The way an actor makes a splash in a Hollywood movie is how s/he’ll always be remembered. In the case of a versatile star like Richard Widmark, who got his start as an excellent radio actor, it is inevitable that Tommy Udo shoving Ma Rizzo downstairs will be the first clip shown in any Widmark profile: Inevitable, maybe, but also disappointing to admirers of Widmark’s long career who know that the range of his film work encompassed much more than his 1947 debut in the Fox film noir, “Kiss Of Death.
As Jefty in 1948’s “Road House” Widmark was still a nutcase, but one with a far more subtle and devious flair for evil. Jefty looks like a respectable, compassionate businessman, the owner of a roadhouse not far from the Canadian border. When Jefty and best friend Pete both become interested in the same chanteuse, (Ida Lupino as Lily, who can barely sing at all!) it’s a fight to the death with no rules and all the cards stacked in Jefty’s favor. Jefty may not be as flashy as Tommy Udo, but his brand of cunning is far more difficult to convey onscreen and Widmark nails his mood swings with precision.
In 1950’s “Panic In The Streets”, Widmark as Dr. Clinton Reed saves the city of New Orleans from a pneumonic plague epidemic. It’s a heroic role, but the same guy who couldn’t be trusted with little old ladies and hard-boiled dames, looks right at home as a family man married to Barbara Bel Geddes with a second child on the way. He plays wise father to Tommy Rettig and chases down unwitting plague carriers Jack Palance and Zero Mostel with equal intensity.
“No Way Out”, also made in 1950, was light years away from “Panic”, both in tone and content. As bigoted Ray Biddle, Widmark was required to say and do offensive things to heroic Dr. Luther Brooks, played by Sidney Poitier. It was a deeply disturbing and unpleasant portrait, but Widmark never flinched from its complexities: He could be sadistically cruel one moment and agonizingly vulnerable the next. No Oscar nods for this twisted character, but he deserved one. It went that way his entire career: Rickard Widmark played good guys, bad guys, guys who were more good than bad and guys who were more bad than good. He escaped typecasting that way and he worked constantly, but so many morality shifts also meant no easily defined image. Academy voters prefer casting votes for characters they can root for: Widmark strove for edgy believability and sucked up to no one. Does he deserve an Oscar? Hell, yeh. C’mon Academy. Give this hard-working pro more than a gold watch!
© 2006 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 1/4/06
People Who Should Have Received An Oscar: Richard Widmark