Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Noir City 2018: Kiss of Death/Blind Spot

Monday was day four of Noir City 2018.  We’re now at the half-way point.  As any regular attendee of films festivals can tell you, they can be a marathon.  A good one, but a marathon nonetheless.  To my mind, though, the real gems of Noir City are usually screened in the latter half of the week.  

Kiss of Death (1947)
Victor Mature plays Nick Bianco, a New York hood who gets caught robbing a jewelry store.  When the assistant DA offers him a deal if he’ll talk, Bianco turns him down.  In prison, he learns that his wife has committed suicide and his two young girls are now in an orphanage.  That breaks him; now he’ll talk.  The only problem is that he needs to turn stool pigeon on the psychotic Tommy Udo, played by Richard Widmark. 

And, yes, this is the movie where Widmark throws the old lady in the wheelchair down the stairs.  So how does that scene play seventy years after it first hit movie theaters?  It’s still good but it’s lost a lot of shock value.  In 1947 American filmgoers had never seen such a display of psychopathic brutality (on the screen, at least).  We’re used to much worse in our movies now.  In fact, psychopathic brutality has really developed into its own film genre, its own niche  Still, with his bulging eyes and nasal giggle, Widmark’s over-the-top crazed performance was a landmark and paved the way for Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper, Joe Pesci, and many others.   

Directed by Henry Hathaway from a script by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer this movie is an excellent example of the sub-genre of “docu-noir,” which were noir films that had a documentary feel to them.  They were usually shot on location to give them an air of gritty verisimilitude.  Sometimes they were more "procedural" than a regular noir or there was a sociological aspect to the story.  In his introduction to Kiss of Death, Eddie Muller emphasized that it’s this film, rather than The Naked City, which was the first one to be shot on location in New York City.  Mark Hellinger, Naked City’s producer, was a native New Yorker and more adept at working the hometown PR to get his film that honor.

Despite my best intentions (and my comments in the preamble above), I did not like this movie.  It was dull.  And slow-paced.  And very implausible at times.  And unsuspenseful.  And I didn’t really care for the characters.  But I have nothing bad to say about the acting.  Brian Donlevy was good as the the driven but doltish assistant DA.  Colleen Gray made a fine romantic lead.  And if you need a sympathetic big lug, you couldn’t do better than Victor Mature. 

Blind Spot (1947)
Holy Toledo!  What a fun movie!  Chester Morris (I like it already) plays a drunken author who concocts a tale about a man killed in a locked room.  When a few hours later his detestable publisher shows up murdered in a locked room he’s suspect number one.  Can he prove his innocence?  This is an ingenious combination of a “wrong man” story combined with a “locked room” whodunit.

Helping him along the way is the lovely Constance Dowling (below), who plays the publisher’s secretary.  I don’t know if she ever played a femme fatale onscreen, but she did in real life.  In the late 40s, she had a tempestuous love affair with director (but, thank God, not of this film) Elia Kazan.  And in 1950 the Italian writer Cesare Pavese killed himself after she rejected him.   
Like so many B movies, Blind Spot is raunchier, or more overt, than an A movie.  When Dowling gets called into her boss’s office, she grabs a pen, opens her notebook, and goes to the door.  After looking into the office - we don’t get her point of view shot - she closes the notebook, goes in, and shuts the door.  Later, we see her dress is torn.  That certainly has relevance today.  What doesn’t have relevance today, though, is the film’s view of drunks as funny.  Back in the 40s and 50s every comic had a “funny drunk” routine and Morris does his for the first fifteen minutes of the movie.  Back in the day, audiences used to find these “bits” hilarious - probably because most of them were alcoholics - but they have not held up over the years.  So how many laughs did Morris’s drunk schtick get from an audience in 2018?  Zero.  Nevertheless, this film is a true delight.

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