Richard Widmark Centennial

24 Dec

Richard Widmark would have turned 100 this coming Friday, December 26, 2014. He died only six years ago on March 24, 2008, at the age of 93, having outlived 95% of his co-stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood. (Kirk Douglas, Sidney Poitier, Robert Wagner and Doris Day are among the few who have outlived him and are still with us. Lauren Bacall outlived him by six years.) Widmark had a solid career as a leading man in Hollywood from the late 1940s to the early 1970s before turning to character parts (and the occasional TV movie lead) in the 1970s to early ’90s. His last movie role was in TRUE COLORS (1991) and his last TV role was the male lead in COLD SASSY TREE (1989).

I first saw Widmark on the big screen in HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962), in Cinerama at the old Capitol Theater on Broadway. In the all-star epic western, he plays Mike King, the manager in charge of building the railroad in the midst of Indian attacks and it turns out that authority figures like this would be more typical roles for Widmark than some of the early villain roles that he’s best remembered for.

Richard Widmark and George Peppard in HOW THE WEST WAS WON

I next saw him in THE BEDFORD INCIDENT (1965), a cat-and-mouse Cold War thriller in which Widmark plays a hard-as-nails U.S. submarine captain engaged in stalking a Soviet nuclear submarine while contending with a newspaper correspondent on board his sub (played by Sidney Poitier) who urges the captain to show restraint. The next time I saw a current Widmark film on the big screen was MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974), in which he played the murder victim, followed by TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING (1977), in which he played an unsympathetic army general, and, finally, COMA (1978), a medical thriller written by Michael Crichton, in which he played another villain role. During all this time, I also got to catch up with his older films on television and in revival theaters (e.g. KISS OF DEATH, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, HELL AND HIGH WATER, GARDEN OF EVIL, TWO RODE TOGETHER, CHEYENNE AUTUMN, etc.). Over the decades I’ve eventually caught up with 43 of his films and a few of his TV appearances. He also made frequent appearances at the AFI Lifetime Achievement Awards ceremonies on behalf of his various co-stars, but, sadly, he never got such an award himself.

Richard Widmark, Edward G. Robinson in CHEYENNE AUTUMN

I would argue that his best period was from 1947, starting with his debut film, KISS OF DEATH, to 1968 and his cop thriller, MADIGAN, which was spun off a few years later into a short-lived TV series (pictured at the top of this page). In the time between he played a steady array of solid professionals, often in uniform, consummate authority figures who were smart, fair, decisive and, occasionally vulnerable. He didn’t play larger-than-life figures the way some of his contemporaries often did, e.g. John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, William Holden, and Gregory Peck, and he never managed to latch onto an iconic role the way they did. (More on THE ALAMO below.) He tended to play ordinary guys, salt-of-the-earth types, even when they were college-educated, who step up to the plate in a crisis. He played a number of villain roles, particularly early in his career, and he tends to be best remembered for those by most film buffs, but for me his quintessential roles are those where he took command of an unwieldy operation.

In his first ten films (made from 1947 to 1950), all made at 20th Century Fox, Widmark played criminals or antagonists in seven of them, including KISS OF DEATH, THE STREET WITH NO NAME, ROAD HOUSE and YELLOW SKY.

But the roles he played in the other three were indicative of the direction his career would take from then on. In DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS (1949), his first non-villain role, he plays a college-educated First Mate on a New Bedford-based whaling vessel in 1887 who runs into conflict with his old salt of a captain. In HALLS OF MONTEZUMA (1950), he plays a schoolteacher-turned-Marine Corps Lieutenant leading a platoon of men into battle with the Japanese on a Pacific island in the later stages of the war. In PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), he plays a uniformed United States Public Health Service officer who seeks to control an outbreak of pneumonic plague in New Orleans.

If I had to pick his best films in terms of being fine movies and providing the best parts for Widmark, I’d go with PANIC IN THE STREETS, directed by Elia Kazan, and MADIGAN, directed by Don Siegel. And of the ones I saw the first time for this piece, I’d choose THE LAST WAGON, directed by Delmer Daves and will add some notes on that.

Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas in PANIC IN THE STREETS

PANIC IN THE STREETS stars Widmark as Dr. Clinton Reed, who is called to the office on his day off as a result of the discovery of a murder victim with curious symptoms that turn out to be pneumonic plague, a contagious disease that can spread rather easily. As a federal health officer, Reed has the right to quarantine individuals and buildings and inoculate those who were exposed to affected individuals. With the sanction of the Mayor, he has to work closely with a reluctant police captain (Paul Douglas) to find out where the murder victim came from, how he got into New Orleans and who he came into contact with. It all adds up to a tense, taut, suspenseful thriller shot entirely on the streets and piers and back alleys of New Orleans, with many locals employed in the smaller speaking roles. Dr. Reed puts himself in a lot of dangerous situations as he gets closer and closer to the small-time hoods (well played by the memorable duo of Jack Palance and Zero Mostel) who killed the plague carrier and are nursing their associate, the plague carrier’s cousin, who has contracted the disease. Eventually, Dr. Reed and the police chase the hoods through a coffee warehouse and onto the docks, all while trying to capture them and not kill them. During the course of it all, Widmark has a couple of tender scenes with his wife and son in their lower-middle-class home.

Barbara Bel Geddes, Richard Widmark

Zero Mostel, Jack Palance in PANIC IN THE STREETS

Widmark looks sharp and authoritative in his uniform and quite handsome without looking like a Hollywood-minted movie star the way, say, William Holden or Gregory Peck might have looked. Nor is he overpowering in the way John Wayne, Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster would have been. Nor is he too cool for the room the way Mitchum might have been, underplaying to his heart’s content. For this film to work, there has to be a believable tension between Widmark and Paul Douglas over how to pursue the investigation. If Dr. Reed was too high-powered, the balance would not have been maintained and Douglas’ character would have been diminished. But Widmark is smaller and younger than Douglas and his frustration with Douglas’ recalcitrance when confronted with certain dead ends reflects the tedious, painstaking nature of much investigative work like this. Widmark utters harsh words to Douglas that he later regrets when he sees the police captain order a reporter held incommunicado to suppress the plague story even though such an act could ultimately could get him fired. Widmark says as much in a dialogue scene with his wife (Barbara Bel Geddes): “You know, today, I took a perfectly nice guy, a cop, not the smartest guy in the world, but who is? So I push him around, make a lot of smart cracks about him, I tell him off all day long and he winds up proving he’s four times the man I’ll ever be.” This is a remarkable admission by a movie hero and it’s hard to think of Mitchum, Lancaster or Kirk Douglas making such an admission (although, to be honest, they probably all had scenes like that in the course of their careers, as John Wayne certainly did). The mutual respect that builds between the public health officer and the police captain is one of the key elements that make up the emotional core of PANIC’s story. And I believe Widmark and Douglas were perfectly matched.

THE LAST WAGON (1956)

In THE LAST WAGON (1956), Widmark plays Comanche Todd, a white man raised by Comanches who has been captured by a brutal sheriff after killing the sheriff’s three brothers. When the sheriff and his prisoner join a wagon train of Mormons heading west, a sequence of events leads to Comanche Todd having to lead a small party of survivors of the wagon train to safety through Indian territory after an attack by Apaches has left the rest of the settlers dead. In the course of it we learn why Todd killed the sheriff’s brothers and, eventually, the sheriff also, as an act of revenge for the brothers’ wanton slaughter of Todd’s Comanche wife and sons. The ones who hate Todd for choosing Indians over whites come to be grateful to him for their survival. Widmark’s Todd is something of a combination of the two antagonists of John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS (also 1956), Chief Scar (Henry Brandon) and John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, which makes me think of THE LAST WAGON as the anti-SEARCHERS. There’s even a half-Indian teenage girl among the survivors who is reminiscent of the Natalie Wood character in THE SEARCHERS and is played by Susan Kohner, later to play the black girl passing for white in Douglas Sirk’s IMITATION OF LIFE. Delmer Daves, of course, had made the groundbreaking BROKEN ARROW (1950), in which James Stewart played an army scout who falls in love with an Apache woman (played by Debra Paget), and the similarly-themed WHITE FEATHER (1955), with Robert Wagner and Debra Paget, which ended on a much happier note than BROKEN ARROW.

