Seven people stand trial for murder and other offences, denounced by the District Attorney as “evil” and “at war with all normal, decent people.” Yet the most reprehensible one of the group was the murder victim, Ralph Cotter (James Cagney), whose story we learn in flashback as each defendant takes the stand. Busted out of jail by Holiday Caldwell (Barbara Payton) and Joe “Jinx” Raynor (Steve Brodie), Cotter is so ruthless he shoots his fellow escapee (Neville Brand, later the scythe-wielding loon in Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive (1976)) for slowing him down. He swiftly makes a move on Holiday who, clueless as to how her brother really died, latches onto Cotter out of poverty-driven desperation.
Cotter stages a series of violent heists and when corrupt cops Inspector Walker (Ward Bond) and Lieutenant Reece (Barton MacLane) try to shake him down for a piece of the action, he turns the tables and blackmails them into becoming accomplices, aided by shifty lawyer “Cherokee” Mandon (Luther Adler). Complications arise when the ambitious Cotter starts romancing Margaret Dobson (Helena Carter), daughter of powerful tycoon Ezra Dobson (Herbert Heyes), on the side and learns the hard way that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
A film so relentlessly vicious and cynical for its time, it was banned in a handful of US states as “a sordid, sadistic presentation of brutality.” Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was seen by some as Warner Bros.’ and star James Cagney’s attempt to top his explosive performance in the incredible White Heat (1949). As Cody Jarrett, Cagney essayed arguably the most psychotically unhinged gangster in screen history, a classic movie monster able to chew up the characters played by Al Pacino and Joe Pesci in Scarface (1983) and Goodfellas (1990) like meek, little mice. Ralph Cotter kicks a cripple, towel-slaps Holiday till she’s a sobbing wreck, guns down anyone who gets in his way and goes bonkers whenever someone suggests he is crazy, yet is nonetheless a more conniving brute than Jarrett, capable of intelligence and wit. More than a career criminal, he is also a social climber who latches onto the fabulously wealthy Dobson clan to cloak himself in semi-respectability and influence.
What the film lacks is a certain cinematic charge to match the fireworks inherent in James Cagney’s performance. Anonymous hand Gordon Douglas does not pack the wallop past collaborators Raoul Walsh and William Wellman brought to their Cagney classics. The finale in particular, though it metes out a fitting end for Cotter, fizzles out amidst the courtroom when it should pierce our souls. And though Barbara Payton yokes sympathy for poor Holiday (a law-abiding woman until Cotter worms his way into her life), the script has little patience and essentially concludes that if you dance with the devil, you’ll get burned. A symptom of the heavy-handed moralizing of the era, as is the D.A.’s self-righteous speech.
In many ways this was the last of the old-style, fast-moving, headline-grabbing Warner Bros. crime thrillers a la The Public Enemy (1931), before the genre splintered into socially conscious crime movies, crime-themed art-house pics and a wave of gangster biopics. It’s cynical depiction of corruption rampant among cops, lawyers and other authority figures suits our jaded modern sensibilities, although it lacks the humanity of Cagney classics like The Roaring Twenties (1939). Less a man, more a force of nature, Cotter is a tornado that sucks people up and spits them out. Although Cagney delivers the star turn, the film is well-cast including Ward Bond as the dirty cop and Luther Adler as the vaguely self-loathing lawyer. Lookout for The Thing from Another World (1951) star Kenneth Tobey as one of the crime-busting cops. Especially interesting are the contrasted women in Cotter’s life: Helena Carter as the thrill-seeking rich girl drawn to fast cars and dangerous men and Payton as the good girl corrupted into a gangster’s moll against her better judgment.
“You’re trying to get me deeper and deeper, aren’t you?” she remarks, sadly to Cotter.
“Sweetheart, right now you’re in over your head”, he sneers in reply.