The late Richard Widmark, who died in March at age 93, was revered offscreen as one of Hollywood’s true gentlemen and staunchest liberals. It is entirely to his credit that in his most indelible roles—a gallery of giggling killers, sleazy hustlers, and ramrod martinets—he came across as neither. He might have apologized profusely between takes for the racist bile he had to spew at friend/co-star Sidney Poitier in the 1950 pressure-cooker melodrama No Way Out—but for the duration of those takes, he owned every hissed mad-dog slur.
That willingness to take a high-dive plunge into the degenerate and not come up for air distinguished Widmark in his very first screen role, as the effete, sardonic psycho who gives a wheelchair-bound old lady the Odessa Steps treatment in Henry Hathaway’s 1947 Kiss of Death. (Widmark’s Tommy Udo, the original Joker, so caught the country’s perverse postwar fancy that the character actually inspired fan clubs.) That early noir isn’t part of BAM’s three-day salute to the late actor, but the three movies in the series capture the same range that Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck saw in Widmark’s screen presence: the boyish features that could shift with a trick of the light into a leering death mask.
The death mask shifts back in Samuel Fuller’s 1954 Cold War yarn Hell and High Water (August 25), long enough for Widmark’s mercenary sub captain to romance Zanuck protégé-slash-mistress Bella Darvi on an improbable rogue nuke-busting mission. Presiding over a scurvy crew crammed like stowaways into Fuller’s CinemaScope stateroom, Widmark fills his heroic lead with surly Han Solo panache. If he’s not the weaselly wonder he was the previous year as the pickpocket antihero of Fuller’s Pickup on South Street—where he cuts through the feds’ “flag-waving” hoo-hah with bracing self-interest—he’s still a strikingly mercurial commander, and Widmark nails the captain’s ever-changing moods from grinning swain to grieving leader.
Widmark’s capacity to summon the rat in each role was best suited to noir. Pity Mark Stevens, the hero of William Keighley’s kiss-ass FBI tribute The Street With No Name (August 27), who goes deep cover as a hood by slant-smoking and checking into flophouses. He’s wiped off the screen the instant second-billed Widmark shows up as his quarry, a germophobic gangster who tends his nostrils with a gardener’s care. The 1948 feature swaps laughably starchy Dragnet docudrama and hey-you-mugs mob theatrics, but Widmark’s pungent hair-trigger paranoia seeps into the Skid Row milieu like rotgut pouring down a storm drain.
In Harry Fabian, the scroungy small-time wrestling tout of Jules Dassin’s great 1950 noir Night and the City (August 26), Widmark has his best role, one that shows how supple and emotionally versatile an actor he really was. Shepherding that most doomed of noir taxonomies, the sure thing, through a London underworld that narrows into a mousetrap, Widmark skids from elation into desperation at ramming speed. His performance is pure jazz: drumming with his hands, rehearsing his cons, improvising wheedled entreaties to suckers and creditors. Another character cruelly but fairly sums up Harry as “an artist without an art”—an observation you could never make of the man playing him.