Vol. LXII, No. 16
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
An unfunny thing happened to me on the way to the writing of this review: Charlton Heston died on April 5, age 84. If you measure a person’s stature according to the size of the New York Times obituary, Heston would seem to have been a giant. He rated a full page plus the lead in the Arts section, far outspacing Richard Widmark, who died on Monday, March 24, at 93, exactly a week ahead of Jules Dassin, who was 96. In effect, Moses, Ben Hur, and Michaelangelo trumped a cackling psychopath and a black-listed expatriate. Here, in my space, it’s the other way around, and not just because the column was almost done. What prompted me to write about Widmark and Dassin in the first place was the proximity in death of two men whose best work was arguably accomplished in the same film, Dassin’s Night and the City (1950). That wild movie — more than a mere film noir, it’s a super noir — easily trumps The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, and The Agony and the Ecstasy. Heston did some fine work in his time, but most movie people (including, it seems, Manohla Dargis in her Times feature “The Man Who Touched Evil and Saved the World”) would agree that the best thing he ever did was to insist that Orson Welles direct the film they were co-starring in, Touch of Evil, which marks its 50th anniversary this year. With Welles at the helm, what might have been nothing more than a piece of pulp fiction became a visionary carnival worthy of a column or two on its own. Besides being another super noir that has more than a little in common with Night and the City, it has to be among the nuttiest movies ever made.
Like Edward G. Robinson and Boris Karloff, the “real life” Richard Widmark was the antithesis of his signature role as (to quote the standard obituary lead) “the giggling killer who pushed an old woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs.” In an AP interview he once said, “I know I’ve made kind of a half-assed career out of violence, but I abhor violence.” He was also, in contrast to N.R.A. President Heston, “an ardent supporter” of gun control and found it “incredible … that we are the only civilized nation that does not put some effective control on guns.”
Widmark’s arrival on the scene as the loathesome Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947) was one of the most spectacular debuts in American film history. In a little less than four minutes he created a cinematic sensation, the giggle heard round the world. Some accounts of the scene give the mistaken impression that he’s giggling as he pushes the wheelchair-bound woman down the stairs; in fact, it happens as he’s telling her the terrible things he plans to do to her son, “the squealer” (Victor Mature), and the sound he makes is more nasal than a giggle, something closer to a sinister whinny or a diabolical snigger. When he does it a second time, the result is reminiscent of the throaty chortle that his predecessor and inspiration James Cagney sometimes uses when he’s contemplating something nicely nasty. Even at his fiercest, Cagney always seemed to be enjoying himself. Udo is enjoying the birth of a bright idea; he’s like a director visualizing the elements (helpless woman in wheelchair/ staircase) for the horrific scene he’s about to enact.
Asked where “that laugh” had come from at a July 2002 Crime Scene Weekend event he shared with Dassin at London’s National Film Theatre (NFT), Widmark replied that he and his brother “had kind of goofy laughs to begin with, and under the stress and nervousness of my first picture, it came easy.” He then admits, “If anything, I overdid it,” which of course is why it works so well. In Hollywood, if you’re in the right film with the right director, the road of excess can take you a lot farther than the straight and narrow. A few years later in London he found the right role and the right director.
London By Night
True to its title, Jules Dassin’s Night and the City is the ultimate night city movie. Widmark talked about it at the NFT event: “London in 1949 was still all bombed-out. The whole town was a real shambles, so everything was in the process of being reconstructed. I spent 30 nights running around London. I mean running. I lost about 20 pounds. But it was worth it. Dassin was a great director.”
Describing the making of the film on the Criterion DVD of Night and the City (1950), Dassin pays Widmark the ultimate compliment: “I wanted to do Hamlet with him. I had that high a regard for what he was capable of.”
One thing that makes Night and the City remarkable is the bonding of actor and director you can sense taking place during Dassin’s breakneck journey through the London night. As he sends Widmark’s desperate, driven smalltime grifter Harry Fabian scrambling around the city in an all-out, life-or-death attempt to make it big (“I just wanta be somebody!”), Dassin is directing as if the life of his work depended on it, and, in a sense, it did. It was his last shot. Like Harry, he was doomed and didn’t know it. After Elia Kazan named his name before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he was finished in Hollywood, but he didn’t comprehend the reality of being blacklisted until 20th-Century Fox boss Darryl F. Zanuck gave him Night and the City as a sort of parting gift to direct “under the wire” in London, and told him it was the last picture he’d ever make for Fox, advising him to shoot all “the most expensive scenes” right away so that the studio couldn’t shut down the film when the HUAC subpoena was served. No wonder, then, that Dassin understood the do-or-die, against-all-odds intensity of Widmark’s performance. If Harry Fabian was on the run, so was Dassin, who not only had the incentive to work quickly but to put everything into it — everything he’d learned from making Brute Force, The Naked City, and Thieves’ Highway between 1947 and 1950. You can almost feel the director sweating and scheming alongside his frantic, mercurial protagonist, except that Harry is, as another character observes, “an artist without an art,” while Dassin is able to blend his art with Widmark’s to put the movie over.
In many ways, Richard Widmark’s Harry Fabian is as excessive as his Tommy Udo, but it’s also a richer, deeper, and ultimately more uninhibited performance. His accomplishment in Night and the City is to make a repellent character sympathetic without diluting his obnoxiousness. On top of that, just as the director identified with the actor, Widmark identified with Dassin to the point where he would stand behind him, according to Dassin, whenever he was directing the few scenes that excluded Harry Fabian. One of the film’s finest moments comes with the death of the aging wrestler played by Stanislaus Zbyszko, a real-life champion wrestler Dassin remembered from his boyhood and made a point of tracking down (he found him in New Jersey, naturally). As he stood behind Dassin watching the scene being filmed, Wid-mark was so wrapped up in the action that he thought the illusion had become reality. “I felt his fingernails digging into my shoulder,” Dassin recalled. “He was afraid the old man had really died!”
Jules Dassin’s Never On Sunday (1960) was one of the most popular foreign films ever to play in America. Released in the fall of 1960 as the country was moving toward Kennedy’s New Frontier, this joyous celebration of Greek music and Greek life could have been subtitled, “Melina Mercouri, The Life Force.” Watching it again years later it’s still impossible to resist the woman, and it still comes across as a remarkably spirited feel-good movie, but for it to be mentioned before Night and the City in assessments of Dassin’s work is a bit like citing, say, How to Marry a Millionaire over Red River or Bringing Up Baby in a summary of Howard Hawks’s career. One of the oddest pleasures of Never on Sunday is watching Dassin himself playing the nerdy American Homer Thrace in his white sneakers and funny hat flitting around like a fussy moth who keeps catching his wings in Mercouri’s flame.
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