Thursday, April 3, 2008

Farewell, Tommy Udo: Deceased Artiste Richard Widmark

There were two Richard Widmarks: the amazingly sleazy, completely unforgettable presence from film noir (best when he was a villain) and the fully capable and very talented but not entirely memorable actor from a slew of films after the noir cycle was over. Widmark did do excellent work later in his career, but it is his early roles in noir features that made him an icon that will last forever.

It’s kinda hard to imagine that the scene-stealing Widmark was making his big-screen debut as giggling, sadistic bastard Tommy Udo in Henry Hathaway’s otherwise procedural noir film Kiss of Death (1947). He had, by the way, had a healthy life as a stage actor and, most profitably, as a radio actor in the years before he scored Kiss (having appeared on many of the most popular shows, including — no surprise here — Gangbusters). It must’ve been evident to the cast and crew as they made the film that Widmark’s character was a helluva lot more interesting than that played by the extremely boring Victor Mature; Widmark wound up being nominated for the Oscar, and the film was promoted on his supporting turn. I was introduced to the great scumbag Tommy Udo through Vernon Zimmerman’s unjustly forgotten movie-buff horror film Fade to Black (1980), in which one of the different personas Dennis Christopher assumes is that of Widmark in Kiss. I had yet to fall completely into the filmgoing bug, and seeing the infamous and eternal scene of Udo pushing an old woman down the stairs in her wheelchair was a revelation to me.

Widmark played in a number of noirs, and always distinguished himself, even as he struggled to get out of his bad-guy parts — once he did, he scored terrific roles like the one of the prosecutor in Judgment at Nuremburg, but that kind of prestige “message” film isn’t anywhere nearly as rewatchable as the potboiler noirs he took part in. For instance, Road House (1948), in which he plays crazy club-owner “Jefty” who menaces the hell out of Celeste Holm, Cornel Wilde (another good-looking dull lead), and the great Ida Lupino. Here he does the Udo laugh and flips out entirely at the movie’s end, making him the one reason not to miss the movie. The other half-dozen noirs he did don’t have him playing outright scum like Udo and Jefty, but he still excelled when playing incredibly sleazy con artists. He’s a good guy in Panic in the Streets (1950) and Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), but he’s most interesting as a racist crook in No Way Out (1950) (making fledgling star Sidney Poitier seem all the more heroic) and as yet another underworld tough in The Street With No Name (1948).

He hit the heights of sympathetic sleaziness in Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950)(which I’ll post something from by next week, as Dassin’s death at 96 was just announced yesterday), and Sam Fuller’s wonderful Pickup on South Street (1953). In both films, he’s a sleazy crook antihero who isn’t a cutthroat killer like Tommy Udo, but is still hard to warm up to. Fuller particularly took pride in being able to sum Widmark’s character up in a single line of dialogue in Pickup, when he’s told that he’s not helping his country and responds, “Are you wavin’ the flag at me?”

Widmark did indeed keep acting until the 1990s, but it is as sadistic gangster Tommy Udo, or as sleazy operators Harry Fabian (Night and the City) or Skip McCoy (Pickup on South Street) we’ll always remember him.

NOTE: the quality of these clips is pre-cable TV broadcast. Thus, some are darker than others (much darker) and you might have to crank the sound. This is the way we used to watch ’em, though, kids, in the world before restoration. And they still packed a very solid punch….

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