He should have played The Joker, Batman’s arch-nemesis. Only problem is, Richard Widmark in his fictional psycho prime would have slit the Caped Crusader’s throat before the masked one could smell the stale whiskey and burned garlic on his assassin’s breath. No competition. No dice for the guy in the leotards.
In Widmark’s first film role, playing the low-life killer/hustler Tommy Udo in Henry Hathaway’s 1947 noir Kiss of Death, the actor is all Benzedrine giggles and muscles twitching for the grave. He’s the Death King of psychopaths and his performance scarred me for life. My father, who had no reservations about planting his four-year-old son in front of the television to view things best left unseen by such impressionable eyes, one afternoon left me to gaze helplessly in terror as Udo tossed an old woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs. The image so burned inside me (talk about your formative secondary source experiences!) that I was haunted for years, even though I had no idea what the film was, let alone the actor involved in such mayhem. Finally, as a teen, I came across a reference to the film somewhere and eventually named my psychic attacker. I knew who Widmark was at that point, had seen him in countless movies like The Halls of Montezuma, The Frogmen, The Alamo, How the West Was Won, Rollercoaster, Coma, and The Swarm, but I had no idea that he was the man capable… responsible for committing such an act as throwing a helpless victim down the stairs, laughing all the while. Soon I discovered that he was more than responsible, he had in fact made a whole career of playing such creeps, though never as cranked up as Udo. Eventually, I found the roles that truly mattered to me–Kiss of Death, Night and the City, Panic in the Streets, No Way Out, Pickup on South Street, and Warlock. If you’ve never seen him strut his stuff in those films, race out now and do so. South Street is easily one of my favorite noirs and the early scene on the subway when Widmark pickpockets sex bunny Jean Peters is deliciously indecent and Fuller at his fevered best.
So… here’s to you, Mr. Udo! Salut!
You can read more about the life and long career of one of Hollywood’s great tough guy actors here.