidance of D’Angelo, Nick purposely bumps into and pretends to be pals with Udo to get some dirt on him for the Assistant D.A. The plan works and the D.A.’s office is taking Tommy to trial for murder, Nick testifies against him and everything seems rosy. Nick and Nettie have gotten married, he has a regular job and a new identity. His daughters are finally out of the orphanage, living with the newlyweds and happily improving their roller-skating skills on a daily basis. The picture can’t get any more perfect until the frame they try to hang on Tommy Udo doesn’t take and his slick shyster manages to get Tommy acquitted of the charges he faced. Now Nick has the psychopath Tommy Udo gunning for him and his family. While he wants to help Nick, the assistant D.A. can only wait for Tommy to violate his parole in order to get him off the streets. That may be too little too late for Nick, Nettie and the girls with a lunatic like Udo looking for payback. Nick sends Nettie and the girls packing to the country and decides to take care of Tommy Udo himself. At this point the cat and mouse game between Nick and Tommy plays out with both parolees having to tread carefully under the watchful eye of D’Angelo.

This movie is entertaining overall but not much else in terms of the film as a whole. I don’t feel like director Henry Hathaway covered any unique ground or brought anything original to the table with this picture. He had already incorporated filming in actual locations and quasi-documentary style with his previous work The House on 92nd Street and would do the same (with more effectiveness) a year after Kiss of Death with Call Northside 777.” The movie looks fine and there is some nice editing in several key scenes such as the opening heist, Udo’s wheelchair pushing scene and the ending that nicely bolster the tension. The script is solid but lacks some flair or panache leaving it seeming a little flat in places. While there are some great lines, I honestly expected more from writers Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer who between them have written such gems as “Notorious” “Spellbound” “His Girl Friday” “Mutiny on the Bounty” “The Thing from Another World” and “Oceans Eleven” just to name a few (Even more impressive is Hecht’s uncredited contributions to many scripts over several decades. Check out his imdb page and be in awe). All that being said, the performances of Mature and Widmark are the elements that make this movie stand out from the pack.

Victor Mature is truly effective in his role as Nick Bianco as he can balance a believable hood with a genuine guy who is motivated by his kids to straighten up from his crooked ways. It could have been played very sappy (especially in the scenes with the saccharine sweet little girls) but Mature nicely acts out the role and not the dramatic story. The result is a performance that elicits just the right mix of sympathy and compassion for his character. His wistful eyes also seal the deal when necessary too. Perfect casting and acting combined for the crucial role of our protagonist Nick.

If I had to choose one reason to recommend watching this film it’s definitely the screen debut of Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo. His performance is outstanding, as he doesn’t so much give you the creeps as he force-feeds them to you. Udo is a perfect storm of menace, sadist and sociopath. Widmark commands every scene he’s in with such a forceful presence and performance that as the film continues, you find yourself just waiting for him to appear. He also gets some classic lines such as telling a cop fishing for info that he wouldn’t give him “the skin off a grape.” Without Victor Mature’s understated performance Widmark’s Udo may have lost some of his effectiveness by seeming too over the top or out of place contrasted by a less convincing Nick Bianco. The two portrayals, however, balance each other perfectly and create a solid foundation of tension and excitement for this otherwise moderate noir.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Niagara (1953)

Posted by David

More icing than cake, Henry Hathaway's vivid postcard-noir 'Niagara' does manage to impress as both rising-star showcase for a breathtaking, 26 year old Marilyn Monroe - and as an engrossing, if underwritten, Technicolor thriller that while not entirely respectable - remains highly enjoyable.

Arriving at the falls for a long-delayed honeymoon, buoyant Polly and Ray Cutler (Casey Adams, Jean Peters) cross paths with fellow travellers George and Rose Loomis (Joseph Cotten, Marilyn Monroe) - a May/December couple on the other end of their marriage who, with their public displays of friction, seem dead set on giving the titular spectacle some competition.

Like spectators at a fiery race-track smash-up, there isn't a whole hell of a lot the Cutlers can do to extinguish the home-fires burning in cabin 'B', especially when it's occupants are regularly adding fuel. A platinum-blonde supernova of sexuality, Rose has tired of her aging veteran - and enlists her hunky young secret lover to murder the surly cuckold. But the plan to eliminate George and make it look like a suicide or disappearance backfires when during the offscreen surprise attack George holds his ground, and then some.

Having kicked into full noir gear, 'Niagara' then undergoes a precipitous darkening, as the Cutler (sub)plot recedes into the background and the viewer is rewarded with several dark treats - including a character's heart-stopping moment of clarity during a morgue corpse-identification; another's desperate plea to be allowed an illicit identity swap; and a bravura murder set-piece that echoes Hitchcock's distinctive stylishness.

Despite this strong, twisty mid-section - the film is saddled with a superfluous and damaging final act which, rather than building to a crescendo, oddly drains the story of any accumulated tension.

Drenched in metaphor, 'Niagara's threadbare plot is somewhat fortified by the obvious device that is the Cutlers - who represent the more happy and stable mid-20th century couple (despite the occasional awkward moment wherein they admire Rose's, er, assets). Ray, a soggy flake of a breakfast cereal executive, and Polly his attractive and good-hearted wife, get quite a bit more than they bargained for on this particular honeymoon - and it's fun to see the drama unfold from their ringside seats. Adams, (who wasn't giving Brando any sleepless nights) does what he's asked I suppose, but his grating, two-dimensional performance distracts - and you almost wish that his infinitely more likeable wife would take up with a secret lover herself.

The usually reliable Peters doesn't disappoint though, and it occurred to me that a plotline featuring her character as a single 'Nancy Drew'-ish type becoming entangled in the Loomis' domestic mess might've been taken more seriously - and given the film the noir edge it often lacks. Peter's Polly makes a connection with George, albeit more out of empathy and pity than attraction - and she does make a fine 'good girl' in the 'good girl'/'bad girl' dynamic present. Making the most of his sketchy role, Cotten is occasionally riveting in what could have been an invisible turn. His bitter George is an unstable, pain-racked dupe who alternately elicits fear and sympathy.

Finally there is Monroe's Rose, a Technicolor siren who singes the screen as few others could. Her character's introduction/development happens in record time - a single wide shot of her laying in bed, apparently nude, legs askew. More a symbol than a flesh and blood dame, Rose embodies all that men desire but can never fully control - which makes George's psychosis understandable, logical, inevitable. One standout sequence (and a personal fave) begins with Rose exiting her cabin in a form-fitting dress that doesn't seem to have been put on so much as ignited. Partying with fellow vacationers, she asks that her favorite record be played - and sings along with it when it is. George, watching through their cabin's blinds, recognizes the song as the one that reminds Rose of another man. Bolting out to crush the disc, the least of George's concerns is public humiliation - but it should be, as an embarrassing display will ultimately strengthen the theory that he took his own life or vanished. Madness by design.

'Niagara' may not be essential viewing for the noir enthusiast (if 'The Big Sleep' and 'Double Indemnity' are leather-bound classics - 'Niagara' is a beach paperback), but Hathaway and lenser Joe McDonald did craft a handsome and entertaining adult thriller that foregrounds human ugliness against a mesmerizing natural backdrop - paralleling their respective powers.

Deeply flawed but undeniably fun, 'Niagara's scenic wonders and pulpy, sex-charged plot help distinguish it as a colorful standout from the classic era.

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