Trevor Howard did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Peter Willems in Outcast of the Islands.
Trevor Howard is an actor I've liked in the past in his roles as either the suave gentlemen, or the fierce gruff type, this is perhaps the most challenging role I've seen him undertake. It is also the first of his leading turns where he's actually the sole and central lead. The film opens with his character Peter Willems acting as a manger for a merchant at a trading post near Singapore. Howard is pretty marvelous to begin with in portraying a man about town. He brings such confidence in Willems as he goes about his life of luxury. Howard gives us a man without really a care in the world as he about his day of smoking, drinking and playing games while casually ignoring his wife and most things around him. Howard is quite a lout though in that he does manage to bring a genuine charm within this behavior and is rather suave. It suggests how Willems earned his position to begin with, as he really is rather smooth to be sure. There seems to be more to this though when an old mentor of sorts arrives, a trading ship Captain, Tom Lingard (Ralph Richardson) who took a liking to Willems when he was younger.
During the arrival of Lingard, Willems announces himself and Howard brings such a genuine pride in Willems as he shows off his finery and states his rather cushy position. Unfortunately this is a short lived joy when Willems is instantly fired when he is accused of having stolen from the very merchant he had been working for. Howard technically seems to pull off the impossible of sorts as he somehow prevents you from instantly condemning Willems, even though he really should be. Howard to be sure does not hold back in showing the immediate reaction in Willems that reveals the man's petty nature. Howard brims with this intense bitterness of the man, as for a moment any sense of that charm is lost as he closes down into seemingly a hatred for everyone. Howard is particularly despicable when Willems essentially dismisses his wife as only a burden to him, the venom in Howard is oh so pure, hinting early on the real nature of the man. Something funny happens though after this point, and as everyone seems to ignore his requests for help, Howard kind of wins you over once again.
It is not for becoming a better man truly, as Howard makes Willems a real sad sack, though earnestly so that you do feel sorry for him, even though you shouldn't. For some reason it helps that Howard carefully brings back that glint of a roguish charm that is hard to ignore. Howard is remarkable because as he for some reason gains sympathy from the audience once again, he makes it wholly believable that he'd convince Richardson's Lingard to give him a second chance, because hey why not. There is something truly special in this in that Howard's charisma makes it seem like he has the potential for change, even though Howard has not shown a single sign of real repentance in his performance. It's pretty great as Willems gains Lingard's sympathy by faking a suicide, because after all look at that sorrowful face it looks like he's learned his lesson. Of course though it might seem like sorrow on the outer surface, Howard is honest to his character as if you look any deeper you can see the man is only sorry that he got caught. Nevertheless he is given his chance as Lingard brings him to the more remote trading post, filled with local natives, in order to reform himself by working with Lingard's son-in-law Elmer Almeyer (Robert Morley).
Howard is clever as he does show a change in Willems in this new situation, but hardly for the better. Howard more than anything expresses a general discontent in the man, a tension in his physical manner of a man who simply is somewhere he does not want to be. Howard is careful though in that he still somehow hides just how despicable he truly is, and he tricks you into thinking this might be a story about a man's redemption, it isn't. Willems begins to interact with the natives and Elmer along with his wife (Wendy Hiller), and Howard portrays all of this in a very casual way. That is he never suggests much growth in Willems, finding instead that the man treats the island as an inconvenience most of the time, and essentially interacts mostly to remove his boredom. Willems eventually finds something he believes is worth his interest in the local chief's daughter Aissa (Kerima). A romance does develop though Howard again doesn't give it much depth, and no that's not a criticism. Howard instead stays true to the man Willems is instead by conveying such a distinct lust in Willems throughout the affair, which luckily for Willems Aissa shares the same lust for him.
Howard is fascinating to watch as he conveys a most unusual reaction once he become more acquainted with the island, which does not lead to good things. Above all Howard conveys a lack of understanding of it, rather always maintaining the sense that Willem's life is more defined with pleasure than anything else. Willems runs into trouble when the chief does not condone his relationship with his daughter, yet Howard shows it never phases Willems. He reunites with her again and again, and Howard still only shows the most surface of interaction even when he ends up critically injuring the chief after the chief attacks him with a knife. There is a frustration that Howard brings, but still never a true revelation. Howard is terrific in portraying the confusion that arrives from a man who never bothers to care to know what his actions truly amount to. After the attack Willems learns nothing, and even decides to stab Lingard in the back by joining up with a rival merchant after Almeyer refuses to give Willems any further help.
Willems though decides to misuse the new found position to get back at Almeyer. Howard is pretty amazing in the sequence where he essentially leads a native attack against Almeyer and his storehouse. Howard brings this pettiness about the whole affair, with a hint of madness, all just to get back at the man who had every right to ignore him. Howard shows a sloppiness as well though as he throws himself into the intensity of emotion as Willems once again goes about stealing what he wants without for a moment thinking of the ramifications. Afterwards we see Willems in a luxury of sorts and Howard brings that sense of a certain contentment as he reaps the awards of his misdeeds, yet he keeps that underlying lack of insight as he still interacts with the natives with almost a bizarre hesitation, the hesitation of a man who is unaware of his surroundings. This even includes the chief's daughter, and I love the awkwardness Howard brings whenever Willems is not lusting after her.
The death of the chief though leads Willems to be exiled to a remote location as well, though still with the chief's daughter, but Lingard returns to essentially name Willems his sins before leaving him to rot for his actions. Howard is outstanding in this final sequence as he portrays the madness of Willems broken by his actions, revealing the despicable lout he always had been. Howard not only earned that through the way he established the man but as well his curious descent while being adrift in this land. Howard gives us a man with nothing left but his pathetic self, and it is extremely visceral depiction of madness. Howard releases all the fear and paranoia of the man who fears his only companion, the chief's daughter, believing she'll seek revenge for his father as he still fails to understand her. Then he's so perfectly raw as he first begs then threatens Lingard for help. Howard is incredible depicting the rogue's end as just a mess. This is a downright brilliant performance by Howard. He makes this unlikable character absolutely captivating even while never compromising his arc that is of a man revealing himself to only be worse given the chance.