Richard Widmark, Felicia Farr in THE LAST WAGON

THE LAST WAGON is marred by a sappy ending, where everything is tied up much too neatly, but up until then it’s quite a violent and hard-edged western with Widmark’s revenge motive and full-on survival mode coming off as pretty cold-blooded to the other survivors until they begin to understand how necessary it is to their survival. It’s quite a physical role for Widmark, with lots of riding, shooting, fighting, stabbing, being pulled by horses and tied to a wagon and hanging off a cliff and such, and he seems to be doing all his own stunts. Most of the film was shot on location in Arizona and it looked like a rugged shoot.

MADIGAN came along as part of a wave of tough cop thrillers that galvanized audiences in the late ’60s who were hungry for some law-and-order action after watching the country suffer a wave of race riots, political assassinations and counterculture anti-police sentiment. Widmark’s Detective Dan Madigan is a tough street cop who speaks in clipped phrases and is partnered with a gregarious Italian-American, Rocky Bonaro (Harry Guardino). Madigan is hard-nosed but fair, yet quick to use brutal methods when questioning difficult suspects or witnesses. He’s also not at the top of his game, as revealed in the very first scene when, during an arrest, he allows the suspect’s nude girlfriend to distract him while she slips the criminal, Barney Benesch (Steve Ihnat), a gun which he then uses to get the drop on Madigan and Bonaro and relieve them of their guns and then flee. Which makes Madigan already more vulnerable than the usual cop hero of the time, whether they’re named Bullitt or Harry Callahan. The police commissioner (Henry Fonda) then gives the two cops 72 hours to recapture the suspect and get back their guns. One of the guns is used a day later to kill a patrolman, which sets the stakes even higher.

Steve Ihnat, Widmark, Harry Guardino in MADIGAN

Just as Dr. Reed had to take time out to go home and freshen up during the plague crisis in PANIC and commiserate with his wife, so does Madigan have to go home and do the same with his wife, Julia, well played by Inger Stevens. The difference here is that Julia is needier and more high strung than Dr. Reed’s wife and far less supportive. There is a party being held at the Sherry Netherland by the Captains’ Association and she’s already bought a dress and made a beauty parlor appointment, as well as booked a hotel room for it (provided gratis by the hotel), and she insists she won’t be let down. Given the pressures on Madigan to carry out his investigation without a break, it’s hard to believe that he gives in to her. But his plan is to fob her off on a bachelor attendee as soon as he gets there, freeing him up to pursue a lead that very night. He carries out his plan but as he’s heading to a pay phone to call his partner he runs into the Commissioner, a rival from their earliest days on the force, and he has to hem and haw and fumble for words to explain that he’s leaving this very minute to pursue a lead and he only just found a dime for the phone. It’s quite humiliating to see Madigan grovel like this, without any prompting from the Commissioner. Again, I can’t imagine Mitchum or Lancaster or Douglas or Wayne reacting to Fonda like this. And it gives me a clue as to why Widmark was never an icon like them. But at the same time, it makes his portrayal of this unfortunate public servant much more believable than, say, Steve McQueen’s Bullitt or Clint Eastwood’s Callahan. It’s less the work of a movie star than an actor, closer to someone like Robert Duvall or Gene Hackman in such a role. (Look ahead a few years to Hackman in THE FRENCH CONNECTION and Duvall in BADGE 373.)

MADIGAN, more than any other film I watched in preparation for this piece, made me ponder Widmark’s status as a movie star, his place in film history, and his transition into character acting relatively early in his career at a time when Mitchum, Lancaster, Peck and others were reinventing themselves and connecting in various ways with the zeitgeist. MADIGAN and his next film, DEATH OF A GUNFIGHTER (1969), partly directed by Don Siegel, were Widmark’s last starring feature film roles. From this point on, his only starring roles would be on television, while his movie roles were supporting parts or villain parts. One of his television roles was a reprise of his Madigan character in a limited TV series spin-off of six 90-minute episodes, a neat trick considering that his character died at the end of the movie. I remember watching one episode, “The Midtown Beat,” which offered a colorful dose of Harlem flavor and some good character work by Charles Durning, Nathan George and Gilbert Lewis. The character of Madigan was considerably softened for the TV series. (No more threatening of witnesses.)

