Monday, January 12, 2015

Two Movies Directed by Henry Hathaway: Call Northside 777 (1948) and Kiss of Death (1947)

I don't know much about this director, but wound up by coincidence watching two of his movies fairly close together. It turns out he's directed some famous westerns, but the following two movies aren't. They're worth watching most for certain characterizations, striking visuals, and - for the first one mentioned here - historical interest too.

Title: Call Northside 777
Language: English (and a little Polish)
Rating: Unrated

Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

Based on a true story, the movie opens like a documentary and was shot in Chicago; the look into historic Chicago neighborhoods and landmarks is a part of what makes it interesting to watch. (Also, one of the pioneers of the polygraph or lie detector test, Leonarde Keeler, appears playing himself in the movie.)

The story centers on P.J. McNeal (James Stewart), a reporter who begins to suspect that two innocent men went to jail for the Prohibition-era killings of a police officer. One of those men, Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte), has his mother, Tillie (Kasia Orzazewski) championing him; by scrubbing floors for years, she's saved enough money to put an ad in the paper offering $5,000 to anyone who knows more about the real killers. It's this ad, and his editor's urging, that starts McNeal on his trail and finally has him going up against the police and government officials who fear embarrassment and want him to let the case lie.

Stewart doesn't have a well-developed character; he's meant to stand in for the audience and react as most of them would. (The filmmakers attempt to flesh him out as a person by also showing him at home with his wife, but their scenes are bland and silly.) He's solid in his role, but tends to get overshadowed by the other characters, namely the wrongly convicted man, the man's mother, the man's wife, and a woman who might have testified falsely at his trial.

The movie ends with a cheery, patriotic vibe that hits a false note, jarring with the overall tone and content; the ending also leaves a few loose ends. I enjoyed the tension and suspense, the characterizations, and how the movie shows the willingness of officials to sacrifice an individual for the reputation of an institution; the silence and hostility of police and the DA who don't want to be questioned, the anger of government officials who don't want to admit they're wrong, gets portrayed rather starkly (and maybe to make up for it, Hathaway tacked on the forcefully cheery ending).

Title: Kiss of Death
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

Kiss of Death 1947 B poster.jpg
Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

A murderer with a skeletal grin and a clownish giggle is the best reason to watch this movie.

He isn't the main character, but he's the most memorable one. The main character is Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), a convict trying to rebuild his life and make a peaceful home for his family. Getting himself out of prison earlier involves helping Assistant District Attorney Louis D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy) obtain key evidence for some other cases. And that's how he runs afoul of Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), the giggling murderer.

There's one scene in a restaurant where the camera lingers on Widmark as he approaches a crack in a door to peer through it. His face looks like a skull. Tommy Udo is always kidding, kidding, he wants to be pals, and he'll get such a kick out of killing you if you don't want to be pals with him. (If you've watched Goodfellas, you might think of Joe Pesci's character - there are echoes of Udo in him, but the two aren't the same.) Widmark's portrayal of Udo isn't like any other character I've seen.

As for the rest of the cast, Mature gives a steady, low-key performance, and his character's love interest, Nettie (Coleen Gray) is more effective off-screen as a narrator than on-screen with her one-note, puppy-like adoration (the filmmakers didn't give her a real character to work with - she exists to embody what Nick's life could be like once he gets out of prison and shakes Udo off his trail). Getting rid of Udo isn't easy, which means that Widmark gets to pop in and out of the movie almost to the very end, stealing every scene he's in.