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Tag Archives: Richard Widmark

Road House (Sept. 22, 1948)

Road HouseThe second feature in our Jean Negulesco double bill is a tad less serious than the first.

Negulesco’s film Johnny Belinda (1948) is the story of a poor, uneducated deaf-mute girl played by Jane Wyman. It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, and won one — Wyman took home the Oscar for Best Actress.

Road House, on the other hand, was nominated for zero Academy Awards.

But they’re both very good films, and watched back to back, they really show Negulesco’s facility with both A-quality material and B-quality material.

A truly good potboiler is as hard to pull off as a truly good drama is, and Road House is a truly good potboiler.

In an interview he gave in 1969, Negulesco recalled being given the assignment to direct Road House by 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. Negulesco said that Zanuck told him, “This is a bad script. Three directors have refused it. They don’t know what they’re doing, because basically it’s quite good. Remember those pictures we used to make at Warner Bros., with Pat O’Brien and Jimmy Cagney, in which every time the action flagged we staged a fight and every time a man passed a girl she’d adjust her stocking or something, trying to be sexy? That’s the kind of picture we have to have with ‘Road House.'”

Negulesco knew exactly what kind of picture he was directing, and he directed the hell out of it. The first shot of Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino) shows her with her bare leg up on a desk. She’s dealing cards alone, and there’s a smoldering cigarette next to her bare foot.

Lupino was smart, sexy, and talented, and she’s a joy to watch in Road House. When she played a singer in The Man I Love (1947), all of her performances were dubbed by Peg La Centra, but this film finally gave moviegoers an opportunity to hear her real singing voice. As Susie Smith (Celeste Holm) says in the film, “She does more without a voice than anybody I’ve ever heard.”

Lupino may not have been the most impressive chanteuse working in Hollywood, but when she sings “One for My Baby and One More for the Road” in Road House, it’s an emotional scene that tells us more about her character than pages of expository dialogue ever could.

Besides the lovely Lupino and the talented Holm, Road House also features chiseled hunk Cornel Wilde. My favorite scene is the one in which he gives Lupino the angriest, most sexually charged bowling lesson I’ve ever seen in a film.

And last but not least, Road House was the third time Richard Widmark appeared on film, and it was the third time he played a memorable villain. He plays Jefferson T. “Jefty” Robbins, the owner of the juke joint that gives the film its name, and his character is a scheming chump who just can’t take no for an answer.

The Street With No Name (July 14, 1948)

By the time William Keighley’s The Street With No Name was released, noirish docudramas were practically a genre unto themselves. The docudrama craze began with The House on 92nd Street (1945), which was loosely based on a real case of nuclear espionage during World War II and was produced by Louis de Rochemont, the creator of the March of Time newsreels.

More “ripped from the headlines” stories followed. Spy thrillers like 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) and The Iron Curtain (1948), tales of miscarried justice like Boomerang (1947) and Call Northside 777 (1948), and even films like Kiss of Death (1947), which wasn’t based on any single real event, but presented its crime story as realistically as possible by eschewing a musical score and filming all the action on location — in prisons, schools, and city streets.

The Street With No Name begins with the following words: “The motion picture you are about to see was adapted from the files of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Wherever possible it was photographed in the original locale and played by the actual F.B.I. personnel involved.”

Then, a quote from J. Edgar Hoover appears as it is pounded out by invisible hands on a sheet of paper stuck in a typewriter:

The street on which crime flourishes is the street extending across America. It is the street with no name. Organized gangsterism is once again returning. If permitted to go unchecked three out of every four Americans will eventually become its victims. Wherever law and order break down there you will find public indifference. An alert and vigilant America will make for a secure America.

The docudrama that I think The Street With No Name most closely resembles is Anthony Mann’s T-Men (1947), which uses the same kind of “government-approved” patriotic opening, but eventually devolves into a film noir in which the underworld setting and stylistic elements are more interesting than the clean-shaven protagonists. T-Men, however, showed its protagonists becoming drawn deeper into their undercover roles while The Street With No Name doesn’t really develop its protagonist beyond his play-acting heroics.

The Street With No Name opens with a murder at the Meadowbrook night club, a typical road house in a typical city called “Center City.” (The Street With No Name was filmed in and around Los Angeles, and while there is a neighborhood of San Diego called “Center City,” I think that “Center City” was just meant to be a generic name for “Anytown, USA.”)

A second crime by the same masked gang — the murder of a bank guard — draws the FBI into the case, since bank robberies are a federal crime. Leading the investigation is FBI Inspector George A. Briggs, who is played by Lloyd Nolan. (Briggs is the same character Nolan played in The House on 92nd Street.)

According to Briggs, these new gangs are “the juvenile delinquents of yesterday” and they are even more ruthless than the pre-war gangs. The only way to break this gang is to send in an undercover agent.

Enter Mark Stevens as FBI cadet Gene Cordell, who we know is a prime candidate for the assignment because he knows exactly which targets to shoot — and which ones not to shoot — in a Hogan’s Alley sequence filmed at Quantico, VA.

Stevens goes undercover as “George Manly” in the skid row section of Center City, which is full of pool halls, boxing gyms, and peep show machines, and where apparently the only song anyone ever plays on the jukebox is an instrumental version of “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover.”

Despite Stevens’s total lack of proficiency in the boxing ring (he looks less competent than Charlie Chapin was meant to in City Lights), the robbery gang he’s after is impressed with his skills and takes him in as one of their own.

The gang’s leader is named Alec Stiles, and he’s played by Richard Widmark. This was Widmark’s second big-screen role, and it’s similar to his first, the psychopathic Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death. Stiles’s teeth aren’t quite as big as Udo’s were, but his maniacal leer is the same. Widmark delivers a good performance, but character details like Stiles’s germaphobia and wife-beating aren’t quite enough to make you forget Udo if you’ve recently watched Kiss of Death.

