Sunday, September 15, 2013

Richard Widmark: The Face of Film Noir

If Robert Mitchum "embodies the soul of film noir," as Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert has observed, Richard Widmark provides the genre with its definitive face. Gaunt, almost skeletal, and with a smile that can never quite conceal a sneer, Widmark’s face was the perfect mask for Tommy Udo, the cold-blooded killer of his 1947 film debut, Kiss Of Death.

In that film, Widmark shocked audiences by tying an old woman in her wheelchair, then pushing her down a flight of stairs to her death. Such disrespect for an elderly woman would have been horrifying enough, but equally shocking was Widmark’s laugh: maniacal and gleefully sadistic, it provided a more ominous soundtrack for the moment than the composer of the score could have conceived.

It may have even unnerved John Wayne.

“Well, here’s that laughing sonofabitch,” the Duke purportedly sneered when introduced to the actor at a party several years later.

But if Wayne couldn’t warm to Widmark, the rest of Hollywood did. In addition to earning an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor, Widmark was named "most promising newcomer" at the Golden Globe Awards, and, in 1949, less than two years after his film debut, he placed his hand and footprints in cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

Such recognition was a tribute to the impact of Widmark’s screen debut, but that impact proved both a blessing and a curse. Under contract to 20th Century Fox, Widmark successfully lobbied studio head Darryl F. Zanuck for more varied roles, but though he would remain an above the title star well into the ‘70s, the kind of recognition he received at the beginning of his career would not be repeated. He has been honored at Telluride and by the Museum of Modern Art, but has been passed over for the more highly coveted life achievement honors from the American Film Institute and the Kennedy Center. He is also conspicuously absent from many of those mammoth coffee table books about The Movie Stars.

But Richard Widmark is a star, and a great one.

If his filmography contains few instantly recognizable titles, it does include its share of genuine classics. Even the most forgettable of his films are salvaged by his always intriguing presence. With the feistiness of Cagney, the cool of Bogart, and the authority of Tracy, he has carved out his own unique identity. Widmark has made himself very comfortably at home in almost every genre except the musical, but it is in that he made his mark. His work in the genre is so impressive, it has made his subsequent achievements less interesting in comparison.

The director of Kiss Of Death didn’t want Widmark for the role of Tommy Udo, believing the actor’s high forehead made him appear too intellectual for a hoodlum. Zanuck liked his screen test, however, and insisted the actor be cast. So, with a hairpiece that gave him the look of an ape, shaved eyebrows (a cosmetic touch that may cause modern audiences to confuse him with David Bowie), and a wardrobe inspired by George Raft (wide-brim hat, black shirt with white tie), Widmark stepped before the cameras feeling less than confident.

“The laugh partially came out of nervousness. When in doubt, I’d laugh. And since this was my my first picture and the mechanics of picture-making were new to me, I laughed a lot.”

When terrorizing stool-pigeon Victor Mature, or telling his prey’s invalid mother what he has planned for her son (“Do you know what I do to squealers? I let ‘em have it in the belly so that they can move around and think it over”), Widmark’s Udo exuded menace. Physically, he was not especially imposing. As Time reported in its review of the film, he was a "rather frail fellow," but they also noted his “maniacal eyes.” Like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas forty-three years later, Udo’s cockiness made him a BIG man. But while Pesci is short and stocky, Widmark was as lean as a stick of dynamite with a personality every bit as explosive. Even when standing perfectly still, he seemed to be in constant motion like a boxer pacing the ring and waiting to move in for the kill.

Crime does, indeed, pay, at least in the movies, and Widmark became an overnight sensation in a role that was as far removed from his own personality as Hollywood seemed from the town in which he was born, Sunrise, Minnesota.

A lover of dogs and milk who valued his privacy and craft more than stardom, Widmark was now the screen’s most notorious bad man, and the wheelchair scene a crueler, more sensational update of James Cagney’s squashing of a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face in The Public Enemy.

The success of the film and the reaction to Widmark’s portrayal may have said more unpleasant things about the relationship between men and women than anyone intended. Tommy Udo fan clubs sprang up on college campuses with the purpose of "putting women in their place," but misogyny was and would continue to be a trait associated with film noir. Widmark was simply the latest and most efficient practitioner.

In his next film, 1948’s The Street With No Name, Widmark’s gruesome giggle was more subdued, and his character, Alec Stiles, cooler and more intellectual in his ruthlessness. No longer a mere hit man, he was the leader of a gang infiltrated by FBI agent Mark Stevens. Less heralded than Kiss of Death, the William Keighley directed feature actually holds up better in modern times. Nicely atmospheric, the film was a descendent of 1946’s House On 92nd Street, the film that kicked off Fox’s series of dramas inspired by real stories from the files of the FBI.

Munching an apple, sniffing a nasal inhaler to fight a persistent cold, and expressing a fear of germs and fresh air, Widmark, though second billed to Stevens, thoroughly dominates the film the minute he makes his entrance. While Udo was out of control, a maverick killer whose thirst for blood overruled any intelligence he might possess, Stiles is more calculating and authoritative.

"I’m building an organization along scientific lines," he boasts of his gang, and he takes pride in appearances.

“I like my boys to look sharp,” he says after handing new recruit Stevens a wad of bills with instructions to upgrade his wardrobe.

Nonetheless, Stiles has an explosive temper. He administers a savage beating to Barbara Lawrence after learning she has tipped off the police to his next caper, and punches someone simply because they left a door open and exposed him to fresh air.

Of his performance, Bosely Crowther in The New York Times observed: “the timbre of his voice is that of filthy water going down a sewer.”

