Thursday, March 27, 2008

Richard Widmark RIP

If there was ever a better screen villain than Richard Widmark as the giggling killer in 'Kiss of Death' I have yet to see him. Sad to hear that he's died, albeit at the age of 93. A final link with the golden era of Hollywood perhaps. Here's an obit I picked up from the web.
There aren't many actors you can say this about, unless you're looking to start an argument, and I'm not: anyone who doesn't like Richard Widmark hasn't watched Richard Widmark.Widmark, who has died aged 93, is most famous for his screen debut in Kiss of Death (1947) as Tommy Udo, a fabulously cruel psycho killer and one of the great movie villains. It's a testament to Widmark's many qualities that he went on to achieve a splendid 44-year career despite the long and terrifying shadow cast over it by Tommy. While his was an always welcome face - he was one of those valuable actors who make even poor work watchable merely by appearing in it - he has stuck in my mind for two films in particular: Night and the City, and Madigan. In both films, curiously, he delivered a first-rate leading performance but arguably was not the star. That accolade goes to the cities in which they were set.Night and the City (1950), the title of which sums up the essence of film noir, is an extraordinary movie. It transplanted a thoroughly American genre (albeit one pioneered by European émigrés) to post-war London, without in any way compromising the style of the picture or the authentic feel of its setting. This is a London out of Dickens, viewed through the darkest of prisms, and it remains an effective antidote to nostalgia - a kind of anti-Ealing. As a definitive depiction of a ruthless, perilous and seedy time and place, it rivals the Vienna of The Third Man.There cannot be a subsequent movie portrayal of London's underworld (or at least, not one worth sitting through) that isn't indebted to Night and the City. And while you might applaud director Jules Dassin for that, Widmark's contribution is no less crucial. A lesser, or vainer, actor would have tried to wrest the film back from its milieu. As the luckless, half-bright hustler Harry Fabian, around whom the inexorable whirlpool slowly turns before consuming him, he is superb precisely because he allows the character to be small, deluded and ineffectual. It's hard to imagine how the role might have been played better.Two decades on, and back across the Atlantic, Widmark took the title role in Madigan (1968), which would exert an influence on big-screen New York comparable to that of the earlier film on London. The small screen, too; a TV series of the same name was one of many based on the template. "Madigan strips a city and its people right down to their naked lusts!" slavered the trailer. Well, sort of. It was certainly gritty, brutal and lavish with the ladyflesh; but between the bedrooms and the shoot-outs, it delved into questions of loyalty, virtue and justice, coming up with no simple answers, and confronting topical issues - including racism and police brutality - without flinching.Seen today, everything in Madigan looks familiar to the point of cliche. But back then, the idea that the good guys look good only when compared to very, very bad guys was relatively novel in police thrillers. The combination of Widmark and director Don Siegel was ideal; each had a gift for expressing the complex and the nuanced in the most streamlined and gripping fashion. While Madigan was in some ways a dry run for Siegel's most famous movie, the vigilante cop classic Dirty Harry, it veers more towards Sidney Lumet than, say, Charles Bronson.Again, Widmark deserves a great deal of the credit - as an actor who, typically and perhaps instinctively, chose to serve the film rather than himself. Indeed, I can't recall a single Widmark performance of which that isn't true.


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