Written by Harry Brown
Directed by Gordon Douglas
Seven people stand on trial for murder in a court of law, but one man is missing, a convict named Ralph Cotter (James Cagney). Had he lived to see his day in court, he would have paid the highest price for his crimes. After a few minutes in which the prosecutor woos the jury with proclamations regarding justice and enemies of the public, the film fades back to tell the full tale, beginning with how Ralph, career crook, escaped prison with help from the inside from a corrupt guard, an escape which costs the lives of two guards and a fellow convict whose sister Holiday (Barbara Payton) partook in the escape plan as well, even shooting one of the prison employees. A free man (of sorts), Ralph temporarily settles in with Holiday and partner Joe ‘Jinx’ Raynor (Steve Brodie) while planning and executing a series of jobs to gain further wealth and power. Corrupt detectives (Ward Bond and Barton MacLane), a crooked lawyer (Luther Adler) and a powerful heiress (Helena Carter) are but some of the characters Ralph contends with during his rise and fall.
It should come as no surprise to learn that, upon its release, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was compared to White Heat, which came out just a year earlier. Both star legend James Cagney in not entirely dissimilar roles. In each case, he is an outlaw on the run from law enforcement vying for more and grander social status, scheming his way to the top of the pyramidal social structure, eventually biting off more than he can chew. White Heat and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye are both molded after the classic gangster pictures, which helped skyrocket Cagney to stardom in the 1930s but with more mature, nuanced thematic texture typically characterizing film noir. There are also significantly different points between the two pictures. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye sports brief but potent outbursts of violence whereas White Heat feels like an all-out action movie at times. Another aspect that sets Kiss apart is the attitude driving Ralph Cotter to perform his dastardly deeds. While most certainly a villain, one unafraid of inflicting considerable pain on those viewed as obstacles, Cagney plays the part with smoothness, wit, and cunning. Cagney’s character in White Heat, on the other hand, is clearly insane and not afraid to show it. Under different circumstances, Ralph Cotton would pass for a smart, charming businessman. There are several moments when Cotton seems like a highly sophisticated individual, only to be reminded shortly thereafter of his dark thoughts and disregard for others. Cagney’s performance leaves viewers with a fascinating, occasionally very attractive man who can dupe any sucker provided it is advantageous to him.
Director Gordon Douglas confidently establishes and builds Cotton’s trajectory from former inmate who has just flown the coop to the man finding his way into the good graces of high society folk who want him to marry into their family. The movie’s episodic nature leaves audiences with a keen sense of how he operates, proving his quickness at getting a leg up on the competition and his instinctual ability to locate psychological weak spots to pick on. Holiday is one such unfortunate pawn in Cotton’s scheme, a woman who, previous to assisting her brother and Cotton perform their ill-fated jail break, had never committed any sort of crime. Distraught at the loss of her sibling whose innocence she claims, Holiday demonstrates dangerous emotional instability. Cotton, in addition to setting her straight by recalling her participation in the death of a prison guard, offers her a strong shoulder to cry on, quickly ensnaring her in a romantic relationship he may burst at the nearest opportunity, or the earliest sign of further trouble.
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye goes from there to showcase the lengths, sometimes quite detailed, that Cotton will go to for money and influence. When the tough-looking detectives played by Bond and MacLane shake Cotton and Jinx for the few thousand they stole from a grocer, the protagonist immediately sees a golden opportunity to turn the tables around and make serious use of the two crooked cops, from recording incriminating conversations (a technique frequently employed by the police) to obtaining firearm permits with the assistance of notorious lawyer Keith ‘Cherokee’ Mandon.
Hubris so often gets the better of people the likes of Cotton, especially after early successes. Despite warnings from his lawyer and the painfully obvious fact that Holiday cannot de duped forever, Cotton engages with the beautiful Margaret Dobson, played by Carter, a multi-millionaire entrepreneur searching for a life partner. Cotton ends up playing his cards so effectively that he wins both her favour and that of her demanding, prejudiced father. Just as he is to make a huge leap in social circles, Holiday, of all people, crashes his dream. The brilliant irony is that his undoing is only indirectly the result of his mingling with the Carletons. It is someone far lower on the societal scale, someone he could no longer keep playing for the fool that ultimately gets the better of him. As great a planner and schemer he may be, there comes a point when even Cotton overreaches his ability to control are the variables.
The journey is fraught with moments of brutal violence and others that seem a bit strange by comparison, suggesting that Douglas does not always possess perfect control over the matters at hand. For instance, Cotton’s strategy to charming the Carletons involves extremely risky steps such as legally marrying Margaret without her father’s approval. Oddly enough, nor is the audience privy to them having tied the knot as the information is only relayed once the father scolds his daughter for her foolhardy decision. Why this information is not communicated to the viewer beforehand is a mystery. Equally puzzling is how Cotton could possibly bank on what follows from his brazen attempt to make contact with the Carleton family. Sure, it turns out well eventually, but given her father’s tempestuous nature, the odds were not in his favour to begin with.
The bookends in the courtroom represent another misfire of sorts. Among the criticisms aimed at the picture in 1950 were its blatantly cynical view of the police department and the corruption of lawyers, to say nothing of the fact that multiple prison guards are shot dead and one inmate is shot point blank in the head in an early sequence. True enough, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye paints a bleak picture of professions that should be upstanding in the public eye. As Cotton incrementally augments his wealth with a huge grin on his face and brimming with confidence, people are sent to the hospital for concussions or worse and institutions whose goal is to serve the public interest are awash in corruption. The courtroom scenes appear to exist solely for the purpose of reassuring easily obfuscated 1950 moviegoers that evildoers eventually get their comeuppance, as do their associates. Whether as pieces of the overall story or as a counterbalance to the unhinged cynicism featured throughout, these courtroom scenes are terribly clumsy.
Small warts aside, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is a well-constructed drama that invites viewers to observe how one intelligent and confident man works his way around the law to get ahead in life. Although some of his calculated risks are a little far-fetched, it remains compelling to follow Ralph Cotton through his episodic adventure. It works like a thinking man’s White Heat. Whereas the latter accentuated its protagonist’s lunacy via terrific action, Kiss camouflages its central figure’s craziness behind Cagney’s charm and the ease with which institutions are corrupted.
— Edgar Chaput