One of my all time favourite actors, Richard Widmark, died today. He lived a long and full life, and will be missed by his family, friends and his fans.
Widmark always stood out for me among his contemporaries, he stands out as someone inexplicably modern and timeless. He didn’t even look like the other actors of his day, for a long time he looked almost like a boy, and is one of the few blonde actors to really make a name for himself. However, underneath the unassuming demeanor was always that level of mischief and even a sinister streak that made him so effective as a noir hero/villain. He also had that indefinable “oompth” that can only be described as sex appeal, or star quality… it cannot be explained, you just watch and now he has it.
His film debut was in a noir, Kiss of Death (1947) where he played the giggling gangster Tommy Udo. Despite the small role, he completely dominated the film. Most (including myself) remember little else of an otherwise average film, except his twisted giggle and the infamous wheelchair scene. Rarely do actors emerge with such a bang but Widmark was never one to whimper, or fade into the background.
Over the next decade or so, he primarily worked in noir with a smattering of westerns thrown in. He was flexible, and as often as he was a villain he was the film’s hero, but his characters were always heavily flawed or troubled.
I personally have yet to see Pickup on South Street, but for his best role in this early period was Harry Fabian in Night and City (1950). Harry is a man of great ideas but who has no money, bad luck and a fleeting attention span. He finally gets his big break, but once it’s ruined he is never able to crawl back up. Widmark brings that necessary charm to the role, but also the desperation, and a certain air of pity. He creates such a vivid portrait it’s easy to believe you’d have a friend like this, who despite his intelligence and charisma seems to have the fates against him.
During this time, he was also great in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), a surprisingly underseen noir with Marilyn Monroe. It’s a very simple film, and there isn’t necessarily much to his role but he’s able to channel all kinds of wonderful mannerisms, emotions and connotations to very spare source material. He embodies what can be seen as a typically cynical young man from the 40s, his character is almost misanthropic and at the very least misogynistic. However when faced with difficult situations, or people in trouble he doesn’t run away, but tries to deal with them in his own way despite his confusion and anger. He’s hardly the clean-cut good guy, but then again, in the real world there are probably more Widmarks than there are Stewarts despite what film has led us to believe. Not saying that one is better than the other… just different.
Widmark would continue acting into the 1980s, starring and co-starring in a variety of different films. I’m not very familiar with his post 1960 work unfortunately, although he is very good in Judgement at Nuremberg.
I think for me, and I’m sure many others it’s worth the time to really delve deeper into his filmography. I’ve made up a list of 10 films of his that I will make a priority of seeing:
Pickup on South Street (1953)
Yellow Sky (1948)
The Bedford Incident (1965)
Road House (1948)
Cheyenne Autumn (1964)
How the West Was Won (1962)
The Trap (1959)
Two Rode Together (1961)
It’s always a sad day when another legend of the silver screen passes. R.I.P.