Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye 
(William Cagney Productions, 1950)

Unholy trinity: Cagney, Payton and a 45 automatic.

“Kiss me honey…I can handle trouble!”

Just the Facts
Of all the stars who shot their way to fame in the classic Warner Bros. gangster films of the 1930s—Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, George Raft—none quite measured up to James Cagney. The actor’s physical dynamism, spitfire delivery and sardonic humor distanced him from his peers and electrified audiences like no one before or since. But as great as Cagney was in such films as Public Enemy (1931), G-Men (1935) and The Roaring Twenties (1939), his two greatest gangster portrayals came well past the halfway point of his career, and nearly a decade after he’d sworn never to revisit the genre.

Cagney’s box-office fortunes were hit and miss during the 1940s, and following a string of less-than-successful films made by the independent production company he’d formed with his brother William, he reluctantly returned to a cinematic life of crime as the incendiary Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949). Directed by Raoul Walsh and featuring a supercharged performance by Cagney, it was unanimously hailed as a classic and put the actor back on top of the world. The film did so well financially that the Cagney brothers decided to delve into gangsterdom again for their next independent production. This film also made a bundle of money, although its critical reception was considerably less rapturous. Happily, time has a way of rectifying reputations, and today Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is considered another high-water mark in Cagney’s criminal oeuvre.

"Rise and shine. It's a great day for a prison break!"

The film benefited as much from the talent behind the camera as in front of it. Harry Brown delivered a taut screenplay that’s faithful to the storyline and spirit of the source material—the eponymous novel by hard-boiled writer Horace McCoy—particularly in the delineation of its extreme antihero, Ralph Cotter, a dangerously unbalanced criminal whose transgressions run to murder, robbery, blackmail, sexual predation and periodic outbursts of grievous bodily harm. It’s beautifully directed by the underrated Gordon Douglas, who was to the fifties what Walsh was to the forties—a visual stylist of the first order, proficient in virtually any genre. Douglas was a master of camera placement, lighting, mood and pace. His work rarely called attention to itself, but consistently enlivened and elevated even pedestrian material. Had he been afforded more prestigious productions, Douglas would likely be remembered today as an action auteur along the lines of a Don Siegel. 

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye unfolds in a series of Citizen Kane-like flashbacks as seven defendants in open court testify about their part in Cotter’s crime spree in an unnamed small town. First up is Peter Cobbett, a crooked guard at the state penal farm where Cotter is serving time on a chain gang, an homage to the 1932 Warner Bros. classic I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and its brutal, wisecracking guards. But the throwback tone quickly dissipates. Armed with a revolver Cobbet has planted, Cotter and fellow convict Carleton (an uncredited Neville Brand) make a break for freedom. When Carleton takes a bullet in the attempt, Cotter doesn’t stop to help (as his character might have done in gangster films of previous decades), but simply shoots him in the head so as not to be slowed down. Luckily for Cotter, this act goes unnoticed by Carleton’s sister, Holiday (Barbara Payton), positioned some distance away with a rifle to aid their escape. Ironically, as Cotter sprints for cover, Holiday saves his life with a well-placed shot that picks off a guard pursuing on horseback. 

Jinx and Cotter pick up some fresh greens at the supermarket.

Cotter’s got no time for thanks, however. To him, people are simply a means to an end, and he instinctively knows how to manipulate them to do his bidding. He starts right in on Holiday, seducing her while she’s still grieving for her brother. Meanwhile, he entices petty criminal Jinx (Steve Brodie), whose skill set includes stickups and electronics expertise, to partner him for a supermarket robbery that nets them a quick six grand. Before Cotter can spend any of it, however, he’s paid a surprise visit by crooked detectives Weber and Reece (Ward Bond and Barton MacLane). They’ve been tipped off about the holdup by garage mechanic Vic Mason, who supplied Cotter’s getaway car and came out on the wrong end of a disagreement with the volatile gangster. The cops brutally shake Cotter down for the loot and order him to leave town rather than arrest him.

Cotter is furious, but channels his anger into a clever scheme to trap the unlawful lawmen, tricking them into returning the next day and offering to cut them in on a big payroll robbery he’s planning. Unbeknownst to them, Jinx is hiding in a closet recording their conversation. Gotcha. Cotter subsequently enlists the aid of slimy lawyer “Cherokee” Mandon (Luther Adler), whose legal know-how ensures the success of the blackmail plan. Mandon sees to it that Weber not only gives Cotter a gun permit, but more important, his prison record card, essentially giving him a legal clean bill of health. (Cotter also contrives to deliver payback to Mason, cold-cocking him with a pistol and dumping his body in a grease pit.)

