Richard Widmark: The Outsider

Pickup On South Street

Others have posted obits and bios, and today’s New York Times obit by Douglas Martin is well worth reading. I will focus on one aspect of Richard Widmark’s craft.

My screen memories of Mr Widmark are bound up with his Westerns on B&W television during adolescence. His tough enigmatic persona in those movies resonated deeply, more than his film noir roles.

But there is a common theme: the outsider. The great westerns and noirs are essentially stories of a loner on the “outside”: whether as violent psychopath or flawed hero. Widmark inhabited such roles so well because he was an outsider himself, and this comes out clearly in the NY Times piece.

He was originally turned down for his breakthrough role in Kiss Of Death (1947) by the director, who told him that he was too “clean cut and intellectual” for the part. Throughout his life he protected his privacy and shunned the celebrity lifestyle.

I think his role in Samuel Fuller’s Pickup On South Street (1953) is his most nuanced noir performance: he profoundly portrays the psyche and persona of a petty criminal not only outside the law but outside even the criminal milieu – he lives an almost an ascetic existence in a shack on the city’s waterfront. When his “island” is threatened by a woman’s attachment he reacts with instinctual violence before she eventually draws him out.

The conversion scene in a boat moored near the shack is a no-man’s land where the b-girl and the pick-pocket traverse the narrow emotional and social confines of their existence. While we must acknowledge Fuller’s creative genius here, Widmark’s performance is pivotal.

One thought on “Richard Widmark: The Outsider”

  1. After watching Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950) tonight, I must say that Widmark’s performance as Harry Fabian, the dreamer of the wrong dreams, has the edge over his portrayal in Pickup On South Street.

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