Greetings all and sundry!
And allow me this opportunity to state that those rumors of my being deodar mysteriously abducted by aliens have been grossly exaggerated. Though, I have endured two side trips to Northern Virginia’s massive, expansive Mother Ship of Specialized Medicines, INOVA (A sub state unto itself. With superior doctors and eerily always smiling staff) for problems related to age. Leaving me with a surfeit of time to root around, excavate and shine some light on a stalwart of the thespian trade. Whose talent and trade craft, those not always “A-List” or Top Notch through the 1950s, 60s and beyond. Did manage to easily bring many memorable characters. Sometimes heroic. Sometimes creepily slimy, to life under the guidance of some of the best directors Hollywood had to offer.
So, allow me but a few moments of your time while I wax nostalgic and meticulous about one of the near forgotten greats of the trade with:
Consummate Utility Infielder!
First crossed my path as a wide eyed eight year old kid indulging in the forbidden fruit of “Late night” (9:00pm) television movies. And WTTG’s “Movie Greats” presentation of Kiss Of Death. A more than medium budgeted 1947 treasure that, unbeknownst to me at the time; was shot all over key locations throughout Manhattan and its five boroughs. Which added enormously to the film’s strength and tense, gripping story line. And would lock this tile away as a long time favorite.
Focusing around down on his luck Nick Bianco (Victor Mature). Who decides with three others to rob a jewelry store in the upper levels of a skyscraper to improve the lives of himself, his wife and two daughters. The heist goes off well enough. But the proprietor sets off the alarm. A cop intervenes and shoots Nick in the leg. Nick is caught. Held at the Tombs prior to arraignment. Keeps his mouth shut throughout the trial and catches a 20 year sentence at Sing Sing for his efforts. Unaware until three years later that his wife committed suicide after being raped by one of his accomplices, And that his daughters have been sent to orphanages.
Bianco is anxious to cut a deal. But all that he knows and can do has been made useless by the passage o time. So the District Attorney, D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) arranges an early parole and points Bianco towards another case. Putting the word out from Sing Sing that Rizzo squealed and sold out not only Bianco years ago. But is leaking to the cops information on the third member of the robbery crew, Tommy Udo (Mr. Widmark in his debut film role.). Well, but not richly dressed. With an upturned sneering smile that barely hides his close to the surface inner Psychopath. And his paranoid aversion to “squealers”.
Tommy finds Rizzo’s paraplegic mother (Mildred Dunnock) in her apartment and questions her about her son. Mrs. Rizzo says that he is out and will be back later. Udo thinks she’s lying. Ties her into her wheelchair and pushes her down a long and lethal flight of stairs, killing her,
Bianco is finally released and has a “chance encounter” with Udo. Who shows Nick around. Takes him to clubs where there are about twenty parole violations within arm’s reach before calling it a night. Bianco goes running to D’Angelo with a boast or two of Udo’s referring to recent murders.D’Angelo tells the local cops to scoop up Udo for murder.
Bianco gets cold feet. Udo is let go. Udo and Bianco meet at a restaurant. Udo makes threats against Bianco brand new family. A showdown looms on the cobbled, rain reflected streets. Bianco calls D’Angelo. Warns him about what is about to happen. Then exits the restaurant without a gun. A henchman of Udo’s draws on Bianco, but Udo shoots the henchman. Aims at Biance. Fires and hits Bianco as uniformed cops unload on Udo. Killing him in the street, And leaving Nick Bianco with a bright and pleasant future!
Required viewing. Not just for the layered tale itself. But just to relax and bask in what Greatness can truly be!
Now. What Makes This Film Good?
Henry Hathaway in charge of one of the earliest and best “Organic” New York films. Filming on several different locations and lighting each and their surroundings in ways to intimate and hint at danger or lascivious delight hidden within. And making me a decades long sucker for most any film or television series shot in and around New York City
Add Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Karl Malden and Coleen Gray to the mix. Give them intelligent dialogue from Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer that moves the plot along without deliberately telegraphing what is to come. And you have the makings of smart entertainment. Enhances by Cinematography by Norbert Brodine. Music by David Buttolph. Art Direction by Leland Fuller and Lyle Wheeler, Plus Editing by J.W. Webb, Jr. help to place this near forgotten early Noir classic high in the genre’s pecking order.
Now. What Makes This Film Great?
The adversarial pairing of veteran, Mature opposite a just starting out Mr. Widmark. Whose film time and scenes are dwarfed by others. Though, in those minutes Mr. Widmark can call his own. He does make the most of and makes them his own. Violence and his scary. creepy laugh not withstanding. Had a lot to do in earning this ingenue a Golden Globe win. And an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Along with a nomination for Best Original Story by Eleazar Lipsky.