Having brutalized women in two successive films, it was time for Widmark the romantic to take center stage. Road House, directed by Jean Nugulesco, cast him as Jefty Roberts, the owner of a restaurant-bar managed by his best friend, played by Cornel Wilde.

Jefty falls in love with a singer played by Ida Lupino, but while he’s away on a hunting trip, she falls for Wilde. But even as a spurned lover, there was little time for Widmark to be tender. In this weird little drama, he frames his employee for theft, then, in an outwardly compassionate act, urges the judge to release Wilde in his custody. But his plan is to torture the poor guy for having stolen his true love.

After Road House Widmark took his villainy out west for William Wellman’s Yellow Sky, then turned good guy for Hathaway’s Down to the Sea in Ships before taking on the definitive noir anti-hero in Jules Dassin’s Night and the City.

The title itself almost defines the genre, and Widmark as Harry Fabian is one of its most memorable characters. A small time hustler with ambitions to become a big time fight promoter in London, Fabian is a loser destined to brush greatness, but never claim it for his own.

“You’re a dead man, Harry Fabian, a dead man.”

The words are spoken by his boss, a portly nightclub owner played by Francis L. Sullivan, and throughout the film, Fabian seems to be desperately eluding his damnation rather than pursuing his fortune.

If there is a definitive, Night and the City might just be it due primarily to Widmark whose Harry Fabian is the ultimate noir anti-hero, something Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton seemed to acknowledge when they put his gaunt, frightened face on the cover of Panorama du film American, the landmark study that was the first to treat the genre seriously.

Later in 1950, audiences had the opportunity to closely compare Widmark as hero and villain when Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s No Way Out premiered simultaneously.

In Kazan’s film, Widmark was Dr. Clinton Reed of the Public Health Service who joins detective Paul Douglas in the perilous hunt for a killer and his cronies who unknowingly become infected with bubonic plague after they murder a suspected card cheat.

Beautifully shot on location in New Orleans, Panic in the Streets is often cited by both star and director as a favorite. For Kazan, it was “the first film I purely enjoyed making.”

As the good doctor who trades coarse but affectionate barbs with his wife (Barbara Bel Geddes), sneaks a quarter to his son so the boy can go to the movies, and is more often than not at odds with gruff copper Douglas, Widmark is fine, but it is Jack Palance whose creepy killer commands the screen in a role that Widmark could have played just as effectively.

There’s no better proof of that than No Way Out. Even though he’s romantically involved with his brother's wife, played by the luscious Linda Darnell, his character is as creepy as they come: a vile bigot who holds a black intern (Sidney Poitier) responsible for the death of his brother and instigates a race riot as revenge.

A powerful film even today, No Way Out was years ahead of its time in its depiction of racism, and it’s doubtful it would have been made if Mankiewicz had not had the clout that came with winning two Oscars (for writing and directing A Letter to Three Wives) a year earlier.

Widmark’s farewell to the genre that brought him fame was 1953’s Pickup On South Street, a film whose reputation has grown along with the cult following of director Samuel Fuller. Somewhat overheated now in its anti-Communist propaganda, it’s a stunning film as tough and gritty as its maker.

As Skip McCoy, a pickpocket who lifts a roll of top secret microfilm from the purse of a hooker (Jean Peters) romantically involved with a spy, Widmark is at his arrogant best. A man whose lack of morality has placed him on the outskirts of society (he even lives on the waterfront), he plays by his own rules.

“Who cares?” he sneers when asked if he knows what Communism is. Only in a film by Fuller would such a character emerge as a "hero," and only Widmark could play such a role so well.

As film noir faded from the screen in the wide-screen, technicolored ‘50s, and Widmark left Twentieth Century Fox to freelance, he remained a top star and an always believable screen actor, but his unique personality was not always well served by the adventure films and westerns that dominated his credits in the decade to come. Only 1954’s Broken Lance, in which he played the scornful but sympathetic son of Spencer Tracy, took full advantage of his patented sneer. He was woefully miscast as the naive Dauphin opposite Jean Seberg in Otto Preminger’s notorious dud, Saint Joan, but properly humane in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg.

But only 1965’s The Bedford Incident with Widmark as the strict, slightly psycho captain of a destroyer confronting nuclear disaster, and Don Siegel’s 1968 Madigan took full advantage of his strengths. After Tommy Udo and Harry Fabian, Daniel Madigan is his signature role.

A precursor of sorts to Siegel’s Coogan's Bluff and Dirty Harry in its depiction of a maverick, sometimes brutal, lawman, Madigan tips its hat to noir with its griminess and location shooting in New York. As the tough cop who bends the rules if necessary to get his man, Widmark is superb. Even though Madigan goes out in a blaze of gunfire in the final reel, he was resurrected for a short-lived NBC-TV series during the 1972-73 season. In six 90-minute episodes, Widmark was a blast of fresh air in a TV landscape populated by polite, often bland, coppers.

Returning to the big screen, he joined other contemporaries like Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in lending his iconic stature to supporting roles with special billing. No one else could have played Ratchet, the malevolent millionaire whose Murder on the Orient Express was one of 1974’s biggest box-office hits. He was equally effective as Dr. Harris, the evil surgeon of 1978’s Coma.

In 1989, he was still spry enough to romance Faye Dunaway in TNT’s Cold Sassy Tree.

But Widmark’s glory days were also the heyday of film noir. Robert Mitchum’s world-weary beefcake was the personification of the man already accepting defeat, but Widmark’s hyper, hard-boiled hustlers and killers were the losers who fought to the last to survive even when they knew their doom was inevitable.

The face of film noir belongs to Richard Widmark.

Brian W. Fairbanks

Originally published at Paris Woman Journal

© 2000 Brian W. Fairbanks


No comments:

Post a Comment