2019 Film Essays

The Man Who Laughs: Richard Widmark’s Early Noirs

Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death

The violence of film noir can sometimes feel sanitized. Under the repressive yoke of the Motion Picture Production Code, with gunfire separated by cuts from the victims on the wrong side of it and punches that almost but don’t quite land, the brutality of the world of noir occasionally is undercut by the censorship restrictions of the moment. Some scenes break through, however, and the memories linger — punishment doled out, a cynical world perpetuating itself. In Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) hurls a pot of hot coffee in Debby Marsh’s (Gloria Grahame) face. Lang’s camera holds on the stove where the pot had been boiling while Debby screams, a seeming illustration of the maxim that the imagination of the audience is far more vivid than anything the film could actually show. In Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo (1955), a pair of hoods torture police lieutenant Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) by shoving a crook’s hearing aid into his ear and bashing it, while the captured cop writhes in pain in the chair they’ve strapped him to. Few sequences of on-screen violence from the classic noir period feel more brutal than a moment early in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death (1947), when a sadistic killer-for-hire named Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) visits the apartment of a suspected stool pigeon; when Tommy finds the crook has already vanished, he instead punishes the rat’s wheelchair-bound mother, rolling her into the hallway and shoving the chair down the stairs, laughing all the while. It was Widmark’s debut film, and he gives an outrageous performance that bridges the gap between violence and humor. Though Widmark avoided typecasting for much of his long career, the Tommy Udo template would inform the noir villains he would portray in his next two films, William Keighley’s The Street with No Name (1948) and Jean Negulesco’s Road House (1948). Widmark’s grinning madmen laugh at the absurdities of the worlds they inhabit; laughter is their defense mechanism against the cynicism bred by life in a morally bankrupt society.

Working at 20th Century Fox, Widmark would be right at home in the noir films then flourishing at a number of studios. Though Warner Brothers and RKO Pictures led the way in noir, Fox was home to Otto Preminger, whose 1944 film Laura set the template for a number of intense psychological dramas in the noir cycle. Other Fox Preminger films like Fallen Angel (1945) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) demonstrate that the studio was a great home for stories of the underworld, especially those that were interested in indicting a sick society through unflinching portrayal of its flawed citizens. The three noir films in which Widmark would appear, all for different directors, use his characters to confront the consequences of total moral degradation. The first of these is Kiss of Death, in which low-rent crook Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), reeling after the suicide of his wife leaves his children in an orphanage while he rots in jail, decides to work with law enforcement to bring down the psychotic Udo. Widmark receives fourth billing, the top name on the film’s second cast title card, just below the word “With,” marking him firmly as a supporting character. For his next film, The Street with No Name, Widmark had moved up a few places to second; his gangster Alec Stiles is the film’s primary antagonist, the target of undercover FBI agent Gene Cordell (Mark Stevens), who embeds himself within Stiles’ organization in an effort to bring him down. Bizarre psychosexual politics dominate Road House, as Widmark’s bar-owner Jefty’s unrequited love for his singer Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino) turns dark when she falls for his best friend Pete (Cornel Wilde). Jefty frames Pete for a theft but convinces the judge to release him into his care so he can inflict emotional torture. Widmark unites all three, oscillating between mania and menace. However, the actor’s performances in his early noir films work best when he combines the two.

In Kiss of Death, Widmark is introduced somewhat innocuously. He has no established screen persona, and is not recognizable to an audience that is seeing him for the first time. Bianco sits in a city jail cell, waiting to be sentenced. Just down the bench, Udo leans against the wall next to the bars, restless and bored. Though Udo becomes essential to the narrative in the film’s second half, at this moment, it seems like he might be a one-scene special, a colorful side man in the long tradition of hoods and crooks in the gangster genre and noir film. Annoyed by the rhythmic path of the cell guard, Udo giggles, then mutters to himself: “For a nickel, I’d grab him. Stick both thumbs right in his eyes, hang on ‘til he drops dead.” Closing the loop, he giggles again. Bianco turns his face away, in disbelief at the type of crook he’s been locked up with. Udo’s imagination gives way to Widmark’s physical actions; he slowly mimes the disgusting act, which is among the most graphic described (but not shown, obviously, due to censorship) in all of noir. The description is not performative — he isn’t showing off to impress his temporary cell mate, but instead giving vocalization to his sadistic inner fantasies, dragging them out into the open without regard for how they will be interpreted or received by other people. For as ostentatious as Widmark’s giggling is, the moment is strikingly underplayed; in this way, the performance both anticipates and diverges from later cackling gangsters like Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990). Pesci’s Tommy is combustible and easily baited, while Widmark’s is quieter, an especially striking contrast given the widespread tendency for broad performances in gangster films going back to the 1930s tradition. In films like The Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932), the central characters are all broadly drawn ethnic stereotypes, their sharp dialogue given full expression by punctuated delivery from James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni, respectively. Pesci’s DeVito is, unsurprisingly in a film directed by the cinephile Scorsese, more of a piece with the 1930s gangster than Widmark’s Udo, despite Kiss of Death’s appearance a scant 15 years after the dawning of the gangster cycle.