MADIGAN had a lot in common with the Frank Sinatra vehicle, THE DETECTIVE, also a 1968 release and also directed by an old Hollywood hand, Gordon Douglas. THE DETECTIVE, with its treatment of homosexuality, closeted and otherwise, and description of a brutal crime scene where semen stains are found, and its depiction of a suspect manipulated into giving a false confession and then railroaded into the electric chair, offered more provocative subject matter than earlier Hollywood police thrillers and showed a flawed hero, much like Madigan. In both films, these were middle-aged white men operating in a world dominated by middle-aged white men but circled around by other populations refusing to keep silent and contentious forces threatening to burst out of control. In contrast, two other police thrillers from 1968, BULLITT, directed by Englishman Peter Yates and starring Steve McQueen, and COOGAN’S BLUFF, directed by Siegel and starring TV star-turned-rising movie star Clint Eastwood, both caught the flavor of the times and found favor with younger audiences. The big difference was that McQueen and Eastwood played maverick cops who broke the rules and operated almost entirely on their own, for better or worse, showing disdain for their department superiors and signaling certain audiences that they, too, could continue showing disdain for the police while applauding the antics of these two anti-heroes. (Siegel’s subsequent police thriller, DIRTY HARRY, in 1971 amped it up a bit by showing contempt for department bureaucrats, politicians and a rabid longhaired Vietnam vet serial killer who hates the police. You can have your cake and eat it, too.) Madigan and Joe Leland (Sinatra’s character in THE DETECTIVE), on the other hand, are consummate establishment types, keenly aware of department procedure and protocol and dedicated to their careers. They may get a little rough with witnesses and suspects but they don’t badmouth their bosses. They know how to play the game. Hence, Widmark’s show of embarrassment when confronted by Fonda at the pay phone. Neither Bullitt, Coogan nor Callahan would have done that, but in real life they also wouldn’t have lasted long in their respective police departments. (Interestingly, Sinatra’s career as a movie star came to a close only a couple of years after THE DETECTIVE.)

Clint Eastwood, Lee J. Cobb in COOGAN’S BLUFF

Clint Eastwood, Andy Robinson in DIRTY HARRY

(I wrote about both COOGAN’S BLUFF and DIRTY HARRY in my piece on Don Siegel’s centennial two years ago.)

Widmark’s turn to villainous roles in the 1970s really upset me at the time. I liked him too much to root against him. I wanted to see him gain relevance with a young audience the way Mitchum did with THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, THE YAKUZA and FAREWELL MY LOVELY, or the way Holden did with THE WILD BUNCH and NETWORK. Or Lancaster with his various westerns, including ULZANA’S RAID; the topical thrillers EXECUTIVE ACTION, SCORPIO and TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING; and, later on, GO TELL THE SPARTANS and ATLANTIC CITY. Instead Widmark plays the villain cum murder victim in Sidney Lumet’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974), in which an all-star cast of murder suspects all turn out to be guilty because they all murdered the tycoon played by Widmark. They even show the ritualized execution in flashback where each cast member passes Widmark’s bed and thrusts a knife into the now-lifeless corpse. What a hell of a thing to do to Richard Widmark! And one of them was his co-star from THE COBWEB (1955), Lauren Bacall!

