I was scanning the Huffington Entertainment page several days ago, looking for some interesting perspective on the life and work of actor Richard Widmark, who died last week at age 93. I saw an article on why Kate Hudson shouldn't wear wigs. I spied about three tedious looking pieces on Britney Spears (with one titled "I'm Britney's Neighbor, Bitch!") and a couple on Brad and Angelina's purported marriage.
I know entertainment is meant to be light and diverting, but inevitably it also mirrors the tastes and values of our time. Too much of what I observe these days feels like so much noise, signifying nothing -- or very little. Am I alone here, or do others feel it too?
And Huffington is nowhere near the worst offender in this respect. Just surf your 800 TV channels sometime, and look a bit more closely at what's on (besides John Adams and a few other solid series on HBO. Is this where all the good writers went?)
Just why does the media business have to promulgate so blatantly what's become a junk-food culture? Why, in the face of rampant over-consumption as well as hazards both environmental and economic, do we remain so mired in sensationalism and the superficial?
Certainly the phenomenon of tabloid journalism is nothing new, but in the past, it was relegated to its own spot on the media landscape, available to those vapid or salacious enough to want to go there.
Now it feels pervasive. And it's not just adults affected by this tripe; it's our children.
So, in between articles on the seamy Pellicano trial and the "troubled" Amy Winehouse on Huffington, I find precisely one piece on Richard Widmark, a short but sweet one by Kim Morgan, which passed like a tiny ship in the night, eliciting all of nine comments.
Richard Widmark should not be treated as a footnote in movie history. He merits greater respect and attention than that.
I'm betting that the growth of home-based viewing and on-demand technology will soon create more of a meritocracy of content, giving smart consumers easier access to quality viewing choices.
In the realm of film, this will open a world of possibility in the realm of independent, foreign, and yes- classic American cinema -- areas which too often get overlooked, due to the disproportionate promotion and distribution clout placed behind the latest Will Ferrell or Owen Wilson vehicle.
I fervently look forward to the day when a movie viewer's question will not be "What's out?" or "What's on?", but rather, "What's great?"
But let's return to our forgotten hero, Richard Widmark. True, he was not a leading man in the league of a Gable, Brando or Clooney. He was never a comic lead, and rarely a romantic one. His particular beat was film noir, Westerns, and drama. Yet whatever movie he was in, he projected a unique quality, an innocent smirk that could spell death, either for him or someone else.
So, why so little coverage on the passing of this talented and distinctive film actor, and so much (literally) on bloated Jack Nicholson's sagging breasts? (That bare-chested picture of him three days ago was truly unfortunate. Give the guy a break -- he's 70 and on vacation!)
I suppose Widmark's publicity value declines because he's been out of the scene for so long (we're always so focused on the "now", aren't we?) but also since off-set, he was a forthright man who led a relatively normal life, managing (unlike a Sean Penn or Russell Crowe) to shy away from the spotlight and avoid public scuffles and fisticuffs with those predictably omnipresent paparazzi.
As some of you know, Widmark started out in radio (clearly he had the voice), then became a bankable star virtually overnight playing sadistic, baby-faced killer Tommy Udo in Henry Hathaway's quintessential noir thriller, Kiss of Death (1947), an entry which we should all experience or re-visit. Though in support of protagonist Victor Mature, Widmark clearly stole the picture, and his career went into overdrive.
But in the whirlwind of sudden fame, Widmark was determined not to play the Hollywood game by its well-established rules. It seems he knew he had talent, and with a studio contract, would get work. So he lived quietly on a horse ranch well north of Los Angeles for much of his career, periodically commuting east to a second home in Roxbury, Connecticut, where he ended up retiring and leading land conservation efforts there for years.
He was married to one woman for over half a century. When she died, he re-married Henry Fonda's former spouse. (The two actors had actually worked together several times, in good -- not great -- features: namely, Warlock (1959), How The West Was Won (1963), and Madigan (1968).)
In all, notwithstanding his early gangster roles, it appears the real Richard Widmark was a more civil person from a more civil time. He craved privacy, and he found it.
Not that he minced words. In his New York Times obit, I was struck by this scathing quote from a 1995 interview with Britain's The Guardian: "The businessmen who run Hollywood today have no self-respect. What interests them is not movies but the bottom-line. Look at Dumb and Dumber, which turns idiocy into something positive, or Forrest Gump, a hymn to stupidity. 'Intellectual' has become a dirty word."
