Victor Mature belies his rep as one of the Hollywood star system's bad jokes with his intense performance as Nick Bianco, a career criminal driven to turn squealer. Nick's motivation is family values: although he had gone to Sing Sing (yes, they filmed there, too) as a stand-up guy, "the boys" failed to take care of his wife and daughters as promised, with devastating results. Despite the best efforts of an assistant D.A. (Brian Donlevy), Nick is forced to lay everything on the line to rescue his family's future. The movie abounds in evocative texture, thanks to the no-frills excellence of Norbert Brodine's camerawork and an exemplary supporting cast including Millard Mitchell (as a sardonic police detective), Karl Malden (another D.A.), and Taylor Holmes (a flannel-mouthed Mob shyster). Kiss of Death was remade twice, as a Western titled The Fiend That Walked the West and as a straight thriller again in the '90s. --Richard T. Jameson
Needless to say, they get caught; or, rather, Nick gets caught. His buddies had the brains, at least, not to start pushing past the police after the heist, which is why Nick found himself locked in the slammer on the way to Sing Sing with the district attorney Louie DeAngelo (Brian Donlevy) trying to convince him to squeal on his accomplices in return for a parole.
But Nick doesn't squeal - I suppose because he's afraid he'll get in trouble for breaking the criminal code, or something. Of course, as DeAngelo points out, his wife and kids get a pretty rotten deal out of the whole thing, but Nick doesn't say a word, not even while he's waiting in a local cell with a psychotic gunsel named Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) who is tittering some dark plans for the warden of the jail.
We think we've seen the last of Tommy after Nick arrives in Sing Sing, but, unfortunately for Nick, there's more to come. His wife has committed suicide because she was running out of money and his children have been sent to an orphanage. ("It's a good one, though," Nick is reassured by Nettie who is visiting him in Sing Sing. This is also one of two scenes where she cries explosively over him.)
One thing leads to another, and Nick finally begins to realize that maybe squealing on his sidekicks isn't such a bad idea after all. At first things seem to be going all right - until Tommy Udo gets involved. Even then, Nick is safe for the moment. One of the top criminals (who happens, by the way, to be Nick's defense lawyer) is worried by the sudden rash of squealing that seems to be going on. Thanks to DeAngelo, Nick is free from suspicion and the defense lawyer thinks that it's one of the guys who was part of the jewel thief. Frantically, he dials up some guy saying that he has to speak to Tommy Udo. The next thing we know, we're following Tommy into an old tenement and we see him not only push an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs, but giggle the whole time.
And after Nick is used as the primary witness in a murder trial in which DeAngelo is trying to get Tommy convicted for a murder that he committed, he knows exactly who the real squealer is. That would have been all right if it hadn't been that the defense team did their job a little too well and Tommy got away - and that's when the excitement begins.
This movie is classic noir suspense at its best. But anyone who has watched this movie will agree that without Richard Widmark's fantastic performance as the crazy gangster Tommy Udo, this movie would never have achieved its status of 'classic' that it has now. But, though it's hard to believe, the director Henry Hathaway didn't want Richard in the role of Tommy. He thought he looked to intelligent and 'high-brow' for the part. Needless to say, though, not everyone agreed with Hathaway's point-of-view, and Widmark got the part.
Fraternities set up Tommy Udo fan clubs and I suppose you could argue that it was one of those movies that became a cult classic practically overnight. Of course, not everyone was thrilled with Tommy. Some women actually slapped Richard in the face saying, "Take that, you squirt!" - a reaction that doesn't really make sense when you remember how Dan Duryea, whose characters were pretty nasty pieces of work themselves and didn't have any qualms about slapping women around, was flooded with female fan letters.
Perhaps the best description of Tommy should be left to James Agee who described him as "a rather frail fellow with maniacal eyes and a sinister kind of baby talk laced with tittering laughs. It is clear that murder is one of the kindest things he is capable of."