The Noir File: Widmark is unforgettable as Tommy Udo

By Mike Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Grinning gangster Tommy Udo was a career-defining role for Richard Widmark.

Kiss of Death” (1947, dir. Henry Hathaway). Tuesday, May 14; 8 p.m. (5 p.m.). One of the most memorable, and scariest, of all film noir villains is Tommy Udo from “Kiss of Death,” as played by the young Richard Widmark. Tommy was a constantly grinning, giggling gunman with a pale, thin, deadly-looking face, topped by a trim fedora – a face and a chuckle that carried the promise of cold-blooded murder.

In “Kiss of Death” – another of director Henry Hathaway’s semi-true crime movies, this time co-scripted by the great Ben HechtVictor Mature plays Nick Bianco, an ex-crook trying to go straight, for his sweet wife Nettie (Coleen Gray). To escape his past, Nick becomes a mole recruited by the cops (including Brian Donlevy and Karl Malden) to infiltrate Udo’s mob and get the goods on this gangster. Udo falls for his new mob-mate, giggling, like a ton of bricks. Obviously, something very bad will happen when this psychopathic hood discovers that his new gun buddy is a traitor.

“Kiss of Death” is a classic, vintage Hollywood crime thriller, one of the film noirs that everyone has to see – to savor Hecht’s smart script and Hathaway’s taut direction, and to enjoy the terrific work of the entire killer cast and company. But mostly, you have to see it for Widmark. His Tommy Udo is an impersonation of pure evil so right-on that it almost freezes your blood to watch and hear him – and so convincing that a real-life member of the Mob, the notorious killer “Crazy Joey” Gallo, patterned his entire public personality after Widmark’s performance.

“Crazy Joey” Gallo

The role made Widmark a star, and, though he tried never to repeat it, and played mostly good guys for the rest of his career, he could never really get away from Tommy Udo and his pale, cold eyes, and what James Agee called his “falsetto baby talk, laced with tittering laughs.”

Tommy Udo is the last guy in the world you want to have his eye on you, the last guy whose laugh you want to hear on a dark street. And he’s the last guy you want to see standing behind a sick old lady, in a wheelchair, at the top of a staircase. Giggling.

Friday, May 10

6 a.m. (3 a.m.): “The Informer” (1935, John Ford). With Victor McLaglen, Preston Foster and Heather Angel. Reviewed on FNB December 12, 2012.

11 p.m. (8 p.m.): “Under Capricorn” (1949, Alfred Hitchcock). With Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten and Margaret Leighton. Reviewed on FNB November 17, 2012.

Saturday, May 11

9:15 a.m. (6:15 a.m.): “Crime and Punishment” (1935, Josef von Sternberg). Von Sternberg’s enjoyably arty adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s classic Russian novel of crime, punishment and redemption – with Peter Lorre as the philosophical student killer Raskolnikov and Edward Arnold as his nemesis, police inspector Porfiry. It’s one of Hollywood’s more intense imitations of the German expressionist style and an obvious precursor of film noir. Photographed by Lucien Ballard (“The Killing”). (In 1935, critics preferred the just-as-arty French version by director Pierre Chenal.)

2 p.m. (11 a.m.): “Dead Ringer” (1964, Paul Henried). With Bette Davis, Karl Malden and Peter Lawford. Reviewed on FNB March 25, 2013.

Sunday, May 12

7:30 a.m. (4:30 a.m.): “The Reckless Moment” (1949, Max Ophuls). With Joan Bennett, James Mason and Geraldine Brooks. Reviewed on FNB July 13, 2012.

Al Pacino stars in “Dog Day Afternoon,” one of Sidney Lumet’s best films.

Monday, May 13

12:30 a.m. (9:30 p.m.): “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975, Sidney Lumet). Two inept but likable bank robbers (Al Pacino as Sonny and John Cazale as Sal) try to stick up a Brooklyn bank one Saturday. But they become hopelessly enmeshed in a broadcast hostage crisis with the local police (Charles Durning), the FBI (James Broderick) and the New York City media, especially when it’s revealed that Sonny is stealing the money to pay for a sex change operation for his neurotic lover (Chris Sarandon). One of Lumet’s best films.

Tuesday, May 14

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Kiss of Death” (See Pick of the Week)

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “Where the Sidewalk Ends” (1950, Otto Preminger). With Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney and Gary Merrill. Reviewed on FNB December 26, 2012.

11:45 p.m. (8:45p.m.): “Point Blank” (1967, John Boorman). With Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson and Keenan Wynn. Reviewed on FNB January 28, 2013.

1:30 a.m. (10:30 p.m.): “A Better Tomorrow” (1986, John Woo). One of the top Hong Kong crime-action thrillers, this is a story about a duel of will between brothers on both sides of the law (Leslie Cheung and Ti Lung). This film, which spawned two sequels, made an international star of Chow Yun-Fat (as a genial gangster) and a directorial idol out of John Woo. (In Chinese, with subtitles.)

3:15 a.m. (12:15 a.m.): “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (1974, Joseph Sargent). Robert Shaw is a master-criminal who hijacks a New York City subway train, holding the passengers hostage for a million dollars. Walter Matthau is the wry, streetwise cop trying to derail him. A first-rate thriller, based on John Godey’s novel, wittily scripted by Peter Stone, co-starring Martin Balsam and Hector Elizondo. That last freeze-frame is a killer.

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