Pity the unobtrusive, solidly workmanlike actor.

One of favorite film noirs, Twentieth Century Fox’s durable 1949 thriller Kiss of Death, features a subtle performance by Victor Mature as an ex-con trying to his near death to protect his family from one of Hollywood’s most memorable cinematic psychopaths.

Unfortunately, Mature’s performance is eclipsed by that of Richard Widmark as the leering nutcase.  Poor Victor Mature. He gave probably his best performance in ‘Kiss of Death,’ but nobody noticed, writes film noir historian Eddie Muller.

That’s largely because Widmark’s character, Tommy Udo, steals the show with that famously sadistic act — shoving wheelchair bound Mildred Dunnock’s Ma Rizzo to her death down a steep flight of stairs. It’s an unforgettable moment in Hollywood movie history. How can you top that with subtlety?

A recent viewing of the movie on DVD shows, though, that Widmark’s performance is otherwise over-the-top, and more than a tad unconvincing.

Mature’s portrayal on the other hand still communicates as quietly realistic, suggesting a character trapped by by his compulsive behavior… (It) elicits viewer sympathy despite his criminal past, write film noir encyclopedists Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward.

Throughout his lengthy career — he started as Lefty in the 1939 Hal Roach comedy, The Housekeeper’s Daughter, and finished it in 1984, a decade-and-a-half before he diedMature never took himself terribly seriously.  I’m no actor, he supposedly remarked, and I’ve got 64 pictures to prove it.

We respectfully disagree.  The son of an Italian immigrant, Mature served in the Coast Guard in World War II, and then returned to an eclectic Hollywood career.  He is notable as Doc Holliday to Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp in John Ford’s 1946 western, My Darling Clementine.

His virile good looks — Mature was referred to in his day as Hollywood’s “beautiful hunk of man” — served him well opposite Hedy Lamarr in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 Biblical epic, Samson and Delilah. In the last credit of his career, Mature performed a well-paid cameo turn in an ABC tv movie version of Samson and Delilah — as Samson’s father.

His offscreen life was active; he married five times and engaged in multiple liaisons with various leading ladies. Esther Williams, his costar in 1952’s Million Dollar Mermaid, recounted the following in her memoirs:

Despite her marriage at the time to second husband, the hard-drinking Ben Gage, she confessed to a powerful attraction to Mature. I knew that he wanted me, and I wanted him…One night, after doing a steamy love scene that was more than adequate foreplay, we went to my dressing room ….That first night, we made love over and over into exhaustion.

An anecdote we like about a post-retirement Mature has him in an elevator in a New York department store.  In walk two well-dressed women of a certain age.

Isn’t that Victor Mature?, asks one woman.  

The other woman responds: Victor Mature! Isn’t he dead?

Mature finally piped up:  I am, and I’m not.


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