CORRIDOR OF NOIR
VOL. 9, No. 14
...ICON OF NOIR
Richard Widmark at left is wearing his subsequent leading man
look, but he'll
be best remembered
for his nastiest role: psychopath
Tommy Udo (right) in his
very first movie,
"Kiss of Death" (1947).
He was an edgy film hero,
but his villainy was tops
By RON MILLER
Look at the first 18 films Richard Widmark made in his 77-film career and you'll immediately understand why he'll always be remembered as a golden icon of the film noir screen genre. Of those 18 films, eight are recognized film noir classics.
Just look at those titles: "Kiss of Death" (1947), "The Street With No Name" (1948), "Road House" (1948), "Night and the City" (1950), "Panic in the Streets" (1950), "No Way Out" (1950), "Don't Bother To Knock" (1952) and "Pickup on South Street" (1953). Every one of them is a gem and Widmark's presence in those films was crucial to their enduring reputation. You can't imagine those movies without him.
That's the essence of enduring stardom: You can't imagine a star's movies without him or her.
Widmark was one of Hollywood's all-time great heavies, but he wasn't the bad guy in all those films mentioned above. Still, even his hero roles were edgy, tough men who seemed most comfortable in the shadowy, dark corridors of noir. In my view, Widmark was the quintessential example of the actor who starts out as a "bad guy" and ends up a leading man. That ever-present touch of nastiness made his heroes seem a match for even the worst villains Hollywood could dredge up.
Widmark died March 24 at age 93. He hadn't appeared in a feature film in 17 years, not since 1991's "True Colors." He didn't spend time in his last few years attending celebrations of his career because there weren't any. He never won an Oscar and wasn't given one of those "lifetime achievement" awards. Maybe now the wave of honors will begin. You often don't really appreciate a durable performer like Widmark until he's gone.
That's because you always expect him to come roaring back with another indelible performance like he did in his 70s when he played the small, but memorable role of corrupt Los Angeles power-broker Ben Caxton in "Against All Odds," Taylor Hackford's 1984 remake of perhaps the greatest of all films noir, Jacques Tourneur's 1947 "Out of the Past."
Richard Widmark plays
an American caught up
in the sordid world of
wrestling in London
in Jules Dassin's
"Night and the City,"
a 1950 noir classic.
In the 1992 remake,
his role was played
by Robert DeNiro.
Why was Widmark so tailor-made for films noir? It wasn't because he was naturally a mean-spirited guy who lived in the shadows. In fact, the word on Widmark is that he was a friendly guy who loved to laugh, especially at himself. And he was constitutionally the exact opposite from any of those rotten people he played on screen.
A perfect example of the real Richard Widmark: Sidney Poitier made his film debut in 1950's "No Way Out," playing a young black emergency room doctor who has to treat a racist patient played by Widmark. Widmark calls Poitier the "N" word so many times that the whole movie audiences cringed. He even spit on Poitier. But Poitier loves to tell interviewers that Widmark was so upset at having to say those awful things that he actually apologized to him after each take.
Widmark's value to films noir was his amazing ability to inhabit dark and malicious characters and make it look like he was enjoying being there. He wasn't a big, imposing man and actually was kind of nice-looking with blondish hair, blue eyes and a very charming smile. But he could twist that smile just a little and turn it into a frightful sneer.
I guess what I'm saying is that he was one heck of a good actor, but a very subtle one who could turn up the intensity to make a bad guy seem like some powerful force in serious danger of veering out of control--or turn it down just a bit to make a good guy seem just mean and tough enough to handle any calamity.
I never met Widmark. He avoided interviews in the last 25 years of his life--and I certainly tried to get him to do one when he was mostly doing TV movies like Showtime's "Blackout" (1985), "A Gathering of Old Men" (1987) and "Once Upon A Texas Train" (1988) for CBS and Turner's "Cold Sassy Tree" (1989). But I've talked to a number of people who worked with him and knew him well, like Karl Malden, who was in Widmark's first movie and several others. Malden loved and respected him and so did the others I asked about working with him.
Widmark came into films in 1947 after solid experience in radio and the theatre. His debut role as the giggling, ruthless psychotic gangster Tommy Udo in "Kiss of Death" made a phenomenal splash in Hollywood. Nobody talked about leading man Victor Mature in that film, despite his very good performance. They just remembered Widmark and the most indelible sequence in the history of noir:
Giggling like a crazed schoolboy, Widmark ties a crippled lady, played by Broadway star Mildred Dunnock, to her wheelchair with a length of lamp cord, then pushes her down a flight of stairs to her death, laughing as he watches her fall. You don't forget that scene...ever.
