Kiss of Death
Barbet Schroeder’s films, whatever part of the wide world they are set in, often train a keen, quasi-ethnographic gaze on diverse, sometimes subterranean sectors of society: from sadomasochists (Maîtresse, 1976) and alcoholics (Barfly, 1987) to professional gamblers (Cheaters, 1984) and the disgustingly rich (Reversal of Fortune, 1990). His remake of Henry Hathaway’s noir classic Kiss of Death (1947) takes us into an underworld milieu based on a commerce in cars: stolen, transported, swapped, disguised, taken apart in seconds.
For a moment in 1995, going to the movies resembled attending a motor expo. But the cars in Kiss of Death, unlike those of Geoffrey Wright’s Metal Skin (1995), are not symbolic of emotional drives – or even of social conditions, as in David Caesar’s stylish (and cautionary) documentary Carcrash (1995). They are simply the stock-in-trade of this expert criminal sphere.
It has been a while since we have seen a film which really studies the professional rituals of such an alien or exotic scene. This is part of the hardboiled tradition in American fiction and film: the type of story that follows a hitman (for example), letting you observe the way he cleans his gun and puts it together, the way he occupies his time during boring stakeouts, the way he banters at the diner or fits in a family life before suddenly swinging into action and killing some anonymous target. Films including Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967) and Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978) lean into this kind of fascination.
The free adaptation by novelist-screenwriter Richard Price (Mad Dog and Glory, 1993) of Ben Hecht & Charles Lederer’s script works small but satisfying variations on very familiar generic elements. An elegant construction, it borrows only a few scenes and plot premises from the original. Jimmy (David Caruso) is an ex-con lured back to the criminal life for one last gig. Everything goes wrong, and Jimmy’s life becomes one long, uphill battle against enemies on both sides of the law. Into this cauldron go a sensitive, asthmatic villain (Nicolas Cage), a cop on a revenge mission (Samuel L. Jackson), and a family dealing with the terrors of so-called witness protection.
Just as Hathaway’s film signalled, in its time, a step forward in screen realism, Schroeder embeds his rendition in the nitty-gritty, everyday detail of this strange, parallel space of crime, with its gaudy clubs (“Baby Cakes”), and out-of-the-way rendezvous points. The general mythic thrust of the tale, however, is classic noir: according to Schroeder, “A man trapped and fighting to get on top”.
The central theme of the original work is cleverly expanded: the paradoxes and problems of being (and staying) honourable – “Are you a man of honour?”, Jimmy repeatedly asks the shifty Zioli (Stanley Tucci). Honour among thieves, as it transpires, no longer exists; and the clandestine arrangements between lawmen and criminals willing or eager to squeal guarantee just as little protection.
In this story of perpetual, ubiquitous vulnerability to harm and violation, Price and Schroeder hone in on the small but decisive shifts in the balance of power between the players in this game. Matters of trust, bluff and betrayal are played out from moment to moment. It’s not a loud, violent melodrama, but a low-key, snaky kind of film.
Schroeder’s storytelling style, somewhat surprisingly and paradoxically (given his artistic background), owes more to the classical American B film than to the Nouvelle Vague. A keen student of films from the 1940s and ‘50s, he reinvents, in his own way, the prime lesson of that era: every scene should simultaneously advance plot, theme and character. His brisk vignettes (complete with clever transitions in and out) concentrate on physical action; encounters and gestures encapsulate the clash of moral positions.
At the same time, Price and Schroeder tweak the given elements of the genre by consistently employing ellipsis, indirection and unusual points-of-view – as when, for instance, we do not see Jimmy receive the news of a death, but only hear his cries as the camera stays outside in the corridor.
The performances are terrific. Like James B. Harris (Cop, 1987), Schroeder clearly enjoys casting certain actors against type (and thus, in the process, altering the type itself), bringing out some side or shade in performers we haven’t seen before on screen. He restrains the normally overwrought Caruso, bringing out something gentle and sympathetic in him. Or take Helen Hunt, so popular in the whimsical TV sitcom Mad About You (1992-1999, revived 2019). She’s marvellous here as Jimmy’s hardbitten wife, desperately trying to resist the bottle when her man lands in the slammer.
Each character here has his or her own enjoyable (and often frankly infantile) tic – like Hart (Jackson) forever dabbing his wounded, weeping right eye with a handkerchief, or the superstitious fear in Omar (Ving Rhames) of the colour red. But Schroeder and Price obviously had the most fun devising the role of Little Junior (his father’s name is Big Junior) for Cage. This is a villainous performance a little in the vein of Dennis Hopper’s part in Blue Velvet (1986). Cage wheezes with asthma, has psychotic episodes, uses his girlfriend as an exercise barbell and, at one point, does a frantic pogo in order to assuage his grief after his dear old Dad dies.
Yet Little Junior is also a Sensitive New Age Guy with enlightened ideas. One of his best notions is that people should have personal, positive acronyms. His is BAD: Balls, Attitude and Direction. Like the villains of many modern crime-gangster films, both Little & Big Junior are violent warlords of the urban jungle, but they display many fascinating vulnerabilities. The plot’s unfolding depends greatly on these vulnerabilities.
This is a movie for cinephiles who appreciate the work of artists working wholly within given conventions, subtly bending and modifying the rules along the way. It offers the sorts of pleasures associated with the B pictures of the Hollywood studio era, not the more modish, iconoclastic, modern thrills associated with the reigning Lord Tarantino. Kiss of Death is a minor gem, and a striking, authentic contemporary example of what Manny Farber once baptised as termite art: films that use familiar generic structures in order to work, ingeniously, on the fine details.
© Adrian Martin May 1995 / December 2007