Lauren Bacall, Widmark in THE COBWEB (1955)

Of course, Widmark started as a villain in an attention-getting role in his very first film, KISS OF DEATH (1947) where he plays a vicious New York thug named Tommy Udo, who giggles maniacally, pushes an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs to her death, and struts around like a cheap hood in a gangster movie. His job in the film is to keep tabs on ex-con Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), newly released from jail and eager to lead a normal life but forced by the D.A. to provide info about criminal activities, which eventually pits him on a deadly collision course with Udo. Widmark got his only Oscar nomination for the role and became quite a sensation as his performance led to other criminal portrayals like this one in THE STREET WITH NO NAME:

My problem with Tommy Udo is that I never quite believed him. He’s too much of a movie creation, especially in the peculiar way he stretches vowels in an effort to seem more like a lowlife (“You’re my paaaal!”). It’s an ostentatious and showy performance and they must have loved it on 42nd Street, but I never bought it.

I also don’t like Widmark’s weaselly turn as a small-time grifter in London in Jules Dassin’s NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950). I can’t accept Widmark as a complete loser. He’s much better in THE STREET WITH NO NAME where he runs a criminal gang like a military operation, so he’s something of an authority figure, a role he’s much more comfortable in. He’s also very good in William Wellman’s YELLOW SKY (1948), where he plays a gambler who’s part of a robbery gang on the lam from the law and forced to hide out in a ghost town on the edge of a desert. Gregory Peck is the leader of the gang and his character is softened considerably to accommodate Peck’s growing stardom, turning almost saintly by the end, which makes Widmark’s snarling much more understandable.

Speaking of which, I recently watched the World War II drama TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH (1949), directed by Henry King, for the first time. It starred Gregory Peck as a general put in charge of a bomber unit at an air base in England assigned to bombing runs over Nazi-held regions of Europe. He’s very tough with his men and pushes them really hard, an approach which initially antagonizes the men but eventually, after their record improves and their casualty rate falls, wins them over. Gradually, it all takes a toll on him and he cracks up at the end of the film and is removed from command. As I watched it, I kept thinking that Gregory Peck wouldn’t act like that. It just didn’t fit him. He was “acting,” not being. Who would have been better cast? Richard Widmark. He was older (by a year and three months) and would soon be playing military authority figures on his own. I might have believed him in the part, but I can imagine the higher-ups at Fox nixing such casting because of Widmark’s strong association with villain roles at that point in his career. Had it been made a year later, who knows?

Linda Darnell, Richard Widmark in NO WAY OUT (1950)

One of Widmark’s best antagonist roles is in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s NO WAY OUT (1950), where he played a bigoted low-life criminal from a poor white neighborhood in a small city beset with racial turmoil. When a black doctor (played by Sidney Poitier in his film debut) treats Widmark’s brother after a wound from a crime and the brother dies, Widmark vows revenge, leading to the first large-scale racial riot depicted onscreen since BIRTH OF A NATION. (The film may also be the first sound film to use the word, “nigger.”) We eventually learn that the brother had an undetected preexisting condition that caused his death, but that’s not enough to stop the racists from planning an attack on the adjacent black neighborhood. I haven’t seen the film in a long time, but I remember one scene where Widmark expresses the anguish of growing up poor, white and belittled and lays bare the class conflict at the heart of so much of the racial turmoil in the U.S. over the past century or so. It’s a great acting moment and comes out of a performance that certainly deserved more attention from the Academy than Tommy Udo got.

Sam Fuller’s PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953) gets Widmark a lot of continued attention for his portrayal of a jaunty pickpocket in New York who gets caught up in a lethal espionage plot. He manages to fend off the police (in a most unrealistic manner) and come out smelling like a rose, something a small-time hood like that would rarely achieve in real life and a point of contention for me. It’s another one of the few false notes in Widmark’s career.

In any event, I’m led to ponder the question of why Widmark wasn’t a bigger star than he was and I find some clues in an interview with him that was included in Don Siegel: Director (Curtis Books, 1974) by Stuart M. Kaminsky.

“I’m not a member of the current ‘directors’ cult.’ I’ve made too many pictures. In my experience, there are a handful of men who even deserve the title of director. It is impossible for any one man to say he is the author of a film. It’s pompous and it’s just not in the nature of filmmaking for it to be true. Filmmaking is a collaborative effort. Ingmar Bergman probably comes closest to deserving the title ‘auteur’, but even he cannot do everything himself.