Widmark earned an Oscar nomination for that performance--the only one he ever received, but Academy voters were a lot softer then. They gave the Oscar to Edmund Gwenn for playing Santa Claus in "Miracle on 34th Street." Today's equivalent performance might be the deadly killer role that just won Javier Bardem the Supporting Actor Oscar for "No Country For Old Men." Luckily for Bardem, nobody was playing Kris Kringle last year.
Above: Widmark as a killer, on his
way to be hanged, helps save
a wagon train during an
Indian attack and becomes
a hero in Delmer Daves'
"The Last Wagon" (1956)
At left, Widmark even was quite
convincing as a Viking warrior
in "The Long Ships" (1964).
As vivid as he was in any villainous role, Widmark proved again and again that he could be sensitive, romantic and even funny. As early as 1952, he played a caring father to juvenile actor George "Foghorn" Winslow in a genuine family film, "My Pal Gus." He romanced Hollywood's icon of sweetness, Doris Day, in "The Tunnel of Love" (1958). He even played the president of the U.S. in TV's "Vanished" (1971) and was "Benjamin Franklin" in the 1974 TV miniseries of the same name.
Widmark also made many first class westerns. He always looked like an urban sort of man, but he seemed very natural on the old frontier and was in some of the best westerns in that golden period from the late 1940s through the 1950s. Among my favorites: "Yellow Sky" (1948), as the menace to star Gregory Peck; "Garden of Evil" (1954), in which he tried hard to stand as tall as veteran western star Gary Cooper; "Broken Lance" (1954), in which he gives lots of trouble to little brother Robert Wagner, and Delmer Daves' 1956 "The Last Wagon," where he's a bad guy due to be hanged, but somehow becomes a hero, saving the wagon train from Indian attacks.
Widmark's westerns were so plentiful that many list him right up there with the western giants. And he held his own with them all. As Jim Bowie, he died at The Alamo with John Wayne's Davy Crockett in Wayne's 1960 "The Alamo." He stood with Henry Fonda in "Warlock" (1959), challenged Robert Taylor in "The Law and Jake Wade" (1958), rode with James Stewart in John Ford's "Two Rode Together" (1961), led the Cheyennes back to their reservation in Ford's final western "Cheyenne Autumn" (1964), kidnapped William Holden in "Alvarez Kelly" (1966), somehow survived between rugged Robert Mitchum and scenery-chewing Kirk Douglas in "The Way West" (1967), broke a color barrier romancing Lena Horne in "Death of A Gunfighter" (1969) and certainly earned his place among all the legendary frontier stars packed into the Cinerama big screen super western "How the West Was Won" (1962).
Widmark even was boldly heroic is a number of war movies, including "Halls of Montezuma" (1950), "The Frogmen" (1951) and one of my other favorites 'Hell and High Water" (1954). You didn't find Widmark is period costume very often--not counting his western roles--but he earned very good reviews as the Dauphin in Otto Preminger's 1957 movie version of George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan" and was especially convincing as a viking in "The Long Ships" (1964), again paired off against old pal Sidney Poitier. who played a Moor.
Though Widmark was not a recluse, he generally avoided the Hollywood party scene and escaped involvement in any scandals in his long career. He stayed with his first wife until her death, then remarried. He was living in Connecticutt at the time of his death. His daughter, Anne, once was married to Sandy Koufax, the immortal left-handed pitcher for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, but the marriage ended in divorce.
Widmark in his mid-50s
earned solid reviews as
the police detective in
"Madigan," then played
the role in an NBC TV series.
Widmark aged well and was commanding even in his later years. One of his most acclaimed roles came in 1968 when Widmark was 54 and he took the title role in Don Siegel's police drama "Madigan," playing a maverick New York police detective in conflict with Police Commissioner Henry Fonda. The success of that film led to Widmark's only starring role in a TV series when NBC turned "Madigan" into a series that ran in the 1972-73 TV season.
Despite his long and rich career, Widmark really was ignored by too many of the institutions that give out honors for screen achievement. Let's hope somebody at the Motion Picture Academy suggests he receive a posthumous Oscar next year for his splendid run of great performances over nearly half a century on screen.
If that never happens, he's still got his ticket to screen immortality. With young film fans buying up all the classic films noir as soon as they come out on home video, Richard Widmark is a name new generations will know as well as we older fans do.
©2008 by Ron Miller. The photos are from Ron Miller's collection of movie and television publicity stills. This column first posted March 31, 2008.
Ron Miller is a former nationally syndicated television columnist and the author of "Mystery! A Celebration," the official companion book to PBS' "Mystery!" series. He currently writes about television mysteries for MYSTERY SCENE magazine.
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