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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Crazy Scary: Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo in KISS OF DEATH (1947)

I'm pleased to share this post on Tommy Udo for the Great Villain Blogathon 2016, brought to you by Kristina at Speakeasy, Ruth at Shadows and Satin, and Karen at Silver Screenings. Check out their pages for the complete list of great posts for the characters we love to hate. NOTE: POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD!

Imagine you never heard of Richard Widmark, didn't know he garnered an Oscar nomination for his first ever film, KISS OF DEATH, and certainly aren't aware of any infamous scene involving a middle-aged woman and a wheelchair.  Audiences in 1947, coming to see KISS OF DEATH for the first time, would fit this description.  In 1947 you would have likely paid your money to see Victor Mature, a reliable, good-looking leading man, or perhaps wanted to check out new leading lady Coleen Gray.  Maybe you had heard of and admired the work of director Henry Hathaway, who had a respectable resume with films starting from 1930, and in fact continued his career through the mid 1970s with directing credits on classics as TRUE GRIT, NEVADA SMITH, and AIRPORT.  Or maybe you were attracted by the movie's provocative title and wanted to be scared, seduced, or both.  Coming out of the movie, though, you would most likely be talking most about one thing: the villain in this piece, Tommy Udo.  This post examines how skillfully Widmark, Hathaway, and the film's writers and crew, created this inimitable character.

Immediately after the opening credits
The film itself is a respectable but not outstanding noir, with hallmarks of the genre including voice-over narration at the beginning and end (however, this time coming from a woman (!)), and on-location settings in NYC claiming to be the real locations.  Both features were common to the 'docu-noir' style of the time, which is a nice touch and adds to the grittiness of the action.
Victor Mature as Bianco trying to
make a quiet getaway from the crime scene
After the credits roll Victor Mature makes his appearance, a tall, dark and handsome man named Bianco, who looks too straight to be staging a jewelry store robbery in the middle of a crowded commercial high rise during prime shopping time.  He is clumsy in how he handles the robbery, and bungles every attempt to escape.  He gets caught and, it turns out, he has an extensive record of various similar crimes and has done time.  Considering this is Victor Mature, and he looks as if he could have just given a sermon at his local Presbyterian church--that's how earnest he comes across--you might have trouble buying him as a criminal.  Nonetheless he would likely succeed in winning your sympathy as the protagonist who needs another chance to redeem himself.

About 13 minutes into the film you'll encounter the character Tommy Udo (pronounced "YOO-doe"), not as a live human but as words on a page, declaring him worthy of a prison sentence.  You probably take little notice or meaning to those words, and certainly don't appreciate the foreshadowing of the future link between the two men.  He certainly wasn't part of the jewelry store robbery that got our hero in trouble.
The protagonist, Bianco, and villain Udo, to be sentenced on the same day.
Widmark as Udo keeping an eye
 on the guards outside his cell
However, when you first *see* him in the flesh -- he makes an immediate impression as a thin blond man behind bars, sitting to the right of Mature.  Your hair will likely rise on the back of your neck. Why? He speaks with an ugly street-cultivated New York accent, spitting his words and sneering while goading both the prison guard, "that cheap squirt passing up and down", and Mature's Bianco.  And then he switches from spitting insults to laughing -- and what a laugh.  He curls his lips and emits a nasal chuckle that borders just on the hysterical.  (Ironically, the laugh originated from a nervous habit that Widmark had when originally reading for the role -- Kim R. Holston, Richard Widmark, a Bio-Bibliography.) Still, rather than assigning any real importance to this character, and not knowing anything about his past, you're thinking, oh, this is just the type of uncomfortable company our hero is going to have to deal with during his time in Sing-Sing.  (Bianco gets a full sentence by refusing a deal from Assistant District Attorney D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy) to get less time by squealing on his crime partners.)

The next scene has Bianco and Udo in a train on their way to Sing-Sing, and they are handcuffed together.  Again a foreshadowing of the characters' fateful connection that, as a viewer in 1947, you would not have appreciated, but it certainly is a clever touch by writers Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer.

