Richard Widmark (1914-2008)
He died over a week ago, but I just heard the news. Widmark seemed to be transitional figure between the classic actors of early talkies like Gable, Cooper, and Grant and the method actors like Brando and Clift. He had the approach of the former and the intensity of the latter. He didn’t make his film debut until he was 33 playing a psycho in the movie, KISS OF DEATH.
Looking over his filmography, I realize that I have seen far fewer of his films than I would have predicted. It’s a credit to his skills that I think of him highly with only a few examples.
KISS OF DEATH (1947) – A great debut and it impressed audiences enough that he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. He lost to Edmnd Gwenn playing Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street.
PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950) – Elia Kazan film that pits health official, Widmark against a gang of outlaws on the lam and carrying a deadly plague. Like a number of early Kazan films, it doesn’t seem dated. Widmark is solid, but not as interesting as the villains led by Jack Palance.
NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950) – In my opinion, Widmark’s best performance and one of the great noir characters of all time. I first saw the early 1990s remake with Robert Deniro and I liked it enough, but I was really impressed with original. After seeing both I understood why the remake received such low marks. Widmark is a hustler trying to promote a boxing match and getting into all kinds of trouble along the way. It would be hard for me to rank the greatest noir films since so many great ones exist, but I can’t imagine this one not being in the top ten.
THE ALAMO (1960) – Like a lot of Widmark’s later ensemble work, The Alamo mixes him in with other big actors. Here John Wayne (who also directed) plays Davy Crockett and the consistently wooden Lawrence Harvey plays Colonel Travis against Widmark’s Jim Bowie. I remember Widmark being mostly wasted in the role and the film being a little too plodding at nearly 3 hours. Maybe I was ruined by seeing the Disney version first which plays more like a romp.
JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961) - Widmark plays the prosecutor to Spencer Tracy’s judge. His screen time is significant and his role is crucial to the storyline. The most interesting thing about the movie is it’s a liberal justification for doing the sort of thing that liberals now abhor, making evildoers pay for their crimes. Like all the late Stanley Kramer/Spencer Tracy collaborations, Spence gets a huge moralizing monologue rumored to be shot in one take.
HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962) – Told as a long history lesson, none of the actors or storylines spend all that much time on screen, Widmark is overshadowed by John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck and Henry Fonda. I saw a pan and scan version on VHS as a kid and it kind of ruined it for me. Ron Howard used this film as an example of why Letterbox makes all the difference. It was shot in the wide wide format of 2:59 to 1. The widest modern movies are 2:35 to 1, with the common ratio being 1:85 to 1. That ratio was meant to be project on curved screens something like I-Max, but it never took off as a format.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974) – Agatha Christie whodunit with a cast of stars big enough for three epics. Widmark’s role is crucial and yet it’s the surprise ending that I remember most.
ROLLERCOASTER (1977) – Timothy Bottoms plays a deranged guy who likes to blow up roller coasters and kill passengers. Widmark shows up in a smaller role so you can say, hey that’s Richard Widmark.
HANKY PANKY (1982) – I was 13 or so when this came out and like all things Gene Wilder I watched it again and again on HBO, proving that kids will watch anything. I seem to remember that Widmark was the villain and it was directed by Sidney Poitier, who starred with Widmark 30 years earlier.
TRUE COLORS (1991) John Cusack plays the scheming social climber while his pal, James Spader plays the moral guy. Widmark plays an aging Senator that Cusack tries to blackmail to get ahead in politics. It was Widmark’s last film role and he was so interesting it is a shame that he spent the last 15 years of his life with no further roles.