He’s probably best remembered for getting the screen’s most famous haircut, when Hedy Lamarr’s Delilah figured out how to sap his strength. He, of course, is the Samson of tall, dark, and handsome Victor Mature, the movie star who died at 86 in 1999 and would have turned 100 this January 29th. The film, Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949), is the memorably klutzy piece of camp that started a new craze for Bible-themed movies, with Mature back for another biggie, as the Greek slave Demetrius in Henry Koster’s The Robe (1953), meaning that Mature pleased audiences in both the Old and New Testaments. These films are colorful, dramatically cardboard, lavish yet cheap-looking, and defiantly mediocre. Mature is actually seen at his worst, performing in what I’ve called his “side-of-beef acting style.” He’s too big to ignore, but within his weighty presence lies a dull and lethargic actor. He’s little more than a mannequin with an especially wide chest, and I guess little more was required in your basic Bible blockbuster. (Back to Ms. Lamarr, I’ve always felt that she cuts Mature’s hair when she realizes that they essentially have the same hairdo, something she rightly finds unacceptable.)
Mature made a fine Doc Holliday in his best film, the great My Darling Clementine (1946) from John Ford, and he also starred in an exceptional yet neglected film noir Cry of the City (1948), directed by Robert Siodmak. Mature also managed to appear opposite Betty Grable four times, which proves that he certainly wasn’t limited in terms of genres. But there can be no doubt as to which film contains his finest screen acting: Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death (1947). It’s Grade-A crime drama, a good mix of New York locations and noir-ish style, very well crafted and handsomely photographed. Mature plays Nick Bianco, a crook/ex-con sent to prison again for a jewel robbery (the excellent opening sequence). But where Mature really comes through as an actor is in his quietly emotional scenes, the ones with his two little daughters in which he reveals his loving and gentle sides, elements that are also tenderly exposed opposite Coleen Gray (who becomes his second wife). Despite his past, Mature becomes the film’s sympathetic center.
Kiss of Death is best remembered for Richard Widmark’s strong, Oscar-nominated screen debut as Tommy Udo, a scary, psychotic hoodlum. It’s an extremely showy part, and Widmark devours it whole. He’s really not in the movie all that much, but his presence looms. His acting can be forced—that maniacal laugh is less than “organic”—but Widmark was probably never this good again. He unforgettably kills poor, defenseless Mildred Dunnock, a woman in a wheelchair! He brutally flings her down a flight of stairs, wheelchair and all, in a sequence that is still pretty shocking. After that scene, we know he’s capable of anything and react accordingly to his every entrance.
When the film becomes a battle between Mature and Widmark, the suspense is terrific. What might Widmark do to Mature’s family? There’s a satisfyingly exciting climax, followed by a too-happy ending. It’s a flawed film, but it’s a winner nonetheless, pitting Mature’s deeply human protagonist against Widmark’s crazed villain. Mature wins the drama’s battle, but he also wins the acting honors: his depth of feeling trumps Widmark’s flash. People may think of Victor Mature as a he-man usually running around in a toga-like garment, but he seemed to lose his acting ability whenever he bared too much flesh, sort of like the way he lost his strength when Ms. Lamarr gave him a trim. The sensitivity he displayed as Nick Bianco is rare in the Mature filmography, making Kiss of Death the film to watch this January 29th.