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Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death

For an actor making his debut appearance in Kiss of Death, Widmark has astonishing control of his face, seeming to know instinctively how the camera will capture what he does. When he grins, Widmark lets his upper lip slowly peel back, like a curtain drawing on his perfectly placed row of top teeth. Before long, the wolfish smile seemingly stretches across his entire face. He lets out giggles in little fits, laughter that almost sounds like it belongs in a classic cartoon, not a rough-and-tumble gangster movie. They’re staccato drumbeats, coming in rhythms of three and four, then stopping just as suddenly. Hathaway’s close-ups of Udo are the most revealing moments of the film — Widmark manages to separate the laughter escaping his lips from his eyes, which bear no sign of joy. His mouth laughs, but his eyes remain dead, focused intently on Bianco during a tense confrontation over a dinner table in the film’s final act. When Udo visits the old lady in the wheelchair in the film’s most iconic scene, he cracks his first smile when realizes that her son, his intended target, has vanished, his dresser drawers cleared out. He laughs when it dawns on him that he’ll have to punish the old woman instead to send a message to the itinerant stool pigeon. Hathaway captures Widmark in frightening medium close-up, his lip curling back over his teeth, as he verbally tortures the old lady before grabbing the electrical cord from a lamp, and tying it around her wheelchair-bound body. In the hallway above the stairs, he pushes her suddenly, without any sinister, mustache-twirling bravado. He just does it, and then steps forward to watch her tumble, an excited smirk on his face. Hathaway takes a matter-of-fact approach to this moment of shocking violence without any crashes of orchestral music, leaving only the lingering echo of Udo’s cackles ringing on the soundtrack.

In The Street with No Name, Widmark’s gang leader Stiles is much more the ruthless pragmatist than the cackling madman. The FBI gets wise to Stiles and sends their man Cordell undercover to infiltrate his gang when a suspect in a robbery turns up dead. There is more to the story, however; the dead man was innocent, his identification planted at the crime scene to throw the police off the scent, giving Stiles and his gang time to fence the stolen goods and evade capture. The film’s voice-of-God narration and free use of FBI iconography often makes it little more than an official commercial for the ingenuity and dedication of G-men, but The Street with No Name is more interesting when it is examining Stiles’ efforts to both control his gang through fear and outwit law enforcement. In Widmark’s second on-screen appearance, it is easy to feel him trying to withdraw from the overt psychosis that made his performance as Udo so chilling. His first appearance in The Street with No Name quiets a gym full of boxers, as his voice cuts through the cavernous room where Cordell (now in character as George Manly) has tried to get himself noticed by the local criminal element by challenging another fighter’s status. When the unseen Stiles calls out, the argument stops and the gym goes silent; Keighley cuts around to reveal Stiles as he walks forward and agrees to let the two men fight in the ring. Widmark is much more restrained, without the killer grin and rumble-strip laugh, but Stiles has the same dead eyes as Udo. Here, however, their vacancy underlines Stiles’ cold-blooded control of himself and his organization. The unstable Udo could never have led an outfit, but Stiles does so with aplomb. When he does smile, Widmark imbues the slow curl of his lip with more icy menace than chaotic violence. Udo might be capable of anything in the improvised moment, the sudden explosion of brutality that could send an old woman careening down a flight of stairs in her wheelchair. But Stiles is calculating, sizing up the situation, playing all the angles; as Stiles, Widmark’s smirk makes him much smarter, a dangerous crook with an ability to see around corners. “I’m building an organization along scientific lines,” he boasts. He fashions himself the CEO of a business, commanding his men to dress sharply and obey every order he gives. As such, he dictates his goons’ behavior, upbraiding them for laughing during the planning of a heist. Two films into his career, Widmark has effectively undermined his iconic debut performance by completely refashioning his gangster image from the laughing maniac into a humorless criminal executive with no time for hijinks.