Bianco (Mature) enjoys a fun moment
with Nettie (Gray), now married.
Udo will disappear from your mind as he disappears from the plot of the film for some 30 more minutes.  We see how young, innocent Coleen Gray as Nettie comes to the emotional aid of Bianco, and how Bianco changes his mind about not squealing after learning one of his partners ("Rizzo" - never seen on screen) was involved with his wife, leading to her suicide, and wants to take revenge and get his life back.  He is paroled under the watchful eye of D'Angelo, reunites with his daughters, and marries Nettie.  But the price is high.  The deal Bianco makes with D'Angelo is to use his scheister of an attorney, Earl Howser, wonderfully played by Taylor Holmes, to get to Rizzo--the associate at whom Bianco throws suspicion as a squealer in an earlier crime.  Howser hires, you guessed it, hit man Udo, also freshly out of prison, to get to Rizzo. But Udo doesn't 'get' Rizzo, just his wheelchair bound mother (Mildred Dunnock) who he encounters in the famous wheelchair scene.

Widmark and Mildred Dunnock
This scene is where we see Widmark pull out all the stops.  As a 1947 viewer of course you know this guy is trouble, but unlike scary tough characters portrayed by the likes of Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney in gangster films, this guy looks like a strong wind would take care of him. He's hunched over, swaying slightly back and forth, his normal posture demanding his shoulders are uneven, and stomps what remains of his cigarette on the apartment floor.  When he discovers Rizzo has made a hasty exit and his mother is lying to cover up, he approaches her first with that deranged laughter, then rapidly switches to rage. His habit of wiping his mouth during the emotional transition is a tic that appears later in the film -- a nice touch Widmark adds to give us the feeling this guy is unhinged.  He says "You know what I do to squealers? I let 'em have it in the belly, so they can roll around for a long time thinkin' it over."

Then, he jumps into action, rips out the electric cord from a lamp, wraps it tight around Dunnock, and hurls her, wheelchair and all, down the stairs, while she screams before crashing to her most certain death.  You, the viewer, might lose your lunch at this point.  This animal, with not the slightest hesitation, kills with pleasure, and he doesn't even care that it's messy -- he's panther on the loose.

Watch the entire infamous wheelchair scene here:

You'll barely have a chance to recover from the shock of this scene before it becomes clear that Bianco's association with Udo is not done -- he's been told he has to get in Udo's confidence to pull critical damning information that D'Angelo can use to get Udo put away.  Now the two men are back in the same scene, both of their fates hanging on what the other will do. You're likely scared at the thought that Bianco has to deal with this guy -- if he slips only slightly, the consequences will be severe.  Your fear is only enhanced by the contrast between the two men -- Mature is tall, dark, large-boned and, Widmark is blond and slight. Widmark has a frantic energy, while Mature is calm, solemn, and quiet. The scene plays out with Udo believing ex-con Bianco is his "paaaal", and takes him to various night clubs, putting on displays of ill-treating everyone around, but eventually gives Bianco critical info. that he needs.
Bianco (Mature) looks on as Udo makes threats towards his girl--just look at her face.
But this isn't all.  Bianco is going to have to testify at Udo's trial, which D'Angelo says is a sure conviction.  You breathe a sigh of relief that that may be it for Udo--but no. The prosecution's case wasn't strong enough, and Udo was let free--free to hunt down Bianco.  The tension is ratcheted up when Bianco, on his own terms, decides to entice Udo into a late-night meeting with the purpose of sacrificing himself so Udo can be caught in the act of murder.  This scene is terrifying, and with Widmark's portrayal of Udo as a madman, you wonder if he will behave in the rational ways Bianco is expecting.  I'm not going to spoil the ending of the film, although I realize many readers know it.