I think Mr. Widmark made a valid point, one that only seems truer today, and that also gets at the heart of my earlier lament. Our culture shows and talks about whatever sells, however banal. We just don't like to admit it much.
There have been, and will be more, "best of Widmark lists", I trust. But I wanted to give you my own.
First, to cement his bad guy credentials after his breakthrough screen role, Widmark played slick, nasty crime lord Alec Stiles in The Street With No Name (1948), a trim murder/heist thriller featuring a solid Lloyd Nolan as a G-Man hot on Stiles's trail.
His next notable 40s film was veteran director William Wellman's Yellow Sky (1948), Widmark's first Western, where he portrays a gold-hungry bandit opposite Gregory Peck's robber reformed by love, in the shapely form of a tomboy-ish Anne Baxter, who's perfectly comfortable using a gun. Street and Sky are heartily endorsed, particularly for dyed-in-the-wool fans of their respective genres.
The actor's most enduring work would then unfold over the following decade, as he extended his versatility by mixing in sympathetic roles with his trademark villains.
Night And The City (1950) -- In post-war London, small-time hustler Harry Fabian (Widmark) ekes out an existence steering customers to the Silver Fox, a sleazy nightclub owned by the oily, obese Phil Nosseross ( Francis L. Sullivan). Wily and manipulative in his unquenchable drive to advance his fortunes via various shady schemes , Harry even stoops to stealing from his devoted singer-girlfriend, Mary (Gene Tierney). He finally gets his chance at the big time when he cons retired Greco- Roman wrestling star Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbysko) into a new promotional scheme, only to face the wrath of Gregorius's well-connected and dangerous son, Kristo (a young Herbert Lom, later Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther series). The noirish name of Jules Dassin's classic thriller says it all: Widmark, here in the role of penny-ante loser more than hardened criminal, manages to be at once hateful and pathetic as conniver Fabian, running through dark, dank back alleys to flee those he's fleeced. Lom and Sullivan are also stellar as the underworld kingpins he inevitably stings -- and who mete out punishment accordingly. Vivid camerawork, frenetic pacing, and a palpable sense of anxiety drive Dassin's final, pre-blacklist Hollywood picture to a heart-pounding finish.
Side note: in one of those weird coincidences of life and death, Dassin, who was actually an American citizen, just passed away at 96, within a week of Widmark's own death. He made some top noirs stateside -- check out Brute Force (1947) and Naked City (1948) -- followed by more great work overseas, after the blacklist forced him out of the country- notably two first-rate vehicles with his real-life spouse, Greek actress Melina Mercouri: Never On Sunday (1960), for which both husband and wife were Oscar-nominated, and the breezy, scenic heist spoof, Topkapi (1964).
And here's another reason to bemoan the shameful chapter of McCarthyism: arguably the best noir film ever, Rififi (1955), directed by Dassin, was shot in France!
Meanwhile, the quintessentially American Richard Widmark remained in this country and continued building his career with the following films:
Panic In The Streets (1950) -- Early Elia Kazan suspenser centers around an increasingly desperate search for two criminals on the lam in New Orleans (played by Jack Palance and Zero Mostel!), who, unbeknownst to them, have been infested with Bubonic plague. If health inspector Dr. Clint Reed (Widmark) and police captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) don't nab their quarry fast, this killer plague will spread and put the whole country at risk. Breathlessly exciting film is one of the best manhunt pictures ever made, with the plague twist adding an extra jolt of tension. Kazan's peerless on-location shooting never obscures the terrific acting from the four central characters, comprising both hunters and hunted. Featuring one of Widmark's first "good guy" roles, Panic remains unmissable.
No Way Out (1950) -- Wounded mobster Ray Biddle (Widmark) is brought to a police hospital along with his brother George, where they are treated by Dr. Luther Brooks (a young Sidney Poitier), a black M.D. whom Ray heckles with racist diatribe. When George dies, Ray blames Brooks, and begins a campaign of hate that boils over into the city's black community. A tense, hard-hitting social drama that earned an Oscar for Best Screenplay in 1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's pioneering film looks squarely at the ramifications of racism while keeping audiences on edge. Poitier is magnificent in his debut role, the epitome of cool-headedness and quiet self-regard, while Widmark seethes in a typically explosive role. Suspense builds inside and outside the hospital, and the effect is riveting. Keep an eye out for actors/civil-rights activists Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, playing Luther's brother and sister-in-law in a tandem debut. A potent powder keg of a film that hasn't lost its bite-or its relevance.
