THE NOT-SO-GREAT CARUSO

Director Henry Hathaway's 1947 Kiss of Death isn't necessarily a great crime movie, but it has remained in our collective movie memory for two reasons: Richard Widmark and New York City. The film was shot entirely on location, a practice that's now de rigueur, but was unusual enough at the time that it's noted, proudly, in the opening credits. And Widmark, in his film debut, gave the role of the murderous Tommy Udo an evil, deranged bravado that hadn't been seen in the genre--he wasn't just a thug, he was a happy sadist.

For the remake, screenwriter Richard Price has rung some clever variations on Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer's original plot: An ex-con trying to go straight screws up and lands back in prison, turns confidential informer in return for a family visit, and thus gains the enmity of a psychotic gangster. Directed by Barbet Schroeder, the film has been shaped into a bid for feature stardom for the much-hyped TV star David Caruso, as the ex-con.

The film has plenty of Price's snappy, Damon Runyon-with-teeth dialogue. Schroeder, of such ineptitudes as Single White Female, and of such qualified successes--no thanks to him, in most cases--as Reversal of Fortune and the much overrated Barfly, is in better than average form. The film clicks right along, so briskly that most of its improbabilities don't occur to you until you think it over later.

That's about as much as can be said for Kiss of Death as cinema. The film does, however, offer an enjoyable competition between two different acting styles--Caruso's cool versus Nicolas Cage's manic glee as the psycho. Cage's style wins--as Little Junior, who runs a car-theft ring from a table at a glossy strip club, Cage pops the lock of Caruso's vehicle and cruises away with it, at an insolently leisurely speed.

Caruso has recently inspired some fatuous comparisons to James Cagney. No way. If anything, it's Cage who recalls Cagney in the variety and intensity of emotions he can command. All the same, Caruso can't be dismissed--he really was awfully good as the smooth, diplomatic mensch of a homicide detective on NYPD Blue, though the show has easily survived without him. He's not bad in Kiss of Death, either, especially in scenes where he's scared or feeling sorry for himself. The performance is honest and unshowy; he isn't trying to wow us.

The trouble, sadly, is that his attempt not to wow us is a success. Caruso is unexciting here--the intense, soft-spoken empathy which made him so effective as the TV cop, because you could see how he used it to cajole confessions, here just seems like the guarded style of a limited leading man. Certainly, Caruso is a better actor than--though perhaps not so likable as--poor, sweet, stiff Victor Mature, who played the hero in Hathaway's version. There, the ex-con was supposed to be a dumb, scared hood, in over his head, and that was within Mature's range. He was quiet, but you could clearly see the fear in his eyes, and it was very touching.

In the small part of Caruso's wife, Helen Hunt goes for broke--when she visits him in prison, she sits there weeping, stunned with grief at her separation from him, unable to believe what's happened. Across from her, Caruso is concentrating so hard on being tightlipped and restrained that he seems to forget all about his wife. He underplays his way right out of the scene.

While Caruso spends the movie trying to keep his cool, Cage has a ball losing his in a gaudier but less extensive part. The first time we see Little Junior, he chokes a man with one hand, then pulls another man out of the cab of a truck and flings him to the pavement. The next time we see him, he hasn't calmed down--he's bench-pressing one of the strippers like a dumbbell, while she counts his reps for him.

Cage's performance is a parody of violent machismo. Little Junior is a dumb brute, but he isn't a simple brute--Cage takes him so many different directions, makes such an emotional wreck out of him, that even this maniac is more accessible to us than Caruso's shuttered hero. In one remarkable scene, Cage stands by the bar and hops up and down, as if to the rhythm of an invisible jump rope, while emitting weird cries--it's Little Junior's way of grieving. When he's hurting or killing someone, he knows what he's doing, but the rest of life perplexes him. The supporting players are as good as their roles allow them to be. The two women's parts of any substance are both miserably underdeveloped, but Hunt makes her presence felt in one of them; in the other, Kathryn Erbe might as well be furniture. Samuel L. Jackson gets nothing to do as a taciturn cop, but Ving Rhames and Michael Rapaport are lively in smaller roles, and the reliable wise guy Stanley Tucci--as a D.A. who frequents a hot-dog stand!--puts a shifty grin on his face, and indulges in a little scene-filching of his own.

 
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