I’ve decided to try out a new regular feature: “If not for noir.” In each post, I’ll be discussing someone or something I wouldn’t have appreciated as much as I do now (or at all, in a few cases) if it weren’t for my relatively recent leap into (classic) film noir.
Topics are likely to include individual actors, directors, and composers; form and style specifics; and historical elements. I’m hoping these posts will be enjoyable to read and even informative, even as there’ll be a lot of fan affection and personal bias. Let me know what you think, ok?
IF NOT FOR NOIR #1: RICHARD WIDMARK
Before I delved into the depths of film noir, I simply had no idea how central actor Richard Widmark is to the classic cycle. I knew him, as most film lovers do, from Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) and saw him in a Western or two, but I had no idea about his early career and the intensely memorable villains he played.
Widmark’s first film role was in Kiss of Death (1947), playing sociopath Tommy Udo, introducing audiences to an unforgettably maniacal laugh and toothy grin that would show up in all his villainous noir appearances.
Two films later, Widmark would play opposite Ida Lupino and Cornel Wilde in Road House (1948), portraying Jeffty Robbins, a veritable split-personality who starts out nice and ends up lethally psycho. Then, two years after that, he’d inhabit the role of racist punk Ray Biddle opposite Sidney Poitier and Linda Darnell in No Way Out (1950). The evil and the madness in these villainous characters is so tangible you can’t look away. In fact, I loved Widmark’s method of playing villainy so well, I named him most memorable villain in one of my first blogathon entries.
Fortunately for Widmark, his talent was such that he wasn’t limited to villains and secondary roles. For noir fans, perhaps his best two outings are as the more complex if criminal and emotionally tangled characters of Harry Fabian in Night and the City (1950) and Skip McCoy in Pickup on South Street (1953). Both Fabian and Skip are lead roles, and in ways both obvious and deserving of psychoanalysis, they allow Widmark to show his abilities to inhabit a role fully. Rather than the villain who brings evil into the lives of others or just shows the dirty underside of urban postwar America, Fabian and Skip are creatures of fate, a central facet of noir. He is the (criminal) everyman rather than the lunatic, and so even when he does wrong, we root for him.
Through what we’d come to call noir, Widmark got to work with fantastic directors (Dassin, Negulesco, Hathaway, Fuller) and co-stars, particular female (Lupino, Tierney, Withers, Peters, Ritter, Darnell). Noir suited his offbeat looks and ability to play dark, unforgettable characters during his early years.
And if not for noir, I’d likely have missed much of the best work of this terrific actor.