Thursday, March 27, 2008

Richard Widmark (1914-2008)

My apologies for not posting lately -- it could not be helped. Still can't be, frankly. But this needs mentioning: Richard Widmark passed away today at the age of 93.

Widmark is one of those guys whose fame has faded into the past, but his name still carries plenty of weight amongst cinephiles, and I know it definitely does on this blog. There was no movie that he couldn't make better by his presence. He could make a decent movie unforgettable, as he did as thug Tommy Udo in 1947's Kiss of Death (where he chuckles as he pushes a wheelchair-bound lady down a flight of stairs) and he could make a terrible movie watchable, as he did as Major General Thalius Slater in the ungodly mess that is the 1978 disaster movie The Swarm. Even greats like Henry Fonda and Michael Caine buckle beneath the bootheel of the Irwin Allen dreadfulness, but Widmark keeps his dignity in the movie; heck he's even kinda cool in it as he fights off, yes, giant swarms of killer bees. Now that's acting.

There's a lot of good Widmark performances, but to see him at his peak, and to get a sense of all of his powers in one place, you need only watch him in the lead of Sam Fuller's brilliant Pickup on South Street (1953). He plays Skip McCoy, a cutpurse whose grabby hands accidentally land him in the middle of a Communist plot to smuggle classifield film strips out of the country and into the hands of our enemies. Skip, a two-time loser looking at the dreaded third strike, has the all important negatives, but has to keep it hidden from both the law and the hoods that are both trying to retrieve it before the other. The tension from the opening scene, where Widmark wordlessly lifts an unsuspecting woman's wallet, is as taut as a high-wire and Widmark's the guy who walks it for 80 dynamite minutes, with panache and verve and wit. During his love scene Jean Peters, where she is trying to seduce him to reacquire the information he pilfered from her, he utters one of my all-time favorite lines of movie dialogue in response to Peters' declaration of her feelings after a particularly amorous clinch: "Everybody likes everybody when they're kissing," he coos. Fuller worked with a lot of good actors, but I don't know if anyone ever quite nailed the rhythms of his street-level tough guys quite as well as Widmark.


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