With Mr. Widmark firmly locked into my “Actor To Watch” category. Pursuit and finding him in other films was part and parcel of the WTTG’s ‘Movie Greats” and “NBC’s Saturday Night At The Movies” to find Mr. Widmark playing a similar, more powerful and lucrative role in The Street With No Name a year later.
Then a shift in gears and character into “Jealous Sap Territory” in 1948. For a B&W, Noirish trifle directed by Jean Negulesco titled Road House. Where Mr. Widmark’s Jefferson T. “Jefty” Robbins owns and runs a road house out in the sticks, Hires and falls hard for Ida Lupino’s tough talking Torch Singer, Lily Stevens. Who starts playing Jeffty’s restaurant owner and partner, Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde) against him. So, Jeffty starts to frame Pete for embezzlement. And worse once Pete proposes to Lily.
Making time through 1949 for a whaling tale. With Mr. Widmark going upscale, cast wise. Taking on the First Mate’s role, Dan Lunceford. But also the tutor of the Captain Bering Joy’s (Lionel Barrymore) grandson, Jed (Dean Stockwell) in Down To The Sea In Ships. Under the direction of Henry Hathaway. In a surprisingly good maritime drama as young Jed learns about honesty, courage, teamwork and responsibility.
And an upgrade in directors the next year and Panic In The Streets. For the first of its kind police and medical procedural directed by Elia Kazan. And his take of tracking down the carrier of pneumonic plague in the port city of New Orleans. The unwitting carrier and future “Patient Zero” is Jack Palance. And the hero is Navy Lt. Commander Clint Reed, Aided by Police captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) as they canvass, interview and slowly eliminate others and narrow the suspect pool as Palance’s slimy ‘Blackie’ slinks around the piers and seeks a way out after a failed robbery.
Then a ground breaking racial drama and thriller. No Way Out (1950) under the direction of Joseph L. Mankwicz with Sidney Poitier and Harry Bellaver, Where Mr. Poitier plays Dr. Luther Brooks. Who works on wounded low rent racist thief, Ray Biddle and his brother, George. Who dies on the table. And sends Ray on a deep and very personal mission of revenge
Followed by the Marine service drama, Halls Of Montezuma with Jack Palance and Richard Boone. The Frogmen. A personal favorite. With Dana Andres, Gary Merrill, Robert Wagner and Harvey Lembeck. Dircetor Lloyd Bacon renders a pretty fair exposition about what Underwater Demolition and the removal of barriers and obstructions is all about before a sea borne invasion. Then onto parachuting “Smoke Jumpers” in Red Skies Of Montana. And the drama involved when two of Mr. Widmark’s Park Rangers and firefighters die after a tragic wildfire. Not a bad film, actually. Under the direction of Joseph M. Newman. And all four films being early top choices for ‘NBC’s Saturday Night At The Movies’.
Another contender from 1953 is an odd WWII film from Robert Wise. Destination Gobi. Where Navy meteorologists are dispatched to the Gobi desert to set up shop and record and transmit weather data to a picket ship to aid the air war against Japan. When not bartering with Mongols for assistance and protection in the form of saddles for their horses. Another ‘Saturday Night At The Movies’ offering. And Robert Wise’s first color film. With Mr. Widmark as a lowly chief Petty Officer (NCO) in charge of Don Taylor, Martin Milner, Darryl Hickman, Alvy Moore and Earl Holliman. In a surprisingly good film which has a pronounced hardscrabble, no frills “You’ve Got To Start Somewhere” vibe, cast wise. While using several parts of the Mojave Desert, Fallon, Nixon and Yuma, Arizona to fill in for Mongolia and southern China..
To this point, Mr. Widmark seems to have spent far more time in military uniforms than civilian finery. Becoming on of the “Go To Guys” along with Martin Miler, Richard Jaeckel. Ty Hardin, Marshall Thompson, Robert Ryan, Van Johnson, James Whitmore and Dana Andrews to play G.I.s, sailors and Marines in immediate post war Hollywood. And to Mr. Widmark’s credit, he did pull those roles and characters off quite well. Usually in the lead. Though often as a small part of a larger objective or story.
And Mr. Widmark’s luck was about to change in a very noticeable way. By signing onto low budget, independent maverick director, Sam Fuller. And the director’s embellished screenplay about pick pockets flourishing around 1950s Manhattan. To include Russian agents,hollow coins and microfilm regarding atomic bomb secrets and blueprints in the minor 1953 “Red Scare” classic, Pickup On South Street.
