30 June 2017

Underrated Actors: Richard Widmark

'Understated versatility and charisma of the unconventional, memorable kind' are the words that come to my mind when I think about Richard Widmark.

As a character actor, Widmark (1914-2008) had a great, solid, anti-heroic screen persona which thrived in the western and film noir genres; often typecast as the more pensive side- or main character with morally ambiguous, enigmatic characteristics and ambitions as well as interesting character developments (if the material allowed it which often wasn't much, especially in the western genre).

One of the main attributes of Widmark's trademark acting abilities was that whenever the camera would cut to him in-between dialogue, Widmark could tell us more about his particular character with his face alone (and oh, what an fascinating, expressive face!) than most. With him it became all the more important what he didn't say but rather showed between the lines. Just the way he observed his co-stars could tell the viewers everything and at the same time very little about how his particular character felt about the other characters around him. He acted and reacted just by looking, which, I'm sad to say as a longtime classic movie fan, was rarely seen otherwise in these types of genres and roles back then.

In my (albeit slightly biased) opinion, he excelled in this and rivaled the talents of that of Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper and many of his other more star-studded co-stars.

Widmark's iconic, Oscar-nominated role as
Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death, 1947.

Despite his typecasting and underrated stardom, Widmark's subtle versatility as a character actor never wavered. With conviction, he could play giggling maniacs (Kiss of Death), obnoxious racists (No Way Out), Indiana Jones-like adventurers (Run for the Sun) or reluctant anti-heroes and unconventional love interests (Don't Bother to Knock, Pickup on South Street), but at the same time also display characters in conflict; of authority, integrity and great vulnerability (The Cobweb), and even then not always play by the ultra-macho-superhuman-hero-playbook (Warlock, Cheyenne Autumn).

To me, he always represented more brain than brawn, more depth than cardboard, in his characters. In any case and despite not always having much material to go with. He was just that good.

Widmark playing smart-mouthed pickpocket in
Pickup on South Street, 1953.

And once you've noticed Widmark, you'll notice him again. He was never just the faceless, characterless side character, if he ever was one. Good or bad or in-between. Never just the mindless lackey either. His characters were often hard-bitten loners and not always the rule-abiding ones. He seemed to seek the roles that rebelled in some form or another during the plot; in their own sly, quiet ways. There was an arc to his stories, however small, where he tried to make his characters more full-bodied. Or at least give them some sort of voice and character.

Once I noticed Widmark, I started to get invested in every character he played; even his sometimes short-lived and thinly-written roles as another sidekick or villain, easily disposed of. I was rarely this invested with other actors.

Widmark opposite Marilyn Monroe (the latter in a rare role, 
playing against type) in Don't Bother to Knock, 1952.

Part of why he is underrated may be because he could blend in and stand out at the same time; make certain types of characters seem real, believable and human - especially gunslingers whereas other stars often came to immortalize and mystify the latter into the superhuman, unflinching cardboard personas which are most frequently associated with the western genre.

That may sound a bit too generalized, but, honestly, Hollywood made sooo many westerns at the time (late '40s-'60s), with practically everyone jumping on the bandwagon; How the West Was Won and its all-star cast, including Widmark, is a pivotal example of this. And though there were loads of opportunities for an actor to practically play different versions of the same role in multiple westerns (hint to Leone's ingenious meta-films, the Dollars trilogy), the truly great material was few and far between. It's rather transparent with most of them that cash surpassed content which subsequently was reflected in the production value of the script (all the big bugs seemed to be gambled on the stars and the elaborate settings) and since westerns were great crowd-pleasers at the time, the genre became an easy money machine for all parts.

My point is that I've seen 'a couple' (*coughs* a hella lot) of westerns from that period and with many big (and slightly has-been) stars roaming the frame and riding the horses across the canyons and carelessly plugging one Native American after another and tossing around the women, repeating the same narrative over and over again, with little tweaks here and there, making the genre quickly quite jaded and campy. The trick to truly stand out and give one's own to the sparse material seemed to become an unwritten art - for the actor (who was still very much owned and dictated by the studios) as well as for the viewer; to spot these hidden gems in the haystack.

Widmark is one of these gems, you'll soon discover. His subtly expressive, contemplative face, at times with a hint of vulnerability, stubbornness, hesitance and integrity, is a breath of fresh air among the many wooden faces of the gunslinging actors in old Hollywood. Always a solid performance and though typecast like so many others of that time, Widmark gives his special trademark looks that makes you stop up and watch the screen extra attentively; waiting to see what he's going to do next although you may already guess it.

Yet, coming full circle, the sheer privilege of getting to observe Widmark observing - or simply acting - is award enough in itself!

Widmark as reformed-gang-member-turned-deputy-sherif in Warlock, 1959.

In one particular scene in Warlock, Widmark's character relays a personal, traumatizing story about reluctantly killing Mexicans while being in the gang of ruffians from which he has departed, to Dorothy Malone's empathizing character. It's only a few lines but Widmark's subtle acting makes the scene seem all the more poignant and telling of his conflicted character arc. It is very moving and all too short before the movie roughly cuts to a long, boring scene between Fonda and Dolores Michael's respective characters elsewhere. (I say this because I find the side-love story of the latter utterly boring and not nearly as interesting as the quiet sparks that fly between Widmark and Malone. I wanted to stay with them!).

The scene in Warlock in which Widmark's character recalls a traumatic memory.

So far, I've watched about 18 of his films and I continue on my journey to discover more Widmark magic. Needless to say I have a slight infatuation with this man as an actor. The fact that he seemed to be a right gent off-screen certainly doesn't hurt the appeal of him. Of the few things I can mention: He married former actor and screenwriter Jean Hazelwood in 1942 and claimed never to have even flirted with another woman. "After I was married I thought, 'well, that's it'. I never thought beyond that. I happen to like my wife a lot." And despite his longtime career handling guns in films, he abhorred violence and was an ardent promoter of gun control. Furthermore, he formed a lifelong friendship with Sidney Poitier after playing opposite each other in the latter's feature debut No Way Out:
"He was the first person in this town to invite me to dinner,” Poitier said. “I was always grateful for that because this town at that time was new to me. Widmark softened that for me. It was a reaching out. It was an embracing. He chose to let me know that I was welcome.”  
Filming, however, was a tense experience for Widmark, who recalled, “I had to say these horrible things to him in the movie and immediately afterward I’d go to him and say, ‘I-I’m sorry, Sid. It’s not really me’,” which Poitier would laugh off.  
“He was always apologizing to me about it, you know? And I tried to get across to him that I’m an actor too and that’s what we do as actors. But he really went deep into that character….he’s a good man…a good good man.”

And as a small bonus:

Aww, how sweet is that!

Anyways, I can highly recommend watching his films and look out for this wonderful and far too underrated actor. Let's hope it will further spark the fandom and appreciation of him.

Widmark being cute with Jean Peters in
Pickup on South Street.

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