Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, released in 1950, has been written off as a quickie follow-up to Warner Bros' smash-hit White Heat (1949), which starred James Cagney as the ruthless gangster Cody Jarrett, a type that he perfected decades before in Public Enemy (1931) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938). In books about Cagney, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is dismissed as a "well made bomb," and the actor doesn't even bother to mention it in his memoir Cagney On Cagney.
The only argument against writing off this B-picture entirely is the film itself--a highly enjoyable movie that scores a ten out of ten on the film noir checklist. Unlike White Heat, which is populated with well-known "types" like the harangued detective and the grasping blonde, nothing about Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is cookie-cutter. Each character is a distinct, twisted creation of novelist Horace McCoy (author of They Shoot Horses, Don't They?) and criminals, police, and high society alike all yearn to break the law and do so to various degrees.
Cagney's character in the film, Ralph Cotter, is the opposite of his White Heat creation Cody Jarrett. Jarrett is a barking gang leader, neurotic and needy, with psychotic tendencies that are all-too-well defined and explained to the audience. Cotter is an amoral loner, who can chameleon his behavior into genteel finesse or brute force as needed. Jarrett is an outlaw celebrity like John Dillinger, on the run for so long that schoolboys have grown up idolizing his exploits and joined the ranks of his gang. Cotter, by contrast, is a complete cipher. He broke out of a prison farm at the start of the film escaping from crimes unknown and tries to disappear from town before anyone knows he's committed a crime. As he explains to his shady lawyer Cherokee Mandon (played by Luther Adler) "Ralph Cotter isn't even my real name." Cotter becomes whatever the situation calls for, and his very presence in small town America sews the seeds of disharmony and suspicion that is the purpose of film noir of the 1950s. After his body count in the film is creeping up to five dead, and he has a few armed robberies under his belt, Cotter says to his oblivious fiancee played by Helena Carter: "There's a lot of things you don't know about me. I'm a total stranger to you. I might be a thief, I might be a convict . . . I might even be a murderer."
The law never catches up to Ralph Cotter in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. He's "brought to justice" by his own machinations, by Barbara Payton's character Holiday who began the film as a citizen of the world and emerged an outlaw murderess. "I'm whatever you make me," she tells Cotter, and when he's moments away from disappearing over the horizon she metes out justice just the way he taught her.
Not to say that the police never get on to Cotter's trail--shortly after his crash-out from the prison farm, and subsequent robbery at the grocery store, Cotter and Holiday are visited by two detectives. These detectives don't want to put Cotter away or vengeance for the officer shot during the escape--they want their end. These detectives are every bit as crooked and as amoral as Cotter, even more so. Cast as the two Detectives Weber and Reece are Ward Bond and Barton McLane, Warner Bros veterans and actors usually cast on the right side of the law, such as in The Maltese Falcon--when they barged in from a hallway to question Humprey Bogart's Sam Spade about the murder of his partner Miles Archer. By barging in on Ralph Cotter, Weber and Reece unwittingly set themselves up for one of the best blackmail schemes perpetrated on film (or at least one of the best involving a phonograph).
By re-teaming these actors as two detectives bloated with sin and vice, and having them be the only representations of law and order in the film, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye gives a wink to just how jaded America had become in the nine years since Falcon, and how people's black-and-white attitudes towards law enforcement (a'la White Heat) was due for a tonal shift to all grey.
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is a unique and unforgettably nasty film due to be reinstated in the pantheon of Noir classics. It's finally been re-released by Olive Films on DVD and Bluray.