When you’re focused on film noir, as this blog is, it’s more difficult to find a hero than a villain. It’s a greater challenge to find a fully sympathetic character than a reprehensible one. Sadists and sociopaths abound, from ruthless gangsters to femmes fatale.
For prototypical noir villains, you can’t go wrong with Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, and I love watching Richard Conte play the sadist supreme in The Big Combo. I also have a soft spot for Dan Duryea in Scarlet Street; his Johnny is so immature and self-absorbed.
When I began my prep for hosting #BNoirDetour on Twitter, however, I introduced myself to an actor who’s become for me the wildest noir villain-player of them all: Richard Widmark. Known to most as Col. Tad Lawson in Judgment at Nuremberg or Jim Bowie from The Alamo, Widmark actually boasted 76 acting roles on film and television over the course of his 83-year life.
For the noir fan, however, it is Widmark’s early villain roles that may be his most memorable, as they have recently become for me. His first screen appearance is in the supporting secondary role of psychopathic killer Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947). It is difficult to top the scene in which he pushes an accomplice’s wheelchair-bound mother down a flight of stairs, with a smile and a mad sparkle in his eyes.
Less pathologically murderous and more filled with angry self-pity is Widmark’s Ray Biddle in No Way Out (1950). A racist thief born on the wrong side of the tracks, Biddle vacillates between manipulative cruelty and emotional breakdowns. Most memorable is how he spits out the N word with determined zeal throughout the film. (According to tcm.com, Widmark actually apologized to leading actor Sidney Poitier for every abusive scene between them.)
Perhaps the most sympathetic of Widmark’s noir baddies is Harry Fabian in Night and the City (1950). Fabian is less one-dimensional than Udo or Biddle, at least in part because he’s playing the lead this time. A gambling addict with delusions of grandeur, his gambling, stealing, lying, and bravado make him more villain than anti-hero. Only in the final moments of the film does he attempt a bit of selflessness, and this comes only when he knows he is going to die. (Perhaps the greatest crime in the film is the thankless girlfriend role given to Gene Tierney.)
In the end, I know there are many who will say Widmark’s acting got much stronger after these early roles. Arguably, he earned better roles in better films. But for the noir fan, he will always be Tommy Udo, Ray Biddle, or Harry Fabian, providing viewers with some of the most vicious and emotionally intense jerks of the era.
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