Very Much Alive.
There’s a longstanding joke among my film quiz colleagues, involving stalwart member Simon Carr, who has a tendency to pronounce celebrities dead, based only on the evidence that they’re on the elderly side.
First it was Glenn Ford. Now, Glenn Ford really IS dead, although as a believer in reincarnation he may be back among us by now*, but at the time Simon first raised the subject, Mr. 1950s Masculinity was still “very much alive”, to quote Johnny Depp’s Ed Wood.
Next up was Richard Widmark. ‘He MUST be dead,’ insisted Simon**, looking more and more like a young Ian Bannen. But he wasn’t, and he still isn’t, and this is a source of rejoicing in these wintry times, with grim death gargling up at us from the gutters, as Joel McCrea says in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS.
93 today! A Birthday he shares with my big brother Sean, who is perhaps less venerable but no less dear to me. Happy birthday, fellahs!
Widmark gave us the cackling psychopath par excellence in KISS OF DEATH, using his own laugh,and he played the sweatiest lead role ever, outside a jungle pic, in NIGHT AND THE CITY. I gifted the Criterion DVD to a friend who didn’t like noir (“It all seems to be men in hats double-crossing each other,”) and now it’s his personal STAR WARS type obsession, a film about only the darkest and most corrupt things that’s perversely life-affirming and exhilarating to watch. Widmark’s Harry Fabian is a big part of this, a dreamer who so badly wants to Be A Success, and seems haunted by some inner premonition of miserable failure.
Another great thrill with this film is the British setting. Sure, Widmark and Gene Tierney talking about “quid” and “Man-chest-er” is distracting at first, but only for ONE SCENE. Then we’re into an evocative pulpy world perfectly transposed to post-war London. It’s either the best American British film or the best British American film.
Oh, and let’s not forget Googie Withers.
Widmark is smart and tough in real life too. I like this story from the shooting of TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, the last Hammer horror film and a better movie than you’d think.
Widmark appears and asks cameraman David Watkin, “Where’s my key light?”
Now, Watkin comes from documentaries and doesn’t do things the traditional way. He’s a brilliant, innovative cinematographer, responsible for the look of THE KNACK, MADEMOISELLE, THE DEVILS, CATCH 22 and HELP! but he comes from a world very different from Widmark’s classical Hollywood experience.
“Well, the thing is, I don’t really work with a key light, Richard.”
“Well, I don’t really work without one,” says Widmark, and walks off the set.
I’m on Watkin’s side, of course, but I’m not telling this story to put Widmark down, I think it’s a rather suave come-back line.
On the subject of Dead Or Not, a few years back filmmaker and writer Mark Cousins made a wager on £10 with Sean Connery, as they disagreed about whether Leni Riefenstahl was still numbered among the living. Mark was right: though pushing 100, dear old Leni was still marching on, kept alive by the power of evil.
Although he won the bet, as far as I know Mark still hasn’t collected his tenner from the stingy Scotsman, who may actually be avoiding moving back here to his homeland for fear of having to part with the cash.
*Glenn Ford felt that his lifelong affinity with horses suggested he’d been an equestrian in a previous life. Possibly a Mongolian plainsman.
Or possibly not.