Where Mr. Widmark plays Skip McCoy. Two time loser and somewhat gifted “dip” or “cannon” (pick pocket) making his living on the city’s crowded subway trains. Who runs afoul of a cell of Russian agents by snatching the wallet of an unassuming courier, Candy (Jean Peters). And later rifling through an envelope and discovering highly classified documents and microfilm. While still unaware that Candy was being watched by US Federal agents hoping to discover the higher up on the receiving end.
Creating an equally compact and intriguing, noir-ish B&W film that clocks in at 75 minutes. Excels in cramped, neglected and dirty sets and sound stages of 20 Century Fox’s many back lots. Yet looks like thr film was shot on many locations throughout New York City. As the cops stick their noses in. Interviews are logged. Deals are made. Specifically between local soft crime maven, Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter) and Detective Dan Tyger (Murvyn Vye) to narrow the number of suspects down to Skip McCoy. Who has no problem dealing with the highest bidder. Even if it isn’t the US government.As Candy’s boyfriend, Joey (Richard Kiley and a silenced pistol) tidy up loose ends.
In a film that threw critics, select politicians and J. Edgar Hoover for a loop. The critics loved the film’s low budget, Mickey Spillane grittiness. While politicians and the FBI had conniptions over Widmark’s and Skip McCoy’s arrogant, “You’re gonna wave the flag at me?!” line and its inherent “Anti-Americanism”. Especially in the backwash of the House Un American Activities Committee Hearings and The Cold War. Though, for a skint 780.000 dollars. Sam Fuller put together a cramped, claustrophobic and shadowy masterpiece that rises up into the firmament of “Required Viewing’. With an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for Thelma Ritter. And a Venice Film Festival Gold Lion win for director, Sam Fuller. Reaffirming his position as a Master of cinematic”Bang For The Buck!”
Which Mr. Widmark would return the following year. After a brief detour to the Army’s anwer to Hell On Earth, Fort Bliss and the city of El Paso, Texas for a Richard Brooks directed Basic Training drama, Take The High Ground!. With Karl Malden training draftees, Steve Forrest, James MacArthur, Russ Tamblyn and others for crucible that is the Korean War. Before returning to Sam Fuller’s next project.
A neat, compact little Cold war thriller titled, Hell And High Water. Where Mr. Widmark takes on the role of former Navy Sub Commander, Adam Jones.Who is mysteriously approached by a group of nuclear scientists in Japan. Who want Jones to take over a retired Japanese sub and check around a string of islands north of Japan. The scientists suspect that China may have had something to do with a recently exploded nuclear device outside the continental US.. And may have designs to join “The Nuclear Country Club” and intimidate their neighbors to the west.
The sub goes out with Jones and a small crew of Jones’ shipmates. Following a Chinese freighter into the North Pacific. Though, due to events. the Japanese sub left in pursuit. Without time to inspect its torpedo tubes. Leaving the boat nearly weaponless. A cat and mouse game with the Chinese navy ensues. A Chinese sub is rammed as the specific island is found. With either a restored American B-29. Or Russian TU-4 in a US paint job on the island’s bare base taxi way (A superb glass matte painting!). One of the scientists sneaks ashore of Capt. Jones. Signals the bomber’s take off… And I’ll leave it right there!
Surely in the simplistic realm of kid and schoolboy fantasy. But superb, well thought out and executed low budget kid and schoolboy fantasy. Director Fuller again raises the tale with deft sleight of hand, excellent model and pool work for the Japanese sub and its Chinese protagonist. And some well spent money (1,870,000 dollar budget) on artists and matte paintings. Since outside of some lush on location shots at Orly Airport, The Arc de Triomph and sights around Paris to establish the plot. Mr. Fuller and company never left 20 Century Studios. Its sets, sound stages and properties.
Setting the stage for three years of training and yeomanry work in post war thrillers and westerns( The Prize of Gold, Broken Lance, Garden of Evil, Backlash, Run Fro the Sun, Saint Joan, The Cobweb). Before joining up again with Karl Malden in the director’s chair for a neat and compelling 1957 post Korean War procedural titled Time Limit. Where Mr. Widmark plays Colonel William Edwards. A JAG officer trying to determine the limits of The Military Code of Conduct for POWs experiencing near Arctic cold, starvation and torture at the hands of the North Koreans. When one can snap. And the end results of possibly finding a traitor among their ranks. With Richard Basehart and Rip Torn under suspicion, Martin Balsam as the Colonel’s aid and conscience, Dolores Michaels as Corporal Jean Evans. And Martin Balsam as the Colonel’s Top Sergeant and conscience.
