Friday, 28 March 2008


Widmark as Tommy Udo
in KISS OF DEATH (1947)

I saw Richard Widmark once. It was in Old Compton Street in London’s Soho. It was probably about 1963 and his visit to London was no doubt connected with the film THE LONG SHIPS (a miconcieved Viking adventure in which Widmark was miscast as a Viking warrior, although, to be honest, he seemed aware and didn’t take the film as seriously as his co-star Sidney Poitier who obviously thought he was playing Othello). Widmark was wearing a hat and puffing away on his pipe. I wish I’d taken the opportunity to speak to him but I’d heard that he fiercely guarded his privacy and was not very approachable.

I’ll leave the details of Widmark’s career to the historians but I’d like to remember a few of the films that I particularly enjoyed during his long career. Widmark had a spectacular start in movies playng the psychotic giggling killer Tommy Udo in Henry Hathaway’s 1947 thriller KISS OF DEATH. So convincing was Widmark that he garnered an Oscar nomination for his first role. Two years later the actor was in London starring in Jules Dassin’s terrific film noir NIGHT AND THE CITY as a self-deceiving spiv who finds himself out of his depth when he tries to start a career as a fight promoter. It’s a wonderfully edgy performance and Widmark and Dassin never really play for audience sympathy and we watch with fascination as Widmark’s character digs himself deeper and deeper into the hole he has made for himself. Widmark made two films for maverick director Sam Fuller. HELL AND HIGHWATER is a good cold was submarine adventure but the other film, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET in which Widmark plays a pickpocket who gets sucked into the world of communist spies, is a stone cold classic that I’ve already written about elsewhere on this blog. As well as these noir-ish roles Widmark became a regular player in Westerns where his characters are often given an interesting shading. YELLOW SKY, GARDEN OF EVIL, BROKEN LANCE and THE LAW AND JAKE WADE were all good Westerns but my personal favourites lay elsewhere. In Edward Dmytryk’s underrated WARLOCK Widmark played a supporting role as a character whose loyalties are torn between two factions. In John Wayne’s THE ALAMO he was Jim Bowie alongside John Wayne’s Davy Crockett. There have been better screen Bowies and Crocketts but THE ALAMO remains a hugely enjoyable film with excellent performances by its stars. Another underrated film was John Ford’s TWO RODE TOGETHER where Widmark played a cavalry officer alongside James Stewart’s conman lawman. Both stars gave very enjoyable performances in a visually arresting movie. Another personal favourite is Widmark’s role as the tough cop MADIGAN in Donald Siegel’s 1968 police thriller. Although Madigan died at the end of the film the character was revived for a tv series a few years later with Widmark again playing the title character. A year after MADIGAN Siegel and Widmark were reunited when the director took over the reins from Robert Totten after Totten had differences with Widmark on the Western DEATH OF A GUNFIGHTER. It was an above average film with the star outstanding as the ageing gunfighter who has outlived his usefulness to the community where he provides the law enforcement.

Those are just my personal favourites from Widmark’s career but there are many other good performances. Reportedly Widmark was not an easy man to work with although his long career and excellent performances in a wide range of films for top directors really doesn’t seem to support this. However, on screen, Widmark rarely let his fans down. A very private man who rarely, if ever, gave interviews, Widmark was a regular campaigner for the rights of others and a supporter of the civil rights movement and the cause of Native Americans. Richard Widmark was a great star, a fine actor and a good human being. R.I.P.


Cerpts said...

I have to agree with everything you said. A particular favourite of mine is PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET. "Are you wavin' the flag at ME?!?!" I wasn't as much a fan of KISS OF DEATH as a movie -- UNTIL, that is, Richard Widmark comes on the screen. Then it (or rather, he) receives my highest recommendation. And while I've never seen TWO RODE TOGETHER, the scene by the riverside where Widmark and Stewart are simply talking to one another in an extremely long take was brilliant! Thankfully Scorsese included the entire scene in his wonderful "Personal Journey Through American Films" documentary and I've wanted to see the film ever since. Another classic star from the glory days of Hollywood leaves us. We're never going to see the likes again.

Cerpts said...

Wow, and now Jules Dassin (director of Night and the City) just died.