Richard Widmark

REAL MEAN CRITTERS

RICHARD WIDMARK

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Q (OR Q THE WINGED SERPENT)

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The film has two titles. The main suspect for the extended alternative title is Samuel Z Arkoff. He was the head of American International Pictures and the inspiration for the less than honest film producer in the cynical comedy Get Shorty. Q is dominated by the performance of Michael Moriarty as Jimmy Quinn. When a critic suggested to Arkoff that the film Q consisted of ‘fine acting by Moriarty surrounded by dreck’, the notorious producer and Hollywood role model smiled and replied, ‘The dreck was me.’   As a title, Q was not likely to attract a B Movie audience.  Arkoff, or someone, added the Winged Serpent. Samuel Z Arkoff was a man who was financially responsible, or, as his friends would have said, cute.

Although financed by Arkoff, Larry Cohen wrote, produced and directed Q. Most of his movies were low budget horror and Blaxploitation. These genres and his films were aimed at specific audiences, and quality was not always important. The films, because they had a lot of action, did not require an attention span.  The young could giggle at cheap special effects and be glib about dodgy dialogue. Larry Cohen also wrote scripts for TV. His responsibility to the networks was to provide the familiar and routine. His script for Phone Booth was accepted by upper-tier Hollywood, and a half decent movie was the result. Made with a proper budget Phone Booth demonstrated that there was competent work inside the man. Cohen enjoyed, though, being in control and was happiest as lord and master of low budget productions. Larry Cohen made 27 movies and wrote, produced and directed most of them.

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It is tempting to compare Cohen with B Movie auteur Samuel Fuller. The two men were friends, and Fuller appeared in a Cohen movie. The comparison, though, flatters Larry Cohen who said that the most enjoyable aspect of movie making was the feeling of omnipotence. ‘I felt I was infallible,’ said Cohen. That attitude ensures things get done but it has unfortunate side effects including contempt for an audience and valuing risk taking over successful creation. These side effects are evident in Q the Winged Serpent. It is a bold B movie but uneven. Scenes are rushed, and the film lacks rhythm. If Cohen could have slowed the action just a little, he might have been given credit for anticipating the capricious anarchism of Japanese master filmmaker Takeshi Kitano. The Chicago policeman disguised as a mime artist is an eccentric moment worthy of a Kitano thriller.

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The plot of the film is this. A winged serpent nests in the roof of the Chrysler Building. When not eating Chicago citizens, the bird worries about his offspring.  Apart from being very big the flying serpent is more than a bird. The winged serpent is a God evoked by Aztec rituals that are being practised on the streets of Chicago by a really crazy looking character.  The same character is underdeveloped which may be why he likes to wear an Aztec mask. The notion of an irresponsible and not particularly useful God is the most interesting idea in the picture.  Jimmy Quinn, who is on the run from jewel robbers, discovers the nest in the Chrysler Building and leads the police to the roof. First, though, Quinn insists on being paid a million dollars. His main concern is not the welfare of the Chicago population but transforming his day-to-day existence. Cohen has been described as a social critic but there is little debate about the limits of American capitalism in Q. Yet the movie has a hard urban edge, and the atmosphere between people is sour. Expletives feature and are frequent. They do not relate to exasperation or surprised amusement as they do in films today. The expletives are snarled by the inarticulate and they exhibit the defiant contempt of the disillusioned. The one relationship that is analysed in the movie, that between Quinn and his girlfriend, is a failure between a decent woman and a man who is unwilling to understand and mitigate his limitations. The authorities agree to pay the million dollars to Quinn but they neither honour the deal nor show sympathy for potential victims. Their main concern is their accountability to voters and bosses.

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Michael Moriarty is lively and inventive as Quinn but not as good as some critics have suggested. His performance is inconsistent. In his defence Moriarty was obliged to incorporate improvised lines from Cohen as scenes were being filmed. At times Moriarty is like Richard Widmark and in others he resembles young Robert De Niro. Although the changing tone of Moriarty is hard work for the viewer it is unsurprising because the film is pitched somewhere between the post-war cynicism of Samuel Fuller and the post-modern despair of Martin Scorsese. Despite the wandering style of Michael Moriarty the role of Jimmy Quinn resurrects two characters played by Richard Widmark.  Quinn may be a hustler driven by the need for money but he has an unrecognised gift as a piano player.  In Night And The City the character played by Widmark is described as ‘an artist without an art’.  And in Pick Up On South Street, the Samuel Fuller noir masterpiece, Widmark was excellent as a hustler who, because of his desire and need for money, ignored pleas to consider the greater good.

Unlike other humans Jimmy Quinn is ignored by the winged serpent.  The similarity of the names, Q compared with Quinn, suggests that Cohen thinks of his failed hustler as a character above normal humanity, something similar to how James Joyce imagined ordinary man Leopold Bloom in mythic terms. Quinn the failure may be reprehensible but he will experience an odyssey beyond successful men. ‘I am afraid of many things but I have never been afraid of heights,’ says Quinn. The conformists use their existence to achieve success and climb the social scale. What the conformists who avoid the hardship of failure do not realise is that they have an inverted form of vertigo that prevents them from facing hardship and insecurity or, as it is often described, life in the gutter. The ambition of normal men and women is timidity and a sacrifice of adventure.

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Names are important to Cohen in Q. The deaths caused by the winged serpent are investigated by two detectives called Shepherd and Powell. David Carradine plays Shepherd, and Richard Roundtree is Powell, The somnambulism of Carradine may have inspired the later sleepy performances of Keanu Reeves. Roundtree has energy and aggression. Shepherd is a good cop because he realises the responsibility to his Chicago flock. He exists to protect and save lives. Powell is the bad cop, and his name indicates he is in the job because he has an unsavoury need for power. There will be no odyssey for conformist Powell.  But the conscience and sense of responsibility of Shepherd are important to the rapport he has with the low life man who can be compared to Ulysses.

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Although there are a couple of good lines in Q the dialogue is mainly grim. It does not help that the scenes are played too fast and dubbing is overused. Michael Moriarty and Candy Clark work hard to lift the routine dialogue in their scenes of domestic strife but their excess effort is one of the reasons their characters lack focus. At times Moriarty looks like a man impersonating a kaleidoscope. Admittedly Cohen has his tongue in his cheek but the characters apart from Jimmy Quinn are dull, and, although they should be uninspired so they can be compared with the vital energy of Quinn, the clichés that come out of their mouths could have been trimmed. Despite the failures there are moments in the script that do appeal.

Powell asks Shepherd, ‘Did you ever find that guy’s head?’

‘Oh, it’ll turn up,’ says Shepherd.

When the really crazy looking Aztec enthusiast is confronted in the middle of his attempt to skin his next victim and prepare a sacrifice, Shepherd orders the villain, ‘Drop that scalpel.’

Somebody hopes that the winged serpent will be tempted to leave Chicago and nest in New York.  He believes that this might happen ‘because New York is famous for good eating.’

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But that is about as good as it gets.   There is, though, a pleasure in watching dull men somehow prevail in impossible circumstances.   At the end of the film the actors look as surprised by the defeat of the winged serpent as the audience must have been.   The Chrysler Building is a good location, and its Gothic style suggests a natural home for an uncaring and ravenous God. The final shootout at the Chrysler Building reverses what happens in King Kong but the winged serpent, like Kong, has a poignant death on a nearby roof where his giant wings flap as he expires. Of course, Gods are not destroyed as easily as random birdlife, and the end of the film makes clear that the dull human victors, despite being good eggs, will have more battles to fight.

Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is now available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the other books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.