Re: RARA-AVIS: Richard Widmark

From: Steve Novak (
Date: 30 Mar 2008

The best answer to your question is the article in NYT yesterday...and the assesment of The Night & the City is perfect...probably the most accomplished noir film of that era...(cast/direction/DP/locations-decors/themes/ name it)


March 29, 2008 AN APPRAISAL A Star Who Mastered a New Moral Ambiguity

By DAVE KEHR Of the generation of leading men who emerged in the aftermath of World War II, quite a few began their careers playing villains. Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn, Robert Mitchum, Jack Palance and Lee Marvin were among the postwar stars who served apprenticeships ‹ some long, some short ‹ as outlaws gunned down in the last reel of westerns or as hoodlums crumpling under police fire in crime pictures. Richard Widmark, who died at 93 on Monday, was another.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Mr. Widmark never quite shook the dark associations of his early roles, even after his studio, 20th Century Fox, rehabilitated him as a leading man. The obituaries that followed Mr. Widmark¹s death almost invariably began by evoking his first and still most famous film appearance, as the psychotic killer Tommy Udo in Henry Hathaway¹s 1947 film noir, ³Kiss of Death² ‹ a role that required Mr. Widmark to giggle and grin as he bound an old woman (Mildred Dunnock) to her wheelchair and shoved her down a flight of stairs.

The sadistic, unhinged Udo was something new in American movies, and the impression he left was indelible. ³Mr. Widmark runs away with all the acting honors,² The New York Times said, and Mr. Widmark was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor ‹ the one and only time the Academy took notice of him. (On Friday night, Turner Classic Movies is set for a Widmark triple feature: ³Alvarez Kelly,² ³Take the High Ground² and ³The Tunnel of Love.²)

Mr. Widmark, then 33, had fourth billing in ³Kiss of Death²; his Oscar nomination earned him better billing but similar roles in three 1948 films: William Keighley¹s ³Street With No Name,² Jean Negulesco¹s ³Road House² and William Wellman¹s ³Yellow Sky.² Only with Hathaway¹s ³Down to the Sea in Ships² (1949) did Mr. Widmark get a heroic role and his name on top, but the public didn¹t seem interested in this bright, blond, squeaky-clean figure: they wanted their morally flawed, unpredictably violent Widmark back.

And so, through much of the 1950s, Mr. Widmark moved back and forth ‹ shuttling between heavies and heroes ‹ with a freedom mostly unknown to other performers of the period. He was a selfless Public Health Service doctor searching for a gangster (Jack Palance) infected with plague in Elia Kazan¹s 1950 ³Panic in the Streets²; that same year found him as a racist street punk taunting a black doctor (Sidney Poitier) in Joseph L. Mankiewicz¹s ³No Way Out.²

Mr. Widmark¹s richest roles were those that placed him somewhere in the middle ‹ in that great swamp of moral ambiguity that four years of active conflict and a shadowy new cold war had made Americans ready to acknowledge.

In Samuel Fuller¹s ³Pickup on South Street² (1953) Mr. Widmark is Skip McCoy, a New York pickpocket who unknowingly lifts a microfilmed roll of government secrets from a fallen woman (Jean Peters) working for a cell of Soviet agents. Smirkingly antisocial to the last (Skip has learned to taunt cops into hitting him, as a way of invalidating arrests), he ends by lending his criminal skills to the side of law and order, motivated less by patriotism than by a desire for revenge.

In ³Hell and High Water² (1954) Mr. Widmark again worked with Mr. Fuller, and the film helped to move Mr. Widmark¹s screen personality in a different direction. In this slightly mad cold war fantasy, he is a former Navy officer hired by a group of civic-minded scientists to pilot a submarine to the Arctic Circle, where, they suspect, the Red Chinese are constructing a nuclear missile base. The military lent a new context to Mr. Widmark¹s moral equivocality: in films like ³Halls of Montezuma,² ³The Frogmen,² ³Take the High Ground!² and ³Destination Gobi² Mr. Widmark played hard-bitten commanders whose apparent coldness and cruelty masked a deeper concern with the safety of their men.

His psycho killers and military leaders shared one prominent character trait: callousness, a quality Mr. Widmark portrayed with disdainful ease. From the mid-¹50s on, his filmography was filled with colonels, captains, lieutenants and even a couple of generals.

In Robert Aldrich¹s 1977 ³Twilight¹s Last Gleaming² Mr. Widmark had his last great role, as a senior officer whose job it is to persuade a renegade general (Burt Lancaster, Mr. Widmark¹s contemporary and fellow recovering gangster) to relinquish control of the nuclear missile silo he has taken over as a political protest. The casting is impeccable: here are two actors whose careers have run in parallel, just as their characters¹ lives have.

As an actor, Mr. Widmark fell between the presentational style of prewar filmmaking and the inner-directed, psychological focus of the Method actors, who came into vogue in the 1950s. With his prominent teeth and tight skin, his face had a certain skull-like quality that suggested Conrad Veidt in the German Expressionist films of the ¹20s, yet there was a watery, vulnerable quality in his large blue eyes that could sometimes make him seem almost childlike.

The role that best combined these two sides of Mr. Widmark was, perhaps, that of the naﶥ American boxing promoter, Harry Fabian, who is devoured by the London underworld in Jules Dassin¹s 1950 noir masterpiece, ³Night and the City.²

It¹s hard to imagine another tough-guy actor of the period allowing himself to come as close to tearful impotence as Mr. Widmark does at the end of that film, at the moment his character realizes that there is no escape from the vengeful associates he has betrayed. Running toward the camera, as well as toward his death, Mr. Widmark allows his face to go slack and his limbs to loosen; he seems to become a panicked child before our eyes, shrinking into infantile helplessness. A jump cut might take us to the opening scene of
³Rebel Without a Cause,² when James Dean¹s drunken teenager collapses on the sidewalk, playing with a toy monkey.

A great star, perhaps, is someone who embodies a cultural moment while nudging us on to something new, to feelings not yet explored and contradictions not yet expressed. By that definition, as well as by many others, Richard Widmark was a great star.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

On 3/30/08 9:41 AM, "Jack Bludis" <> wrote:

> Eric Chambers said:
>>> >> ... I would have expected, in a forum dedicated to Noir amoung other
>>> things, that more would have been made of Richard Widmark's passing.<<
> Mea Culpa. You're right, Eric.
> Widmark could get as down, dark, and dirty as any of them, and we certainly
> owe him the honor of a mention.
> Sorry.
> I'm curious to know if Widmark was a tough "little guy" a la Allan Ladd?
> Anyone?
> Jack

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