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Richard Widmark in The Street with No Name

Later, after Stiles presides over a meeting of the thugs as they plan their next heist, Cordell-as-Manly compliments the gang leader on his command of the men; Stiles responds, “What’s the use of having a war if you don’t learn from it?” Though a number of noir characters have a similar history of violence, this is one of the most overt alignments between experience in combat and effective criminality in all of the cycle. In any noir, men of a certain age can almost always be read as combat veterans, even when the narrative itself does not explicitly ascribe that status to them. Films like The Blue Dahlia (1946), Dead Reckoning (1947) and In a Lonely Place (1950) all feature veterans as main characters, all of whom have trouble letting go of the violence the war asked of them. In John Huston’s heist film The Asphalt Jungle (1950), however, the crooks’ history overseas is left as background, a potential way to read their economic hardship and skill with firearms in the context of social issues. Few characters so clearly attribute their success as criminals to their wartime service in dialogue, however; most are prisoners of it, trapped by their inability to move past either trauma or the violence they were asked to carry out in the name of their country. Stiles has turned it to his advantage, a one-man personification of the efficiency of the industrial America that flooded the roads with automobiles and then, just as quickly, the fields of Europe with tanks.

All that efficiency masks Stiles’ brutal streak, which he unleashes as the walls start to close in on him. He ferociously attacks his paramour when he suspects her of tipping off the cops — it was Cordell, of course — to his latest heist, slapping her repeatedly with a smirk sometimes threatening to spread across his face. After Stiles’ contact in the police department reveals Cordell’s identity to him, instead of coldly bumping off the informant, the gangster contrives an elaborate plan to lure him into a confrontational execution under the guise of another heist in a darkened warehouse. In these final scenes, Widmark’s playful side returns, with Stiles showing teeth like Udo. He coldly smiles at Cordell when he hands him a stack of bills pulled from a safe, insisting the money is all his. He even lets out a little laugh, one much more restrained than Udo’s, when he starts to coyly threaten Cordell, wondering aloud about the “most scientific way” to get rid of him. During the climactic gunfight that breaks out between Stiles’ gang and the police in the warehouse, Stiles is a trapped rat, all his ruthless pragmatism rendered moot by the relentless advance of the police, his scarf dangling loosely around his neck, sweat lining his brow. He is shot down by the police.

If Widmark’s Udo represents one extreme (the laughing murderer) and Stiles represents the other (the humorless gangland boss), his third performance, as Jefty in Road House, reconciles the two. The film’s opening credits play out against a wide shot of the eponymous bar, the neon sign that reads “Jefty’s Road House” lighting up the rural night sky. In montage, Negulesco takes the camera through the inside of the bar, underlining Widmark’s role as its owner. Themes of ownership suffuse the film, as Jefty inaugurates the conflict by hiring Lily Stevens to sing at the club, but quickly comes to see her as his property. He loves her, but she doesn’t care about him much beyond the paychecks he signs. Things get more complicated when she falls for Pete, Jefty’s best friend and partner in the road house business. Jefty, however, is the establishment’s sole owner, and he soon grows to see everything and everyone as extensions of his kingdom. He stands with Lily near the beginning of Road House, surveying his empire: “It’s all Jefty’s,” he says. Early on in the film, he is a local business tycoon, the biggest fish in the pond. He runs the bar where everyone comes to forget their troubles, and is used to getting his way. Like Stiles, Jefty is a veteran, combat experience overseas during the war having cemented his childhood friendship with Pete even further. They are bound together by their shared history, which only makes the pain of Pete’s eventual romance with Lily sting harder for Jefty.