Then three more years of westerns before an upgrade in cast members with John Wayne directing and starring in The Alamo. Along with Richard Boone and Laurence Harvey. And major stage piece whose parts would be used again in The Green Berets. Giving Mr. Widmark a chance to add to an exceptional ensemble cast as Colonel Jim Bowie. In a fairly accurate depiction of those historic thirteen days. Plus an upgrade in directors to John Ford for his project.
Two Rode Together. With James Stewart, Shirley Jones and a swath of Mr. Ford’s cinematic regulars re-indoctrinating those captured by Indians back into the world and society. And continuing his high end ensemble streak with Stanley Kramer’s Judgement At Nuremberg, With Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Maximilian Schell, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, Marlene Dietrich and a “Who’s Who” of Next Generation talent filling any and all remaining roles. Followed quickly by larger than life, generational family Magnum Opus, Covering the Gold Rush and Comstock Lode. To the Civil War. Manifest Destiny. Captains of Industry and the Railroad in How The West Was Won. With not just one director, but four! Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall and Richard Trope. Each with their own tale or area of expertise to heighten and tell. And enough old and new talent signed on and assigned characters to fill a medium sized high rise apartment complex.
And making the mid 1960s the time when Mr. Widmark seem to come into his own. With small films which made large impressions. With Stanley Kubrick alum, James B. Harris’ The Bedford Incident with Sidney Poitier, Martin Balsam and James MacArthur on a navy destroyer trying to surface a Russian sub inside Territorial Waters. And what can go wrong. Alvarez Kelly. With William Holden and Mr. Widmark as an eye patched Confederate officer wanting to follow the tenets of William Quantrill and John S. Mosby in rustling and hijacking cattle and horses. As long as Mr. Holden’s Alvarez Kelly teaches them how.
It has often been said that I am a sucker for any film shot in Manhattan and its boroughs. And one of the better ones of the 1960s is a near forgotten police procedural with Henry Fonda, Inger Stevens, James Whitmore, Sheree North, Michael Dunn, Don Stroud, Steve Ihnat, Susan Clark. Raymond St. Jacques and Harry Guardino in the Don Siegel directed, Madigan.
Where Mr. Widmark plays Detective Daniel Madigan assigned to a precinct in Spanish Harlem and partnered with Detective Rocco Bonaro (Harry Guardino). Who lose their guns after a third rate low life, (Steve Ihnat) gets the drop on them, And now have 72 hours to catch the creep and get their guns back. In one of the better made for TV “Partner Movies” to be generated by NBC and clocking in at 110 minutes full of dirty, cramped and un glamorous places, sights and sounds rarely seen in 1968. Which adds to the film’s grittiness and no apologies attitude. Ane was so well received as a pilot. That NBC created a six 90 minute episodes package for their Sunday night ‘NBC Mystery Movie’ series in 1972.
Returning to ensemble work for Sidney Lumet’s Murder On The Orient Express with Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bissett and John Gielgud two years later.
The Doomsday thriller, Twilight’s Last Gleaming with Burt Lancaster and directed by Robert Aldrich. Stanley Kramer’s 1977 political thriller, The Domino Principle with Gene Hackman as an expendable Presidential assassin.
And Mr. Widmark preparing to go out on his own terms with Michael Creighton’s Coma the following year. Then playing a high ranking US hostage in Ian Sharp’s well detailed and executed gritty, sweaty, no frills British Special Air Service (SAS) against an IRA splinter cell gem. The Final Option. And a final return to “Bad Guy Territory” in Taylor Hackford’s Against All Odds. A film that tries very hard to be an updated remake of Jacques Tournier’s Out Of The Past, but doesn’t quite make it!
Like so many actors while I was growing up. I cannot remember a time when Mr. Widmark was not working. Consistently supplying grist for the imagination with often more than one film a year. And on the whole, very good films at that. Good guy. Bad Buy. In uniform and out. Mr. Widmark offered something unique in most of his characters. The possibility that there may be a double cross at worse. Or that proposed events would not occur in their correct order.
Slowly covering the spectrum of character types. For his initial “Creep” with Tommy Udo in Kiss Of Death. To “Rebel” in Pickup On South Street and Panic In The Streets. To racist “Thug” in No Way Out. A side trip to Rugged Individualist in The Alamo and How The West Was Won. And “Hero” in War Films, Don Siegel’s Madigan and its later mini-series!