How fucking cool was Richard Widmark? Too cool and he damn well knew it.
Like the best of them (and he was one of the best of them) he was always the smartest guy in the room, the toughest guy in the room and the guy whose path you didn't want to cross in any way whatsoever. He could play rebels or authority figures or killers or heroes with complete believability because of all that cool; it served him in most any capacity. Wanted a psycho? You got one in KISS OF DEATH. Need a hero? Here's Jim Bowie. (PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET achieves its level of perfection because Widmark plays both, in a sense, and was probably never better.) He played a lot of generals and majors and Major Generals, but he was also the perfect film noir hero thanks to the likes of NIGHT AND THE CITY and NO WAY OUT, and he also possessed a wicked dry wit about him, allowing him to deliver some of the best put-downs around. Widmark took no shit - he only gave it.
And oddly enough, my favorite Widmark performance was one of the few where he played a character who faced self-doubt and would grovel in front of authority, this being in Donald Siegel's MADIGAN. It's a typical Widmark role - tough NYC cop - but the difference is that he's playing a guy who's facing troubles that he's not sure he can surmount; he's after a killer who stole his gun and is given 72 hours to crack the case or face suspension, while at the same time his wife is asking for a divorce. He's forced to take shit from the police commissioner and he tends to take it out on the thugs he goes after. Not that Madigan ever breaks down and cries, but it's an interesting picture because it takes that stereotypical cop character and gives him many extra shadings that are atypical of this type of picture and Widmark gets Madigan just right. He's an angry guy, frustrated by life and his job but wanting to do right by both and one of the great things about the movie is that it's Widmark in the role; he could shift gears and play the tough guy he did so effortlessly as a embittered and wounded man and do it just as well as he did anything else. Widmark certainly appeared in better movies (I like MADIGAN, but it's become somewhat dated), but I think this was his best work.
Widmark was one of the last great movie stars of the "Golden Age" who was still making as I was growing up, all the way up to 1991's TRUE COLORS (not a great movie, not the worst movie) and I'd seen plenty of Widmark's later work as a kid to become a fan. Even in his old age he was still an intimidating presence, so it was indeed a surprise to see him in some of his early work later on and to see he never really changed much. He still had that vitality and raw strength, which made him all the more impressive a presence, so it's no wonder why he was so beloved by true movie fans, many of whom will be paying tribute throughout the blogosphere over the next few days (as usual, Kim Morgan has already done a stellar job with her appreciation of the man and his work). For some stupid reason I passed up an opportunity to see him in a rare personal appearance at Lincoln Center back in 2001 (I can't recall why), but my friend Jason Simos attended and had brief encounter with the man himself, which I've asked him to pass along here:
About five to seven years ago, Richard Widmark made a rare personal appearance at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theatre. This was for an wonderful onstage conversation/Q&A which also included a screening of the classic NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950). As I was making my way inside in a hurry straight from work, I took the roundabout route, which is all the way in the recessed back of the theatre but allows you to avoid the massing crowds. As I rounded the dark corner, there in true noir style was Mr. Widmark himself, standing quietly in the shadows. He was sharply dressed in a suit and tie, and was alone with his thoughts, with no handler or entourage or anything. He was simply standing and waiting for his cue for the evening to get started. I was so startled that I blurted out something like, “Hello sir,” and kept moving. He matter-of-factly responded, “Hi!”
To this day, every time I cut through the back of that theatre, I half-expect to see someone there. When talent is on hand at the theatre, they’re never in that back spot, though. Then again, how many people would be comfortable waiting patiently in the shadows without any hand-holders? Very few!
R.I.P. Mr. Widmark.
Thank you, Jason, and thank you, Richard Widmark.