Widmark's Wide Mark
Born the day after Christmas 102 years ago, Richard Widmark (1914-2008) was considered reliable, pliable, tough and plain-spoken among Hollywood leading men, pitching woo, exuding menace, riding the plains, soldiering into battle and cutting comic capers with the best. He’d been directed on Broadway by the likes of George Abbott, Herman Shumlin and Elia Kazan; indeed, the Kazan-directed Dunnigan’s Daughter by S.N. Behrman, Widmark’s final Great White Way engagement, opened this day 71 years ago and closed a month later. But a year after that, Widmark would be a movie guy and would continue at it gracefully and authoritatively – along with some striking TV work on the side – for the next 44 years, roaring right out of the gate with an Oscar® nomination for his sniggering maniacal killer Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947, a February 60th anniversary Twilight Time release to be covered in upcoming weeks). Widmark’s level head and snappy wit are front and center in Kent Jones’ 2001 Film Comment appreciation/interview piece Hidden Star: Richard Widmark (read it here: http://www.filmcomment.com/article/hidden-star-richard-widmark/), and a pungent example of the easygoing actor’s occasional outbursts of no-nonsense plain-spokenness from a 1983 Telluride Film Festival tribute chronicled in Bruce Bennett’s 2008 New York Sun piece Richard Widmark: Rebel with a Cause can be enjoyed here: http://www.nysun.com/arts/richard-widmark-rebel-with-a-cause/84385/. While awaiting Kiss of Death’s arrival, Widmark aficionados can saddle up the actor’s solid work in three current TT hi-def Blu-ray Westerns. Widescreen CinemaScope was made for the large and formidable ensemble casts of Garden of Evil (1954, directed by Henry Hathaway) and Broken Lance (also 1954, directed by Edward Dmytryk). Sardonic gambler Widmark (a cynic who will turn unexpectedly heroic by saga’s end) and fellow adventurers Gary Cooper and Cameron Mitchell, temporarily stranded in a small Mexican village, are recruited by a woman (Susan Hayward) to venture inside a region known as the Garden of Evil to rescue the lady’s husband (Hugh Marlowe), trapped inside a partially collapsed gold mine in Apache territory. Although the top-billed Cooper and Hayward comprise the movie’s nominal love-interest component, watch how Widmark’s roguish attitude and line readings slyly tug the story in the direction of a Cooper/Widmark “bromance” and the effect they have on your emotional response to the film’s climactic sequence. Broken Lance, Widmark’s final assignment of his seven-year Fox contract and one made pleasurable by getting the chance to work with Spencer Tracy, casts his as the resentful, eldest son (one of four, the others incarnated by Robert Wagner, Hugh O’Brian and Earl Holliman) of hard-bitten rancher Matt Devereaux (Tracy), whose unloving manner and callously autocratic behavior causes a deep rift over the family legacy. Tracy’s defiant patriarch is at center stage most of the film but it later becomes apparent that Widmark has held himself in strategic reserve. Brendan Foley’s online Cinapse review Broken Lance: The Western As Shakespearean Tragedy notes: “The only one [among the sons] who makes a genuine impression is Richard Widmark as Ben, the eldest Devereaux boy. It’s Ben that gives voice to all the anger and resentment that Matt’s first three sons have felt for years, and the scene where Ben finally snaps and throws those years of bitterness back into Tracy’s face is heartbreaking and chilling in equal measure. Widmark hangs at the fringes of the movie for the first two-thirds, but in the last act he steps forward and quietly walks away with the film.” Widmark’s third TT oater gives him another co-star every inch the equal of Cooper and Tracy: James Stewart, both of them working for the first time with director John Ford on a tale that Peter Canavese of the online site Groucho Reviews sums up thusly: “Aside from its rushed romance and a smattering of good humor, Two Rode Together (1961) offers a mostly ruthless, primarily pitch dark vision of humanity that amounts to a challenging revisionist Western.” With Stewart as a cynical territorial sheriff and Widmark as a duty-bound cavalry officer leading a mission to rescue frontier settlers held captive by Comanches, the film, as Ford biographer Joseph McBride notes, “can be seen as a remake of The Searchers from a far more cynical perspective.” Widmark serves as both a more decent and humane conscience to Stewart’s more rapacious opportunist, and as a potential romantic interest for a woman (Shirley Jones) whose tomboyish behavior is a reaction to her guilt over her brother’s kidnapping by the “savages.” His good rapport with Stewart was real and marvelously exemplified in the film’s most memorable scene, a riverbank two-shot with the two stars just sitting and talking for nearly five minutes straight, sounding each other out and seducing the audience as well. Again, the player bench is deep on Garden of Evil, Broken Lance and Two Rode Together, but next time you watch, try to trace where each movie’s inherent power draws from. The answer may just bear the mark of Widmark.