Richard Widmark’s High-Low Country


No one ever made a more haunting film debut than Richard Widmark. Just recruited from Broadway, the young actor lucked out at Fox in his first screen role as the handsome homicidal heavy in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death (1947), Hollywood’s first major postwar gangster movie. His Tommy Udo is a tittering psycho who pushes an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs while he cackles with glee. He plays the character as a mass of twitches; when he grins, his sparkling white teeth are more horrific than any vampire’s fangs. Reviewing the film, James Agee remarked, “It is clear that murder is one of the kindest things he is capable of.” Widmark’s portrayal of doomed and neurotic creatures was so strong that it was difficult to cast him in “normal” roles. The studio offered him a gig roster of more conventional heavies, authoritarian figures, and a few nervous heroes. He was eventually as at home in the western landscape as on noir’s dark streets, and although his fruitcake debut led him to being typecast as a villain in his early appearances, such as in William Wellman’s stark Yellow Sky (1948), his blue eyes eventually signaled not the cold killer but the man of integrity in later oaters. The Walter Reade’s 16-film retro covers the bases of this remarkable actor’s 40-year career quite well, save one omission: Joe Mankiewicz’s No Way Out (1950), one of the most honest studio films dealing with racial conflict (with Widmark as a rabidly bigoted hoodlum), is unfortunately not included.

His most iconic role is that of Harry Fabian, a con man who wants to score big by promoting wrestling in Jules Dassin’s over-the-top Night and the City (1950), shot in London, just before the director was forced into exile in Europe as a result of the HUAC hearings. One of the darkest of all noirs and arguably Dassin’s best film, it was hardly well received on its release. London’s Evening Standard remarked, “Night and the City should be a great help in sending American tourists to Paris.” Widmark is unforgettable as the crazed, gaunt con man on the run, afraid of every shadow while Dassin’s manic mise-en-scène turns all of London into a giant expressionist trap.

The actor found one of his most sympathetic roles in Sam Fuller’s slam-bang quintessential ’50s Cold War noir, Pickup on South Street (1953), as a lowlife pickpocket who pilfers a purse containing top-secret microfilm about to be delivered to commie agents. In this frenetic, endlessly inventive little masterpiece, Fuller enlarges the scope of Widmark’s talent by casting the cold-blooded wheelchair killer as an antiheroic leading man, a patriot in spite of himself. He somehow makes you root for him, although he hardly does a thing to deserve it. Fuller noted, “That’s the reason I wanted Widmark. He was perfect. He could be a heavy, he could be the lead. He could go either way.”

Widmark costars with Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn in Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock (1959), touted in the Reade’s program as “a great, morally complex, suspenseful western.” It’s hardly that. Although talky, overlong, and overwrought, it does offer a few points of genuine interest. In the most offbeat casting of his career, Quinn plays a clubfooted dandy (hair dyed blond for the role) madly in love with gunslinger Fonda. Widmark is a reformed badman, haunted by guilt, who breaks with a gang of outlaws to become deputy sheriff. During the witch hunts of the previous decade, Dmytryk, originally one of the “Hollywood 10,” had agreed to name names for HUAC and was able to resume his career after incriminating several of his former colleagues, notably Jules Dassin. A case might be made for Widmark’s man-of-conscience role in Warlock as Dmytryk’s rationalization of his cooperation with the Committee.

A superb contemporary western is the revelation of the series—Stuart Millar’s When the Legends Die (1972), which flopped when first released. Widmark plays an aging alcoholic cowboy who becomes the mentor of a Ute Indian from the reservation, exploiting the youth as he builds him into a star on the rodeo circuit. Widmark is tough, funny, and in fine form. In this last first-rate starring role of his career, he’s doing a variation on one of his great early performances—in Legends he’s just incorrigible con man Harry Fabian all over again, 20 years later, sporting his unsettling old grin and rigging rodeos.