ELEAZAR LIPSKY – The Kiss of Death. Penguin #642, US, paperback original, 1947. Reprinted as The Hoodlum: Lion #161, paperback, 1953. Also reprinted by Dell (D396) under its original title, 1961.

    ? Film: Twentieth Century-Fox, 1947 (with Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Coleen Gray & Richard Widmark; screenwriters: Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer; director: Henry Hathaway).

    ? Film: Twentieth Century-Fox, 1958, as The Fiend Who Walked the West (with Robert Evans, Hugh O’Brian, Linda Cristal and Stephen McNally; screenwriters: Harry Brown and Philip Yordan; director: Gordon Douglas).


   Following the two Errol Flynn books [reviewed here ], I moved on then to a sub-sub-genre known to cineastes as “Re-makes of Old Victor Mature Movies” starting with Kiss of Death (Fox, 1947) which was reincarnated as The Fiend Who Walked the West (Fox, 1958).

   Kiss of Death comes from a 1947 novel of the same name by Eleazar Lipsky, a former prosecutor who turned to writing and did rather well at it. It’s a taut, unglamorous tale about a professional crook betrayed by his own kind, struggling to keep to his personal code of ethics.

   Tightly told, and peopled with characters who seem quite ordinary and very real in Lipsky’s muted but evocative prose, it reads very real at times. There’s even an interesting bit where two of the characters go to a movie that sounds a lot like The Blue Dahlia (Paramount, 1946). Mosty, though, it’s quiet, gritty and very effective.


   Filmed the same year at Fox, the movie benefits from vigorous direction by Henry Hathaway, evocative photography on New York locations, and convincing performances all around, including the much-maligned Victor Mature, who projects his greasy machismo with effortless ease against some showy co-stars.

   A nice job, particularly since he’s up against Richard Widmark’s star-making debut as a sadistic killer who gets all the best scenes. One of Widmark’s bits has become a movie icon (as you see here) but I was more impressed by a simple scene where the snarling killer is seen through a gap in a curtain, approaching the camera: the nearer he gets, the less we see of his face, till all that’s left is the snarl like a baleful Cheshire cat from some malevolent Wonderland, ready to devour something. One of the scariest bits I’ve seen outside the monster movies.


   Kiss of Death was so successful they re-made it as The Fiend Who Walked the West in 1958, with Hugh O’Brien taking the Victor Mature role, and doing rather well with it.

   O’Brien’s stoic acting somehow lends itself to a character trying to keep his emotions in check as he plays cat-and-mouse with a sadistic killer, and things are helped along considerably by punchy direction from Gordon Douglas, who could do anything with a straight face.


   Here he provides some explosive action and solid, western-style suspense, despite a somewhat jarring effect from time to time when the soundtrack erupts into back-ground music borrowed from The Day the Earth Stood Still. He also gets to use his action trademark, a violent shoot-out with one fighter returning fire while visibly getting hit. Fun stuff.

Editorial Comment:   Dan didn’t mention it, so I didn’t include it in the info above, but the book was made into a film a third time, also by Twentieth Century-Fox, in 1995. This most recent version starred David Caruso, Samuel L. Jackson, Nicolas Cage & Helen Hunt. I wish I could tell you more about it, but somehow I missed this one, and this is all I know.