“So, while I am not a great admirer of directors, there are a few, about three out of the fifty or so I’ve worked with, that I would say are good directors, directors I admire. One such director is Elia Kazan, who, in my estimation, is the best actors’ director that exists. There are better moviemakers with a better visual sense, but as an actors’ director Kazan can’t be touched. He is a genius, a Svengali. He never talks the same way to two actors and when he does talk it is very economically, not with a lot of hot air. He knows people well and having been an excellent actor himself, he knows all the problems. For filmmaking, sheer filmmaking, Jack [John] Ford is a poet with the camera. His dealings with actors don’t compare with Kazan’s, however. The third man on my list is Don Siegel. In addition to instinctively liking him personally very much and liking the kind of material he chooses to do, I like the way he works. He is efficient, organized, quiet, in total command. You never feel any loose ends. Don has a very solid approach to filmmaking. He looks on it as, from what I could see, as a craft, a job to be done. He doesn’t say, ‘I’m going to make an artistic picture to play a certain theater and it will be arty as hell.’ He is an efficient, organized worker. He’s not a total dictator like Ford. Don works more like Kazan. You know you’re in the picture together with him.

“And Don has taste. Sometimes what he does is as simple as saying something you’ve done has come out too strongly or not strongly enough. He’s great at that. He also likes the kind of material I like: lean, tough, to the point with no excess verbiage.”

Later in the interview he adds:

“All I have to add is that if all the pictures I had left could be with Don, that would be fine with me.”

Unfortunately, Siegel had already found Eastwood and the rest is history.

In the same book, Siegel had this to say about Widmark:

“Widmark is very explosive and doesn’t hesitate to show his displeasure,” says Siegel. “However, I don’t recall one instance of any disagreement between us. I don’t know what I said or did on MADIGAN that impressed him, but it must have been the right thing because he liked me.”

Elsewhere in the book, Kaminsky cites word-of-mouth buildup of Widmark as “volatile and quick-tempered.”

Given all the great directors Widmark worked with, I’m somewhat startled that he can only pick out three as “good directors,” at least at the time this interview was conducted (1972? ’73?). What about the following, listed with the Widmark films they directed:

William Wellman (YELLOW SKY)

Jean Negulesco (ROAD HOUSE)

Henry Hathaway (KISS OF DEATH, DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS, GARDEN OF EVIL)

Andre de Toth (SLATTERY’S HURRICANE)

Jules Dassin (NIGHT AND THE CITY)

Lewis Milestone (HALLS OF MONTEZUMA)

Joseph L. Mankiewicz (NO WAY OUT)

Sam Fuller (PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, HELL AND HIGH WATER)

Robert Wise (DESTINATION GOBI)

Richard Brooks (TAKE THE HIGH GROUND)

Edward Dmytryk (BROKEN LANCE, WARLOCK, ALVAREZ KELLY)

Vincente Minnelli (THE COBWEB)

Delmer Daves (THE LAST WAGON)

John Sturges (BACKLASH, THE LAW AND JAKE WADE)

Otto Preminger (SAINT JOAN)

Phil Karlson (THE SECRET WAYS)

Stanley Kramer (JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG)

Jack Cardiff (THE LONG SHIPS)

Sidney Lumet (MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS)

Robert Aldrich (TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING)

One can argue that Widmark did not make the best films of these directors. Many actors had star-making roles in films by these directors, but not Widmark. For instance, John Sturges made stars out of Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn with THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and THE GREAT ESCAPE, but his films with Widmark, while perfectly entertaining and sturdy westerns, were simply not breakout hits. Preminger made a star out of Dana Andrews in films like LAURA, FALLEN ANGEL and WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS, but his one film with Widmark was a notorious flop. Phil Karlson gave John Payne some of his best roles, but his film with Widmark was just a work for hire. Ford made John Wayne into one of the world’s top movie stars and elevated a number of character actors into second-tier stardom (e.g. Ward Bond), but his films with Widmark were lesser works. Wellman made stars out of too many people to count, starting with Gary Cooper and James Cagney, etc.

