A Fourth for Bridge

CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”

Gordon Douglas’ “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” always seems fated to exist within the long shadow cast by Raoul Walsh’s “White Heat.” If star James Cagney had little to say about the Walsh film, he was absolutely mum about Douglas’ unofficial follow-up. Thus “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” seems ready-made for the “second-time-fatal” label.

The visibly-aging Cagney plays an unaffiliated hoodlum in both films. In Walsh’s film he heads his own small gang. In the Douglas film he is a one-man wrecking crew. Cagney’s Cody Jarrett, the protagonist of “White Heat” is quite visibly psychopathic. “Ralph Cotter” aka “Paul Murphy” (we never learn his real name) bridles at anyone calling him crazy. He is cleverer than most of the people around him, and more ruthless, and he likes taking risks. In the enclosed world of “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”–nowhere near as wide-ranging and “open” a film as “White Heat”–Cotter functions as a sort of classic malcontent figure. Convinced that everything and everyone around him is rotten and corrupt, he doesn’t stand on social niceties. Neither does he believe in wasting time. When he sees a chance to pull-off a quick, easy one-man heist of a local supermarket, he does it. When he’s relieved of his take by a pair of crooked cops, he quickly turns the tables on them and, courtesy of a surreptitiously-made voice recording, they are soon working for him. Discovering the big gun in town is a crook named Roemer who runs betting and numbers to the tune of a cool $50,000-a-week, he soon makes plans to move in on Roemer, first waylaying and robbing three of his collectors. He later threatens a queasy underling with the chance to provide the dead men with a fourth for bridge. When his stooge Webber continually fusses that Roemer is too big to swallow Cotter’s raid, Cotter suavely assures him that he’ll take care of Roemer. Ironically Roemer is only spared because one of Cotter’s side-plots has come to fruition. Having romanced the beautiful, spoiled daughter of the state’s former governor, he has won her hand. He’ll be even wealthier than he would have been had he overthrown Roemer and now will have sufficient political protection to be beyond the reach of the law.

But as in many a Jacobean tragedy, the malcontent figure–who exists to point out and take advantage of society’s flaws–is also an over-reacher. To gain the comely Miss Dobson he must brush off Holiday Carleton, his current lover. But as she reminded him earlier, Holiday is a very jealous woman. And she doesn’t even know yet that it was Ralph who shot her beloved brother as they fled from a prison work-gang.

Ralph has a way of double-crossing just about everyone. Holiday abetted his prison escape only to free her brother, Webber robs him and winds up as his paid informer, Cotter’s legal guardian-angel “Cherokee” Mandon manages to secure the only copy of his criminal file and gets him a license to legally carry a gun, but warns him to steer clear of the ex-governor’s daughter. Cotter agrees, then goes ahead and marries the girl on the q.t. Mandon soon learns as did Holiday, Jinx Raynor and Webber that Cotter is a human tar-baby. No one who brushes up against him is ever again able to break free of him.

In the end both of Cotter’s women seal his fate. Margaret Dobson by playfully tossing his beloved automatic into a fountain, because he won’t need a gun to protect him now that he has her. And without that automatic he is helpless when the enraged Holiday, having learned of his role in her brother’s death, shoots him in their love-nest. Game to the end, he still mocks her that her pistol has jammed after one shot as he tries to disfigure her with a broken bottle. But for once Holiday gets the memorable line, taunting the dying Cotter that his schemes have all fallen flat and he can kiss tomorrow goodbye.

Douglas as a director was no Raoul Walsh, but “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” relies less on action and movement than “White Heat.” It’s almost a satire on small-town hypocrisy and corruption. Ezra Dobson is supposed to be a shrewd judge of character, but a po-face and some respectful patter from Cotter convinces him that this fellow “Paul Murphy” is the very man to tame his wild-child daughter. As a Warner Brothers film, Douglas was able to assemble a first-rate cast of actors to support Cagney. Neville Brand, in what may have been his earliest role, played the ill-fated chain-gang partner. Steve Brodie was Cotter’s slobbish flunkey Jinx Raynor, Rhys Williams was the devious Vic Mason who put the escape plan together, but then made the mistake of betraying Cotter to Webber. Ward Bond, in one of his better film noir roles initially comes on like gangbusters as tough Inspector Charlie Webber but ends as a querelous old woman increasingly frightened by Cotter’s reckless behavior, but powerless to stop him. Barton MacLane was his thuggish underling Lt. Reece (a neat inversion of the roles that the two played in the classic “The Maltese Falcon”). Luther Adler played the clever Mandon who can’t believe that Cotter would toss up a perfect criminal set-up to romance a society woman. Helena Carter, a young studio ingénue was quite good as the reckless Margaret who really does meet her match in her enigmatic, and vaguely frightening husband.

Lastly, a word about Barbara Payton. Sadly her late-career descent into alcoholism, drugs and prostitution has turned her into a Tabloid Goddess, but here, at the relative outset of her career, she was really quite effective as Holiday. If there is a tragic character in the film it is Holiday. At one point she remarks to Cotter that she is whatever he made her. Payton had the right look for such a role. Not drop-dead gorgeous she has a sort of proletarian heaviness about her. She is not graceful as a gazelle–or as Miss Dobson–she is the sort of “easy” gal that a natural-born predator like Cotter might zero in on. He has a unique method of seduction–beating the woman into submission with a wet towel–and he tries saying farewell to her with a broken bottle to the face. It’s not the sort of role that just anyone could play and seem convincing. Payton had already played an ill-fated gang moll in Richard Fleisher’s “Trapped,” and would play outlaw Steve Cochran’s girl in “Dallas.” She didn’t have the right amount of self-centered slyness to play Verna in “While Heat,” but for the essentially naïve Holiday, she was just right.

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