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Richard Widmark in Road House

All of this sounds like it should make Jefty a sympathetic character, but Widmark uses his character’s feelings of rejection as motivation for a total psychotic break. Jefty prostrates himself before Lily on his way out of town on a hunting trip, bringing her breakfast in bed and insisting, “I’ve never done anything like this for a girl.” He means it, but when Lily falls for Pete in his absence, he becomes a broken, vengeful maniac when Pete comes clean about the attraction between them. Road House uses Jefty to personify its critique of the ownership class, resting upon the same general distrust of American systems that flowered in many noir films. Business owners like Jefty are so used to getting everything they want, when they want it, that Lily’s refusal to marry him threatens his entire sense of self. When Jefty feels like what is properly his has been unfairly stolen from him, he lashes out, cooking up the outrageous scheme to manipulate the local justice system, relying on his unimpeachable standing in the community to frame Pete for the theft of two thousand dollars from the bar’s safe. When Pete and Lily are grabbed at the train station by the police and brought down the station, Jefty sits in the corner of the interrogation room, the dark power pulling the strings. He steps forward when asked to detail his accusations against Pete, who knows it’s a frame-up and refuses to openly accuse Jefty of conspiring against him. Widmark’s steely reserve in this sequence in the police station is reminiscent of the coldness of Stiles; he has hatched a ruthless scheme to deliver his friend first to the authorities, and then from the authorities when he appeals to the court for mercy. All of his machinations are designed to inflict the maximum amount of torture, a more calculated manifestation of Tommy Udo’s grinning realization that he can toss an old woman down a flight of stairs. After the scheme pays off and the judge releases Pete into Jefty’s custody, he hosts a party at his home, during which he cackles like a madman, frightfully amused by his own private joke. He laughs because he knows he has reasserted his ownership over Pete and Lily, now trapped with him by court order.

Road House’s bravura final act is driven entirely by Widmark’s performance, as he engages in an escalating series of psychological games designed to torture Lily and Pete for their betrayal, with bar manager Susie (Celeste Holm) dragged in for good measure. Isolated at Jefty’s hunting cabin in the woods, he subjects the three of them to ritualistic humiliation over drinks before they all step outside for a little target practice. Jefty is an avid hunter, and blasts a can of tomato juice off a log at 50 feet in order to remind the others that attempting to run away is a fool’s errand. “Looks like blood,” he observes. The scene grows more tense when Jefty insists that Lily take the rifle and try to knock a hat out of a tree, but distracts her by standing just beneath it; with a glint in his eye, he dares her to fire at him. The scene must have made an impression on Lupino, who virtually restaged it five years later in The Hitchhiker (1953), a thriller she directed in which a maniacal killer holds a couple of fishermen hostage. In Lupino’s version, Emmett Myers (William Talman) holds a revolver on Gil Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) and commands him to aim his rifle at Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) and shoot something out of his hand. In Road House, Widmark’s cackling bluff — the gun isn’t loaded — defuses the tense moment that forces a non-violent person to inhabit a twisted perspective. He remains a laughing maniac all the way through the end of the film, a hunt through the woods with Jefty in hot pursuit of the fleeing Lily, Pete and Susie. When Lily finally gets ahold of the gun and shoots Jefty, it is in defiance of his desire to control her; Negulesco’s camera advances towards Lily (Lupino almost looks directly into the camera, but not quite) as Jefty staggers on. When Lily fires, Jefty suddenly stops and collapses: “I told you she was different,” he chokes out before dying, shocked that she fought back against his professed ownership of her and won.

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Richard Widmark in Road House

In the aftermath of these three films, it is a wonder that Widmark avoided typecasting, especially in the heavily controlled studio system reliant on packaged star images. He made an astonishing impact with his first role, earning an Academy Award nomination (his only one) for playing Udo; it is the kind of mannered performance that might have hamstrung a lesser actor. Even as Widmark remained a staple of noir films, he began to evolve further, demonstrating his range. In Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950), Widmark is a military doctor charged with stopping the spread of a disease carried by a brutal gangster; he plays a charismatic hustler trying to set up a wrestling event in the London-set Night and the City (1950), one of his finest performances; Widmark is a self-involved pickpocket who discovers his patriotism when he realizes he has lifted Communist secrets from a group of columnists in Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953). In each, he becomes the anti-hero, a product of successful work as the colorful heavies in his first three films. However, Widmark’s latter noir performances are more in line with the other noir anti-heroes who populate the genre. His early noir villains are unique: Udo, Stiles and Jefty are sociopaths riding the line of chaos and control, made literal by Widmark’s oscillation between laughter and dead-eyed menace. Though the laughing maniac has become an archetype in a number of genres, and is often an easy shortcut for showboating actors to make a character seem crazy, Widmark offers a succession of performances in Kiss of Death, The Street with No Name and Road House that show a young actor building, then resisting, and then reconciling his own burgeoning screen persona.

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.

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