Richard Widmark, who passed away Monday, March 24, from issues related to declining health at the age of 93, was a fixture in my moviegoing universe. He was there from the first moments of my being cognizant of the movies, or seeing them on television, at least. I was probably three or four years old when my mother caught me gazing in horror at our little 15” black-and-white General Electric portable as nasty little Tommy Udo shoved a old woman in a wheelchair down a dark flight of stairs in Kiss of Death. I had just stumbled upon the scene, and of course my mother wouldn’t allow me to see the rest of the movie. But it was one of those searing, defining moments where one either falls in love with the power of the movies or goes spiraling away from them and the horrors they can so vividly represent. Me, I fell in love, though Widmark’s trademark sinister giggle and evil grin remained signpost images and sounds of ambivalence, of repellence and attraction, of not being able to tear my eyes away from things I sometimes felt shouldn’t be hearing or seeing. As I grew up, however, and movies began to gain the resonance and context and historical significance that escaped me as a four-year-old, Widmark simply stood out as one of my favorites, someone who I knew could be counted on to enrage and enrapture me with his scary, cynical and sometimes even sincere portraits of men on the edge in many landmark films noir and westerns. And as he grew older and retired away from the public eye, I liked to think that the man would never die, but just simply recede into the distance and observe us from afar, the way we held true to the standards and the challenges of storytelling set forth in the kinds of films he made for 50-some years, and the way we, the industry, the critics, the audience would inevitably stray the course.
My grandma and several of my relatives met him (and Robert Mitchum and Sally Field and Kirk Douglas) on the set of the 1967 western The Way West, which was shot near their ranch in Christmas Valley, Oregon, and my grandma, who knew how movie-crazed I was even by the age of seven, loved to tell me stories of what they saw on the shoot. She told me many times how different Widmark was from his tough bastard screen image, and how he addressed her with kindness and respect each time their paths crossed. He was often critical, in his retirement, of the excesses and quality of what he saw coming out of modern Hollywood. And though The Way West was not a particularly good picture, few left had the credibility and experience to take the town to task the way Widmark did in the years before his death. One tended to take heed the words of the man who was in Road House, Night and the City, Panic in the Streets, Destination Gobi, Pickup on South Street, Hell and High Water, Broken Lance, The Last Wagon, Two Rode Together, How the West Was Won, Cheyenne Autumn, Madigan and Twilight’s Last Gleaming, to expect that, yes, he just might know a thing or two about movies and what they could be. Though he hadn’t been seen on screen in almost 18 years, just knowing he’s no longer there means we’re one more step isolated from a period of Hollywood history for which there are fewer and fewer living witnesses; he will be missed for that reason, and because he was so damn good at what he did when he was on screen.
(Kim Morgan offers a heartfelt good-bye to Mr. Widmark as well on her MSN Movies Filter site.)