Can't tell the difference between the cops and the crooks.

Emboldened by having two cops in his pocket, Cotter successively muscles in on the local mob’s gambling operations, although his increasing recklessness and violence begins to alienate his confederates. And despite having the wild and willing Holiday in his bed, he also puts the moves on Margaret Dobson, the wild and willing daughter of a rich and powerful business magnate, as he shapes a more ambitious and lucrative scheme. Despite repeated warnings from Mandon that targeting the Dobsons will only lead to disaster, Cotter rashly pursues his course, his hubris preventing him recognizing the danger that’s closing in from an unexpected quarter, and blinding him to the fury that only a woman scorned can deliver.  

Summary Judgment
Not surprisingly, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is invariably linked with—and overshadowed by—White Heat, yet this in no way invalidates the former’s intrinsic brilliance. In some respects it’s an even darker, more pessimistic film, more subversive in its depiction of criminal ambition and the corrupting influence of money and power at every level of society. The two films manifest other fundamental differences, including how we’re meant to regard the main characters. White Heat’s Cody Jarrett may be nuts, but he elicits some measure of sympathy for his emotional dependence on his mother. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye makes so such allowance for character identification. Ralph Cotter is a classic psychopath—amoral, egocentric, manipulative and completely devoid of remorse.

Cotter shows a police stooge that one bad turn deserves another.

Those who fall within his orbit aren’t much better. To varying degrees, they are all touched with corruption and criminality—not one evidences the slightest trace of a redeeming quality. This extends to the forces of law and order. While the police in White Heat are almost too good to be true—forthright, incorruptible and morally infallible—Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye inverts this dynamic. Detectives Weber and Reece are deeply and irredeemably compromised by their avarice, allowing the city’s criminals to operate with impunity as long as they get a healthy cut of the action.

Holiday is the film’s nearest thing to an innocent—her shooting of the prison guard was the first criminal act of her life and was motivated solely by fear for her brother’s life. Yet Cotter is quick to recognize something rotten in her psyche, and even quicker to exploit it to his advantage. Visiting her apartment soon after his escape, he finds her cold and unresponsive. He promptly reminds her that assisting in the prison break has resulted in “13,000 policemen in this state who would love to put you away for a long, long time. Now, I’d bear that in mind if I were you, and act accordingly.” When he pushes her buttons further by insulting her brother’s memory, Holiday snaps and flings a knife at Cotter’s head, nicking his ear. Cotter barely reacts; he merely walks into the bathroom, wets a towel and wipes the blood from behind his ear as Holiday watches from the other room. But as their eyes meet in the mirror, unspoken signals are sent and received. Cotter turns and without warning savagely whips Holiday’s face repeatedly with the rolled-up towel, the act shocking in its abruptness. Even more shocking is her reaction: she impulsively throws her arms around him and gives vent to her physical and emotional longing, much to Cotter’s bemusement. As they go into a clinch one suddenly realizes they’ve been enacting a psycho-sexual courtship from the moment he knocked on her door. A dark and daring sequence, years ahead of its time.

Prelude to a kiss.

A similar derangement informs the scene in which Margaret Dobson takes Cotter for a joyride and tests his nerve by running the speedometer up to 100. Cotter ups her ante by pressing his foot on hers, resulting in several near-head-on collisions. Douglas captures the test of wills in revealing close-ups that suggest Margaret also has a few screws loose. Naturally, it’s kismet for these two. As they close for a clinch, Douglas adds a thematic frisson with a nicely timed dissolve to a coffeepot on the boil in Holiday’s kitchen, neatly linking Cotter to both women and underlining the dangerous nature both relationships hold for him. 

Equally evocative is the camera framing Douglas employs when Cotter and Mandon play their incriminating recording for Weber and Reece. Webber’s face fills the screen as he realizes he’s been had, and when he turns his head slightly to confront Mandon and Cotter, the viewer is allowed to share the detective’s perspective of their best Cheshire cat grins. These are among the small but beautifully orchestrated moments that recur throughout the film as well as Douglas’ overall body of work. 

