By KJ Hamilton
Kiss of Death – dir. Henry Hathaway – 1947
It all began with an act of desperation: a jewel heist at Christmastime. Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) was an ex-con with a record a mile long, but the most important thing to him was his family. Unable to secure a job, he returned to his old ways in order to have money for Christmas gifts for his family. He was caught, and refused to rat out his partners in crime—on the promise that those partners would take care of his wife and two daughters. Bianco meets an interesting character, Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), whose laughter is nowhere near as infectious as it is scary. Months go by, and Bianco learns that his family has broken apart as a result of his wife’s suicide. He decides to make a deal with the assistant district attorney, Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy), and is eventually granted parole. He remarries and, with D’Angelo’s help, secures a home, a job, and a different last name. Bianco not only squeals on his partners in crime, he also relates back information that helps to pin Udo as the prime suspect in a murder case and takes the stand at trial. But, when the prosecution’s case falls apart, Bianco is forced to square himself with Udo. There’s only one way to catch a killer: red handed.
One question comes to mind: do two wrongs really make a right? Here we have two criminals: one who commits armed robbery and one who commits murder. The major difference between the two is that one of them has a conscience. Neither mind an existence on the dark side, that is until Bianco realizes just exactly how dark it truly is. That realization is enough to completely change his perspective. When D’Angelo first offered him a deal, Bianco adamantly refuses to cooperate. He doesn’t give names or descriptions, and steadfastly insists that he is not a squealer. It’s only when he discovers that he’s paid the ultimate price for his silence that he decides to start talking. It’s a statement on morality when you think about it. You can be the single most upstanding person in the world, loyal, faithful and true. But, once you find out that everything and everyone you believed in lied, everything changes. Something inside you snaps, and you want them to suffer as much as you have. Bianco is a prime example of this. Once he realized that Udo was set free, he sent his family away and went on the offensive. He knew that Udo felt the same way he had when he learned he’d been betrayed by those he trusted. The only way Udo knew how to make up for it was murder. Bianco, however, had no intention of watching his brand new life go down in flames. Udo should pay for his crimes, and the only way to guarantee this was to take a fall—and catch Udo with the revolver in his hand.
It was clearly a violation of Bianco’s parole to carry a handgun, yet that didn’t stop him. It was also a violation to knock out the assistant DA, but he didn’t care. You have to get inside the mind of a killer—if you can get past Udo’s maniacal laugh—in order to catch him.
In the end, Bianco very nearly lost his life. But was it for the right reason? Sure, he wanted to see Udo behind bars—but it wasn’t so much because Udo was completely guilty. It was more because Bianco wanted to live life without having to worry about paying for the sins of his past.
The final question is this: Do you give a piece of yourself away when you seek vengeance against those who’ve wronged you? Bianco did. In his quest to see others pay (and we never actually do see this happen in the film), Bianco is forced to change his entire existence. And, then he has no choice but to fight for his life. He looks death straight in the face and shows no fear, but it doesn’t make him heroic. In fact, the realization is that he brought all of this on himself—on purpose. When one tempts fate, you never really win, and you’re left wondering if the battle is really over.
It never is.