I've mentioned how Widmark uses his voice, mannerisms, and body to portray an unhinged psychopath.  But beyond that, 20th Century-Fox's costume and wardrobe team made excellent choices to enhance this impression on the viewer. At first I knew there was something about the way this guy dressed...sure, perhaps it was the unusual dark suit and light tie combination.  But then I realized, only on second viewing--the HAT!!  The hat initially seems like a typical 1940s fedora.  But Udo's hat is out of proportion--the brim is too wide and too flat, dwarfing Widmark's head and face.  The effect is somewhat clown-like.  It's the clown-like effect that makes Widmark's Udo just that much crazier and scarier.  Have a look:

After his turn in this film in 1947, Widmark was no longer unknown. In an interview with the Telegraph UK's Michael Shelden, he stated he felt like he "overdid" his portrayal of Udo, and was self-conscious, knowing he wasn't Darryl Zanuck's original choice for the role.  His career off and running, he got teased by fellow actors about his crazy laugh, but he had attained his goal--to be in the movies.  For a while he was typecast him into playing very similar characters in films such as ROAD HOUSE.  Luckily for film lovers and for Widmark, and unlike other talents who were typecast early (Laird Cregar, for one), he was able to exercise his acting range in different roles and is remembered not just for this film, but for portrayals in westerns, and as solemn, morally-grounded characters such as Col. Tad Lawson in JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1962).

Frank Gorshin as 'The Riddler'
Yet, it may be his first role that is his most iconic.  Some have pointed out the character similarities between Udo and 'The Riddler' or even 'The Joker' in Batman franchise.  In fact Frank Gorshin, who portrayed The Riddler in the 1966 film and the TV series, cited Widmark's Udo as an inspiration.  You may also see a bit of Udo in Heath Ledger's acclaimed portrayal of The Joker as all kinetic energy and malevolent insanity in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).  Regardless, Widmark's accomplishment with this character ensures that Udo, once experienced, will likely never be too far from our nightmares.


  1. That wheelchair scene is STILL shocking!

    Richard Widmark makes for a perfect Tommy Udo – his voice, mannerisms and that creepy hat.

    Thanks for joining the blogathon, and for bringing Tommy Udo with you!

    1. Thanks for the comment. A shout out to the Brattle Theatre (Cambridge MA) where I saw this film for the first time a few months ago, and yes, I was shocked, although I knew a bit of what I was in for.

      My pleasure to join the blogathon. I hope I can shake Tommy loose, though! ;-)

  2. A young acquaintance of mine wondered why I was not as impressed with Ledger in "The Dark Knight" as he was and I told him "I have seen Tommy Udo". I recently checked and that friend has yet to see "Kiss of Death". I should direct him to your article.

    Henry Hathaway said of the character that "The only man that I'm scared of is a hophead. I'm nervous around 'em. I'm scared of 'em. I don't know what the hell they're gonna do. They're unpredictable, they're vicious. They're not themselves any more. They're psychotic. They're crazy." He certainly got that from Richard Widmark. What a debut!

    1. That's a great quote by Hathaway--he got *exactly* what he was looking for in Widmark.
      I thought Ledger was chilling and brilliant in his own way -- but Widmark's Udo set the mold, and I certainly appreciate that more now. Thanks for reading!

  3. Enjoyed reading this very much, and totally agree about the hat, the shiftiness and instability and more. Iconic and unforgettable baddie and loved that you followed the thread through the great Batman villain performances! Like so many actors who were great villains, Widmark was such a nice guy in real life. Many thanks for taking part!

    1. Hi Kristina, thanks for reading and your kind comments. I didn't know too much about Widmark before this but enjoyed learning about him -- he seemed like a very grounded man, nice guy, with the great career too. Knowing how often Hollywood ate people for breakfast, then and now, he must have had incredible inner strength. I'll be checking out more of his work.

  4. You can also see a lot of Tommy Udo in Laurence Fishburne's Jimmy Jump (The King of New York) and David Patrick Kelly's Luther (The Warriors).

    1. Great--I need to see these, and I'll keep your comment in mind. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  5. I read that audiences in 1947 may have seen similar frenetic types in war movies like crazy guards in enemy prison camps.

    1. Interesting! I will have to keep my eye out for this the next time I watch a war movie from that era. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  6. Who played Tommy Udo's (Richard Widmark's) girlfriend In "Kiss of Death"? She is pictured above, seated with Mature and Widmark in the night club. I can't find her listed anywhere -- and can't find any other picture of her.

  7. It's too bad they didn't include Udo in the 1995 version of KOD. Some people have been saying that Willem Defoe would have made a great Joker. I think Defoe would have made a great Udo too.

    1. Omigosh, yes! I haven't seen the 1995 version, but totally agree that Willem Dafoe has that impish, manic quality that would make a great Udo!