Last Man Standing, R.I.P.

At Noir City this year, we were treated to a special evening of programming saluting Richard Widmark, the “last man standing” from the classic noir period.

Two superlative films were shown, one arguably Widmark’s very best (and one of the best noir films, ever): Night and the City. Roadhouse, a jaunty little number co-starring Ida Lupino and Cornel Wilde, was the second half of the bill (reviewed here at Writing in the Dark).

As most of you undoubtedly know by now, Richard Widmark passed away on Wednesday, March 26. He was 94. With him vanished an era.

We lose so many of the great ones, year after year. And Widmark was one of the greatest. He was an actor who never should never have achieved stardom, if being a star meant handsome in the square-jawed fashion of 50s idols, with a barrel chest and cleft chin.

He was, by all accounts, a gentle, thoughtful, intellectual man, an old-fashioned liberal, who liked simple pleasures and the honesty of the outdoors. He abhorred violence of any kind; it is said he fished once, and hated killing the trout, and never did so again. And yet he will be forever remembered as Tommy Udo, the maniacal sociopath of Kiss of Death. A small part that Widmark made into a legend, and helped define what came to be called film noir.

Who can forget that laugh of his, heard for the first time on screen (in all its glory) in Kiss of Death, but actually created when Widmark was a busy, popular radio actor in shows like Inner Sanctum or Gangbusters? Once heard, never forgotten.

It was a gleeful laugh, unbridled and infectious, and usually built to a crescendo of hysteria right before his character left the stage … exeunt. But even when playing a sociopath, or maybe especially because he was playing a sociopath, Widmark was able to elicit sympathy and commiseration and (scarily) identification with the audience that made even Tommy Udo seem, well … cute.

That, folks, takes a lot of talent. And charisma. And Widmark had both in spades.

Just take a look at this list of movies, and if you haven’t seen one, put it on your list … No Way Out (chilling, affecting, unforgettable performance as a racist thug) … Panic in the Streets (he’s a good guy this time, scintillating, sweaty film) … Don’t Bother to Knock (with Monroe, and you still watch him) … the heart-stopping Pick up on South Street (Thelma Ritter’s best performance) … Broken LanceJudgment at NuremburgCheyenne AutumnMurder on the Orient Express.

Noir, Western, Drama, Mystery, whatever the genre, Widmark fit right in. Even on I Love Lucy, when he guest-starred during the famous “Hollywood” cycle.

The classiest of actors. Never better than Night and the City, where his little boy grin and palpable vulnerability played to heights of tragic, noir chiaroscuro.

Widmark reportedly once commented, “I suppose I wanted to act in order to have a place in the sun. I’d always lived in small towns, and acting meant having some kind of identity.”

Some kind of identity. And a certain place in the sun, one that brilliantly illuminates all the darkness–and humanity–of noir.

RIP, Richard Widmark, actor, gentleman, and gentle man. You are sorely missed.

Next week we’ll be looking at Mitchum and Domergue. Meanwhile, if you have any favorite Widmark films or stories to share about this legendary actor, please post.