Pick Up On South Street (1953) -- Small-time grifter and pickpocket Skip McCoy (Widmark) gets more than he bargained for when he picks the purse of beautiful but naïve courier Candy (Jean Peters). It turns out the purse carries microfilm with top-secret information being sold to Communist spies. Soon Skip and Candy are enmeshed in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse, involving the New York police, the feds, and the spies themselves. Question is, will the pair live long enough to explore their growing mutual attraction? Idiosyncratic director Samuel Fuller's most successful film is prime noir with priceless tough guy patter emanating from the scummy Skip. And Peters makes for one sultry femme fatale. On-location shooting in lower Manhattan adds an authentic feel, and the premise itself is a cut above most standard crime stories. Beyond the espionage yarn, the audience yearns to know whether Skip, seemingly a man with no conscience, can develop one under extraordinary circumstances. Widmark shines, as does peerless character actress Thelma Ritter playing Jo, a veteran stoolie.
Broken Lance (1954) -- Tough Irish-American rancher Matt Devereaux (Spencer Tracy) is used to doing things his way, and has raised his four sons with the same work ethic that helped him build his empire. But his eldest, Ben (Widmark), resents being paid and treated like a hired hand, leaving half-breed Joe (Robert Wagner), Matt's youngest heir and favorite, to play the role of family peacemaker. These familial tensions boil over when Matt takes on a copper-mine owner who's polluting his feeding stream. Unraveling its Shakespearean yarn in one long, extended flashback, Edward Dmytryk's engaging, visually sumptuous Western, written for the screen by Oscar winner Philip Yordan, tackles the age-old theme of father-son friction with remarkable freshness. Tracy dominates as Devereaux, infusing his cattle tyrant with all the bull-headed blindness of King Lear. Wagner and Widmark are respectively compelling as the good son and his bitter, calculating older brother, but it was Katy Jurado who earned an Oscar nod playing Matt's Native American wife. Thanks to brisk pacing and boldly drawn characters, "Lance" really hits the mark for Western fans.
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) -- This recounting of the famous Nuremberg trials centers on Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy again), sent to Germany as chief Allied judge. Prosecutor Tad Lawson (Widmark) is assigned to try a group of top-level Nazis for complying with Hitler's inhumane edicts, facing off against defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell). As Haywood presides, he ponders where the nation went wrong, and how to apportion blame. Long but brilliant, Judgment was a box-office sensation, due to director Stanley Kramer's sensitive, socially conscious approach, which examines the degree to which people should be held responsible for following orders. The movie includes a host of sterling performances: Schell stands out as the impassioned defense attorney (he earned an Oscar), as do Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland, whose tragic characters poignantly reflect the sadness in their real lives. And within this maelstrom of mind-blowing dramatic turns, an assured, steady Widmark underplays his pivotal character beautifully. "Judgment" is an absorbing, true-to-life reckoning with the infamous Nazi legacy and the nature of modern justice.
The Bedford Incident (1965) -- Reporter Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier, by now a full-fledged star) boards a navy ship patrolling off the coast of Greenland to observe the crew's maneuvers and profile their hardened, aggressive commander, Captain Eric Finlander (Widmark). But Finlander, a zealous anti-communist, is intent only on hunting a Russian nuclear sub he knows to be in the area, ultimately driving his crew past the point of no return. This taut Cold War thriller re-teamed Poitier with Widmark after a fifteen year hiatus. Widmark is chilling as the remote, obsessive commander, while Poitier subtly portrays an astute journalist tracking developments with mounting uneasiness, as he observes the steady unraveling of an officer who holds many lives in his hands. Don't miss this nerve-jangling, no-frills, psychological drama, with Widmark's considerable acting chops on full and frightening display.
Now -- let's see how much play the life of Jules Dassin gets, on Huffington and elsewhere. Rififi, anyone?
Follow John Farr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BMBFarr