It should be noted that Widmark was a great ensemble player and was often surrounded by higher-powered stars in his films, e.g. WARLOCK (1959), a western in which Widmark occupies the film’s moral center, but is overshadowed by the showier movie star parts enacted by Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn, who play a pair of gunslingers modeled loosely on Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Widmark plays the pivotal role of the U.S. military prosecutor in Stanley Kramer’s JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961), but Maximilian Schell won Best Actor for it and Burt Lancaster, Judy Garland and Spencer Tracy had the more attention-getting roles. In Ford’s CHEYENNE AUTUMN (1964), Widmark is an army officer providing a voice of reason amidst a turbulent period in Indian-white relations in the old west. Widmark’s skill was in knowing his place in each film, performing his role expertly, and not upstaging anyone else. Each of these  films is better because of it.

PANIC IN THE STREETS is one of Widmark’s best films but because it was directed by Kazan it’s constantly overshadowed by the director’s remarkable string of masterpieces right afterward: A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, VIVA ZAPATA, ON THE WATERFRONT and EAST OF EDEN, which had starmaking roles for Marlon Brando and James Dean, but, alas, none for Widmark.

Widmark’s films were entertaining and competently made films but few of them were cinematic greats. One can count his most highly regarded films on just a few fingers: KISS OF DEATH, PANIC IN THE STREETS, NO WAY OUT, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG and MADIGAN and, if you force me to, I’ll throw in the Fords, TWO RODE TOGETHER and CHEYENNE AUTUMN. Whereas so many of Widmark’s peers and sometime co-stars, including John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, William Holden, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Henry Fonda, made a host of films that are among Hollywood’s best. Widmark never had a SUNSET BOULEVARD or STALAG 17 like Holden. He never had an OUT OF THE PAST like Mitchum. He never had a GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL or SEVEN DAYS IN MAY like Lancaster and Douglas, or a MY DARLING CLEMENTINE or ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST like Fonda.

I’m also wondering if Widmark’s reputation as “explosive” and “volatile and quick-tempered” might have affected directors’ choice of casting, although I have to confess I haven’t found confirmation of this reputation in many other places. (Lee Server’s biography of Robert Mitchum recounts an outburst by Widmark at Kirk Douglas on the set of THE WAY WEST, but then everybody seemed mad at Kirk on that one.)

Some of Widmark’s other films are worth singling out, although I need to reach a stopping point and can’t include everything I’d like. ROAD HOUSE (1948) has one of his most carefully calibrated antagonist portrayals as he goes from being Cornel Wilde’s friend to a crazed jealous enemy out to humiliate and ruin him. I’ve written about his two Sturges westerns in the past: BACKLASH on IMDB and THE LAW AND JAKE WADE in this blog on March 12, 2012. HALLS OF MONTEZUMA is an excellent WWII combat film and the first postwar film to cover the Pacific War in Technicolor. DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS offers a stirring adventure rooted in character as Widmark’s First Mate learns to respect his cantankerous captain, Lionel Barrymore, on the captain’s last voyage, and is called upon to tutor the captain’s grandson, Dean Stockwell, a formidable pair of scene-stealers for any newcomer to deal with. MY PAL GUS (1952) was KRAMER VS. KRAMER 27 years earlier. I was hoping to re-watch THE LONG SHIPS (1964) for this piece and even started to do so, but it got too wearying. This attempt to give Widmark a Kirk Douglas-type swashbuckling Viking role fails completely. Nor does Sidney Poitier come off well in it (as a Moor ruler who wants Widmark to find and bring back a legendary golden bell).

