Thursday, March 27, 2008

Memo to TCM, FMC: Richard Widmark

Richard Widmark died yesterday, and I missed it. I noted that he had died, at age 93, just before leaving for the day and the web wouldn't wait for me to eulogizehim. The usual sources have run the usual obits and now there's the departure of Kojak creator Abby Mann, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Judgment at Nuremberg (featuring the actor), to consider. The 24/7 online news cycle is tough.

But surely something has to be said about one of my favorite film presences. Screenwise, Widmark is what happens when a bad guy goes respectable and never really fits in. (In person, he wore the white hat, as a respectable liberal when that wasn't a dirty word and a true-blue family man who took pride in his long and happy marriage and fulfilling family life.) And bad guys don't get much badder than the giggly sadist Tommy Udo in his debut picture, Kiss of Death. It's a testament to his versatility and fortitude that his career ever survived the Oscar nomination that came from pushing wheelchair-bound Mildred Dunnock down the stairs, whooping it up all the way. A lesser, or less fortunate or determined, actor would have stuck to playing Udo clones.

But Widmark moved on, freeing himself from typecasting and becoming his own, quintessentially modern, man. The brawny, good guy heroics of his contemporaries, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, were not for him. Nor was he as reflective as Henry Fonda, or as aw-shucks charming as James Stewart. Widmark always tapped into a part of Udo, a strain of anxiety and neuroticism that never entirely went away as he aged into military parts, ranchers, and the like. Cast as a pillar of society, he was skeptical of the pedestal and looked askance at the society, and tried to improve it--eventually. That was what I responded to in Widmark; for his characters, respectability was a giant pain in the ass, but responsibility--to his own personal code, for the group, for a nation beset by the Cold War or killer bees--dictated that he had to make the goddamned effort. Even if it killed him, as it so often did.

I ask, if Widmark was so often willing to lay it on the line for us, why can't our movie channels respond in kind? Turner Classic Movies' Apr. 4 tribute is inadequate at best. 1966's Alvarez Kelly is an indifferent oater, which he and William Holden, who walked some of the same cinematic ground, plod through as the Old West began its retreat from movie screens. 1953's Take the High Ground!, a boot camp story, doesn't sound like much. And 1960's The Tunnel of Love, which I have seen, is hardly a love fest: co-star Doris Day, equally ignored by Oscar (there's still time), disliked it, and as her husband in a paternity mix-up scenario Widmark looks stricken, as if nursing a peptic ulcer. That familiar choleric look, a semi-scowl that occasionally erupts into harsh laughter, was suited to front the weight of the world and not light comic shenanigans.

No, it won't do. But it's more than the less ambitious Fox Movie Channel will muster. There's not even a note appended to its home page to mark the passing of one of 20th Century Fox's homegrown stars, just an ad for Horton Hears a (Goddamned) Who. Such a festival it could have: Kiss of Death; the interesting followup noir Road House, with Ida Lupino, and the noir-ish Western Yellow Sky with Gregory Peck; No Way Out, where Widmark helped ensure Sidney Poitier's big break; the great Night and the City (pictured), with Widmark really sweating it out; and my favorite of his credits, Sam Fuller's outstanding Pickup on South Street (1953). He gives his most seductive performance here, as a pickpocket putting the moves on the lush Jean Peters while tangling with New York cops and commies, and trading bitter life-in-the-gutter wisecracks with the great Thelma Ritter. I reviewed the Criterion DVD for Cineaste four years ago. Movies really don't get much better. But as it's old and black-and-white don't look for it on FMC, which is more likely to show the inferior 1995 remake of Kiss of Death, with a vapid Nicolas Cage in the Udo part.

But TCM and FMC can rally. To help mend the error of their ways, I suggest TCM showcase more of a variety of his parts: the doctor in Vincente Minnelli's The Cobweb, say, or his aggravated Jim Bowie in The Alamo alongside John Wayne and the oily Laurence Harvey, who deserved Widmark's spleen. The weakling dauphin in Otto Preminger's Saint Joan (1957) was a flop but a nervier try at a comical part, Shavian this time. Why not one of his best old bastard parts, conniving against the plucky Genevieve Bujold in 1978's Coma? Or, what the hell, that same year's The Swarm, where Widmark seems to be slyly sending up the kinds of spit-and-polish brass he played so effectively, as in Robert Aldrich's Twilight's Last Gleaming the year before. 1984's Against All Odds, where he and noir soulmate Jane Greer are well and truly "out of the past" in a glossy and indifferent remake? And surely Don Siegel's Madigan (1968), where he and Henry Fonda are contrasting studies in leadership in the winter of what remained of the studio system that brought them up the ranks.

The one other essential credit that FMC should showcase is 1972's When the Legends Die, an apt title for a full day of programming. Widmark's portrayal of a broken-down rodeo star and his relationship with an out-of-time Native American played by Frederic Forrest in his first key credit was one of his favorites, or so he told an audience that gathered at Lincoln Center for a 2001 retrospective of his work. This was almost a decade after his own last credit, and I was there to enjoy his candid remarks. What a great thrill it was to be so near a person whose onscreen persona, as much as we may hate to admit it, was so near to own national personality in the anxious times he drew on for his art.


Brooks of Sheffield said...

A Great tribute, as I expected. Widmark has always been underrated, by the industry, but the classic movie networks, but film historians. "Pickup on South Street" is the one great Widmark film I've yet to see. It's hard to imagine it's better than "Night and the City," but one can hope. How lucky you are to have seen him at the 2001 retrospective.

Robert Cashill said...

And once you've exhausted the good ones, you can move onto 1964's The Long Ships, where he plays a Viking and Poitier a Moor, in search of a giant golden bell. "When I want to punish my kids, I make them watch The Long Ships," he scowled.

But there is more: Fuller's kooky Cold War submarine picture Hell and High Water (1954); with Poitier a final time in The Bedford Incident (1965), another, more despairing, sub-set picture; the strangely fascinating Western Warlock (1959), with its weird psychosexual vibe between Fonda and Anthony Quinn (!); pining for Lena Horne in 1969's Death of a Gunfighter; the murder victim in Murder on the Orient Express (1974), an Elmore Leonard picture I've always wanted to see, 1970's The Moonshine War, and one I've wanted to see a good print of, 1956's Most Dangerous Game remake, Run for the Sun, with Greer and Trevor Howard. "It's a lot of work being a mean bastard," he says in Bedford. And a lot of work to catch up on; hop to it, TCM and FMC.