Douglas also draws potent, naturalistic performances from his cast, notably Luther Adler as the shyster Mandon. Although initially wary of Cotter, Mandon goes all in when Cotter gets the goods on Weber and Reece, taking undue delight in humiliating the guardians of the law. Ward Bond is also affecting as Weber, conveying his hatred of Cotter for getting the upper hand over him, as well as his impotence to do anything about it. Douglas even coaxes a more-than-competent performance out of notorious starlet Barbara Payton, whose predilection for sordid off-screen affairs helped torpedo a once-promising career. 

Margaret's father makes an unwelcome postcoital wedding-night visit.

Cagney, of course, is his usual superlative self. Although he always regretted that audiences didn’t respond as warmly to his non-criminal roles, he seems to thoroughly enjoy pushing his gangster persona to extremes. He never goes berserk like he did playing Cody Jarrett, but consistently underplays Cotter’s psychosis, investing the slightest glance or gesture with palpable menace. The only time his expression betrays mental instability is when someone questions his sanity. Vic Mason makes this mistake while scolding Cotter for knocking off a supermarket so close to his hideout. Cotter’s riposte is a vicious kick to Mason’s crippled leg. Even more disturbing is the way Cotter takes advantage of Holiday and Margaret sexually and emotionally. It’s hard to conceive of another actor of Cagney’s stature willing to take such chances with his screen image.

Thanks to its transgressive protagonist, subversive narrative and unadulterated violence, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was banned in Ohio for four years due to its “sordid, sadistic presentation of brutality.” One suspects the state’s watchdogs were also scandalized by the fact that Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was the first postwar crime film to so openly foreground the presence of corruption within the institutions charged with protecting American society—the prison system, law enforcement and the judiciary. This thematic trifecta trumps the moral relativism of White Heat with a state of complete moral nihilism, helps make Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye one of the blackest films of the fifties and anticipates the existential crime pictures of the following decade.

Divvying up the wages of sin.

Fingering the Fifties
• Fifties films typically had married couples sleeping in separate beds, as Cotter and Margaret are doing when her father bursts into her bedroom on their wedding night, although her dishevelment clearly indicates she and Cotter have just consummated their marriage.
• The audio recording that Jinx makes to entrap crooked cops Webber and Reece is done with a gramophone direct to vinyl.

Holiday delivers the film's title to a disbelieving Cotter.

Holiday Carleton: “What do you want?”
Ralph Cotter: “Lots of things.”
Holiday Carleton: “Well, you’re not going to find ’em here.”
Ralph Cotter: “You’ll be surprised what a man can find.”

“Cherokee” Mandon: “Any man who breaks the law is a sucker.”
Ralph Cotter: “Does that include the police?”
“Cherokee” Mandon: “A policeman who breaks the law is twice the sucker.”

Ralph Cotter: “Why, I thought you were the law-abiding type.”
Holiday Carleton: “I guess I’m just whatever you make me.”

“Cherokee” Mandon: [as Inspector Weber tries to destroy an incriminating recording] “No, no, no. Don’t do that, inspector. You’ll miss the best part…the best part where you plan to heist the payroll.”

Ralph Cotter: “Jinx, I was just thinking about those three dead men in the quarry. If they had a fourth they could play some bridge. Do you play bridge, Jinx?”

Cagney confers with director Gordon Douglas.

Director: Gordon Douglas; writer: Harry Brown; producer: William Cagney; cinematography: Peverell Marley; editing: Walter Hannemann, Truman K. Wood; music: Carmen Dragon

James Cagney (Ralph Cotter); Barbara Payton (Holiday Carleton); Helena Carter (Margaret Dobson); Ward Bond (Insp. Charles Weber); Luther Adler (Keith “Cherokee” Mandon); Barton MacLane (Lt. John Reece); Steve Brodie (Joe “Jinx” Raynor); Rhys Williams (Vic Mason); Herbert Hayes (Ezra Dobson); John Litel (Police Chief Sam Tolgate); William Frawley (Byers); Robert Karnes (Det. Gray); Kenneth Tobey (Det. Fowler); Dan Riss (District Attorney); Frank Reicher (“Doc” Darius Green)

1 comment:

  1. The most brilliant commentary on this excellent film that I have ever read. You are a superb writer.