Saturday, March 29, 2008

Richard Widmark, R.I.P.

I forgot to mention this at the beginning of the week. I happened to see Kiss of Death on AMC a few weeks after seeing the misbegotten 1995 remake; I was on vacation, and the movie was so gripping I didn't leave the room until I finished it. Widmark's Tommy Udo is one of those few movie villains that can still frighten you awake years later, thinking of that giggle escaping through those huge vulpine choppers, and it wasn't even his best performance. In the era of the Method he was refreshingly un-actorly. For a while in the early to mid fifties he showed an impeccable talent for picking good scripts, a lot of which used sadism and cruelty in an non-exploitative manner. If you think tossing wheelchair-bound Mildred Dunnock down a staircase in Kiss of Death was terrifying, wait till you see Jack Palance hurl plague victim from several flights up in Panic in the Streets, one of Elia Kazan's least mannered movies. Seek No Way Out, Night and the City, and Pickup on South Street; they're easy to find, and probably coming to TCM in the next few weeks.

The camera loved Widmark's face: those eyes set deep into their sockets, the hollow cheeks that expanded and contracted in angst or glee, the thin expressive lips. Even in quiet moments his sexual charge had a spark of perversity. In a 2001 Film Comment profile unearthed in the last few days, Kent Jones notes how Widmark works his spell on Jean Peters in the opening scenes of Pickup On South Street: "he builds a careful, subtle gradation of sexual intensity beneath an appearance of nonchalance."

That profile shows a welcome unsentimental side of Widmark's too: his preference for film over theatre ("In movies, you don't do anything, and you're a great actor. The less you do, the better"), his thoughts on Ronald Reagan, who scored the single greatest role for an actor since Vivian Leigh was cast in Gone With The Wind ("When I knew him, he was an affable, boring fellow. Now he's an icon. It's incredible").

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