HALLS OF MONTEZUMA (1950)

Lionel Barrymore, Widmark, Dean Stockwell in DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS

THE ALAMO (1960) is worth noting for giving Widmark one of his few chances to portray a famous figure from American history, in this case Jim Bowie. Unfortunately, it’s not a very good film and is riddled with inaccuracies. In real life, Bowie was bedridden for most of the action after having broken his back after falling off a platform while directing the placement of a cannon (or so I remember). In this film, Widmark’s Bowie scampers about on a crutch. In any event, the most memorable dramatization of Bowie remains Alan Ladd’s portrayal of the pre-Alamo Bowie in Gordon Douglas’ THE IRON MISTRESS (1952), which I wrote about here on the occasion of Ladd’s centennial last year:

TAKE THE HIGH GROUND (1953) stars Widmark as a Marine Corps drill instructor, which resonates with me because my father was a Marine Corps drill instructor during WWII. The film has an even deeper personal connection given that its director, Richard Brooks, trained under my father for his war service. If there’d been a model in Brooks’ head for what a drill instructor would look and behave like, my father would be it. However, Brooks didn’t write the film and when I finally saw the movie, I couldn’t see any trace of my father in Widmark’s portrayal. Widmark came off as somewhat, ummm, gentler, than my father. To give you a hint of what I’m talking about, let me relate a moment of father-son discussion of such matters during a TV broadcast of Raoul Walsh’s BATTLE CRY (1955) in which we see a rough, tough drill instructor (played by Gregory Walcott) drilling and making life miserable for a bunch of new Marine recruits during the war. As the scene played out in front of us, I asked my father if he was like that. Without missing a beat, he declared, in a low growl, “I was worse.” None of us in the room doubted it for a second.

There are plenty of Widmark films I still haven’t seen. Where the heck is SLATTERY’S HURRICANE (1949)? I’ve been waiting to see that for decades. Has it ever come on TV in my lifetime? If not, why not? I’d like to see RED SKIES OF MONTANA (1952), in which he plays a fighter of forest fires, which is now out on DVD. I’ve never seen all of DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK (1952), with Marilyn Monroe. I’m intrigued by such titles as Mark Robson’s caper thriller A PRIZE OF GOLD (1955), Gene Kelly’s romantic comedy THE TUNNEL OF LOVE (1958), co-starring Doris Day, and Phil Karlson’s spy drama THE SECRET WAYS (1961). For this piece, I wanted to re-watch NO WAY OUT, MY PAL GUS, DESTINATION GOBI, TIME LIMIT, WARLOCK, and THE BEDFORD INCIDENT, only a few of which I have access to. I also wanted to re-watch episodes of “Madigan,” but I don’t yet have a Hulu account (the only place they can be seen). This year I did see five Widmark films that I’d never seen before: YELLOW SKY, DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS, THE COBWEB, THE LAST WAGON, and AGAINST ALL ODDS (a 1984 remake of OUT OF THE PAST). I was most pleasantly surprised by THE LAST WAGON, as described above. Are there other pleasant surprises in store? We’ll see.

Widmark was a great actor and a fine movie star. He may not have been larger than life but he brought a number of believable, recognizable human traits to his characters that rooted his films in real life in a way that many Hollywood films avoided. He didn’t often make the most spectacular or artistically accomplished films, but almost everything he did had some intrinsic value that made it worth watching, even THE LONG SHIPS. And I’d gladly watch any film he’s done, even the ones I’ve criticized above, over again.

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2 Responses to “Richard Widmark Centennial”

  1. briandanacamp December 25, 2014 at 6:19 AM #

    Robin9 on Home Theater Forum offered these points in response to the above entry:

    Interesting essay. Three points:

    1) Slattery’s Hurricane is available on a Fox MOD disc. Not a bad disc with reasonable picture quality.

    2) Towards the end of his life Widmark gave an on-stage interview in London at the British Film Institute. He was far more flattering about the various directors he worked with than your article suggests. This interview used to be on-line and, I guess, still is.

    3) It is very much to be hoped that Take The High Ground will eventually make its way to disc, presumably via Warner Archive

    Thank you, Robin. Now to look for that interview…

  2. rockfish December 29, 2014 at 2:06 AM #

    Great scott — you cover a lot of ground, but your subject deserves it. Widmark is highly undervalued when it comes to a dramatic protagonist, and is too often slotted in along as a noir villian (tho I love all of his noir performances, especially Night and the City. IN some ways, I find him and Glenn Ford as similar (tho absolutely different), actors who could carry a picture but never tried to out-shine the story. Thanks for delving deeper into his career and roles

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