Daniel Craig is an actor with ambition and it includes something more than making absurd amounts of money. While resting his body after his third Bond film he appeared in the New York Theatre Workshop production of Othello. Nothing exists to suggest that Craig considers his cinematic work as a continuation of the legacy of Richard Widmark. But both men are blonde and there is an axis that connects them and also includes Steve McQueen. All three are blonde and great actors. McQueen was cool, and Craig has mystery. Richard Widmark arrived before either and he had both. Richard Widmark is great.
He married his childhood sweetheart and stayed with her until she died. When this happened, he was a well-groomed and impressive 83 years old man. After two years he married again. The woman he chose was 74 years of age, and he lived with her until he died. Widmark did not play the sexual field. Women and work he treated with respect. He liked working in Hollywood because the work was steady and the roles he was offered allowed him to develop his craft.
Somewhere and sometime ago there was a film convention that Widmark attended with the avant-garde and very serious Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. Both men had to make speeches to the audience. Tarkovsky talked about the importance of the auteur and the need to be original and his importance to the consciousness of the rest of us. The implication was obvious. Genius had to challenge restraints. The Russian director was snotty about Hollywood and genre movies. When Widmark appeared on the stage, the audience was uncomfortable. Widmark was gracious and acknowledged the importance of original directors. He admitted that Hollywood may have missed opportunities but stated that it had at least been successful in engaging large audiences. This may have been no more than self-defence but it may be also that Widmark understood that there was something just as important as the isolated efforts of the self-regarding genius. What Widmark described was Homeric, the continuation of a culture where the talented sit on top of a pyramid of human experience and communication and carry it forward on our behalf, just as Homer and the performers of his poetical epics did with the classic Greek legends.
The poetry that emerged from Hollywood cinema was not because avant-garde talents needed to be recognised as exceptional but because there existed those who were responsible and loyal to the culture that produced them. At their best and without too many compromises from producers Hollywood directors and actors had respect for their audience. They understood that the stories needed to support their creations came from the lives of the people who watched them. The culture was circular between makers and watchers. Audiences were entitled to have something to which they could respond. If I have not adequately described what is a complicated argument, apologies. If you do not know what I mean, think about it. No doubt Widmark said it better.
He made his debut in 1947 in a Hollywood film noir called Kiss Of Death. There is a tendency to call any black and white Hollywood thriller from the forties film noir. The real film noirs have men doomed by fate. This does not happen to Victor Mature in Kiss Of Death but he did have five bullets pumped in him before he somehow survives. The half-happy ending feels like an intervention from a producer. Before the bullets arrived in his rather large chest Mature had to struggle against what waited for him as an ex-con. Some may call this a battle against fate and enough to qualify the inclusion of Kiss Of Death in the film noir genre. It does not matter. In a performance that would never be forgotten Richard Widmark played a stunted villain. His nervous and pitiless laugh guaranteed Kiss Of Death its place on the dark side of the street. It helped that the scriptwriter thought it would be a good idea for Widmark to push a wheelchair bound old lady down the stairs. Like Widmark, we watch the wheelchair bounce off the stairs and hit the corridor walls. Widmark giggles, laughs and shows a lot of teeth. His laugh is strange and out of control, like some force caught inside remote and myopic ambition. Other people will think differently about that laugh. All will respond and remember. As a debut, the performance of Widmark ranks with that delivered by Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire or James Cagney in The Public Enemy. Other people pretended to be tough guys. These three actors caught the danger in the vicious and violent personality. Without them what followed would have been different.
Thanks to the wheelchair, all those teeth and his abundant talent Widmark attracted awards for his appearance in Kiss Of Death. He won the Golden Globe Award For Most Promising Newcomer. The cynical expected him to peak. The opposite happened, Widmark improved. The strange laugh became a disturbing grin that always contained an expectation of shock. The intensity was maintained. Outside the cinema Widmark led a settled and quiet life yet he somehow understood desperate men. In Kiss Of Death Tommy Udo was a dangerous adolescent idiot. Widmark had to mature and he graduated to edgy and complicated energetic characters determined to protest and fight. His hustler in Night And The City is convinced he can be one step ahead of others but fails to realise that in a world where everyone is trying to be just that he will be doomed. The entrepreneur without power is a deluded and tragic figure, and the system is rotten. It demands lackeys and not heroes Thank God for black and white movies that can show what the world is really like. A little less energy and the hustler in Night And The City might have realised and snuggled up to a good woman. The career of Widmark had other triumphs. Widmark played a pickpocket in Pickup On South Street. He survives because he is tough and amoral. All that means is that he overestimates himself and the rewards. Widmark is so good in these two roles it is impossible to imagine them played by another actor.
Film noir became unfashionable but there were always other genres. Widmark had a lean frame until he died and he tanned well. He looked good in Westerns. In some he was the villain that had to be overcome. Yellow Sky is a remake of The Tempest by William Shakespeare and a fine Western. Widmark is gold obsessed and destructive, as audiences would have expected him to be in 1948. Later, though, he was able to display the self-sufficiency that Western heroes needed. If Richard Widmark became one of those heroes, he inspired and satisfied an audience without resorting to chest beating boorishness or machismo fantasy. His heroes survived in a hostile world and prevailed rather than triumphed. Conquering was not in his democratic nature. Richard Widmark had the same relationship to glamour. He was not handsome but like Daniel Craig he looked attractive. Widmark was cute enough to sidestep the narcissism of the handsome movie star. We trusted his resourcefulness.
Widmark may not have been a character actor with a wide range of roles. The Dauphin in Saint Joan was not his finest moment. He did, though, capture what makes humans complex. He played good and bad guys, the strong and the weak, the immature and the world-weary, and the fortunate and the vulnerable. Widmark gave cinema a variety of emotions and characteristics. Maybe his experience and record inspired him to think in Homeric terms when he responded to Tarkovsky at the film convention. There was something Homeric and fabulous about Richard Widmark. He was a responsible man and probably someone who would have enjoyed life and liked the people he met whatever he had done to earn a living. Widmark described the beautiful Gene Tierney as a great girl. The less tolerant were relieved when she was referred for treatment of her mental disorders. Richard Widmark saw the worth of a lot of people and he appreciated his good fortune in being a well-paid movie star. He was sophisticated but also without pretensions. The poets and performers who remembered, or became, Homer were enthusiasts and not alienated geniuses. Maybe it is such men and women and not the driven discontents that finish on top of the pyramid of culture because that is what they and we deserve. Only they can carry forward our entitlement and legacy, what we have all created and earned together.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including Horror Pickers a collection of film criticism. His latest novel is the acclaimed Choke Bay. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.