But character details and plot points aren’t what makes The Street With No Name a standout docudrama film noir. What makes the film memorable is the overriding sense of tension and the dark, shadowy cinematography of Joseph MacDonald.

Stevens isn’t as strong a protagonist as Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder were in T-Men, and the most memorable sequences in The Street With No Name are completely wordless. The first is a chase in a ferryboat station (filmed at the Municipal Ferry in San Pedro, CA) and the second follows Stevens as he tries to get ballistic evidence by breaking into the gang’s weapons cache in a warehouse with Widmark hot on his heels.

Despite a generic story and a bland protagonist, The Street With No Name has great pacing, lots of suspense, style to spare, and a solid villain. I recommend it to all fans of FBI stories and film noir.

Kiss of Death (Aug. 27, 1947)

Kiss of Death is director Henry Hathaway’s greatest film noir. It’s a mix of the semi-documentary style of his earlier films The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) with the hard-boiled conventions of his private eye flick The Dark Corner (1946).

The film begins with the following words: “All scenes in this motion picture, both exterior and interior, were photographed in the State of New York on the actual locale associated with the story.”

Unlike The House on 92nd Street and 13 Rue Madeleine, however, this commitment to veracity isn’t in service of a true-ish retelling of World War II-era espionage, but of a hard-boiled crime drama about a three-time loser facing 15 years in stir after being nabbed for a jewel robbery.

His name is Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), and if he wants to watch his two little girls grow up, he’s going to have to stool for the district attorney’s office.

Bianco has been in this position before, and he took the full four-year rap instead of squealing.

“I’m the same guy now I was then. Nothin’ has changed. Nothin’,” he tells Assistant District Attorney Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy).

On his way up the river to Sing Sing, Nick meets a cackling, sociopathic hood named Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). Udo won’t show up again for awhile, but he’ll play a major role in Nick’s life when he does.

For awhile, Nick stays clammed up, but then his wife Maria commits suicide and he starts to rethink matters. When a pretty girl from his old neighborhood, Nettie (Coleen Gray), comes to visit him in Sing Sing and tells him that the driver on the jewelry job, a guy named Pete Rizzo, was responsible for Mrs. Bianco putting her head in the oven, Nick decides he wants to talk to the D.A. and secure his release in exchange for information. (In the original story, it was implied that Rizzo raped Nick’s wife, but that’s sidestepped in the final version, making it seem more as if she was having an affair with Rizzo.)

Nick trusts Assistant D.A. D’Angelo enough to tumble to a job in his past that he got away with — the Thompson Fur Company heist — to provide a cover for his trips to the D.A.’s office. D’Angelo promises that he’ll drop the charges later for insufficient evidence.

Things are looking up for Nick. He’s able to care for his daughters, and he’s eventually paroled, leaving him free to marry Nettie.

But as soon as Tommy Udo — Nick’s old pal from the trip up to Sing Sing — re-enters his life, things go very bad very quickly. Udo is the kind of guy who thinks nothing of wrapping up an older wheelchair-bound woman (played by Mildred Dunnock) in electrical cord and pushing her down a long flight of stairs, in one of the most enduring scenes of cinematic sociopathy.

Kiss of Death was Richard Widmark’s film debut, and his balls-out crazy performance is something to behold. The filmmakers thought that Widmark’s high forehead made him look too intelligent, so they outfitted him with a low-browed hairpiece. Like Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), Widmark’s performance as Tommy Udo straddles the line between gangster movie and monster movie. Director Hathaway had toyed with the idea of casting the manic Harry “The Hipster” Gibson, who sang the 1944 druggie classic “Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?” as Udo, but it’s impossible now to imagine anyone but Widmark in the role.

The screenplay for Kiss of Death was adapted by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer from a story by Eleazar Lipsky originally called “Stoolpigeon.” Lipsky was a novelist who worked as a Manhattan assistant district attorney. He was also legal counsel for the Mystery Writers of America. Perhaps because of Lipsky’s day job, the realism of the setting of Kiss of Death is matched by the actions of its characters. Brian Donlevy, in the role of Assistant D.A. D’Angelo, is neither a hero nor a villain. When he tells Nick that he’s going to have to testify in court after all, and later that it was all for nothing, and that Tommy Udo was acquitted and is probably coming after Nick, the viewer gets the sense that D’Angelo genuinely cares for Nick, but that at the same time, putting Nick’s life in danger is just part of the job. D’Angelo might not like it, but he accepts it as a necessary evil.

Interestingly, the fictional Kiss of Death comes off as a more realistic film than either The House on 92nd Street (1945) or 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), both of which touted the “true” stories that were their inspirations. Although not every scene in Kiss of Death was shot on the actual locale associated with the story, as the title card promises (some of the interiors were clearly shot in a studio), the use of real New York City and Upstate New York locations coupled with realistic dialogue, understated performances from all the cast besides Widmark, and extremely sparse use of background music makes for a powerful, engrossing drama. There are standout set pieces, like the jewel heist in the Chrysler Building that opens the film, and spectacular shots of the Manhattan Criminal Courts Building, the Tombs, and the Triborough Bridge from the Queens side of the East River, but there are also lots of little touches that give the film its sense of realism. When Nick watches his daughters during their music lesson at the Academy of the Holy Angels in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the piano is slightly out of tune. When Nick sits in his cell at Sing Sing, the toilet in the cell is clearly visible, which is something you’d never see in a prison cell built on a Hollywood soundstage in the ’40s. (Incidentally, prior to shooting the scenes in Sing Sing, Hathaway had both Victor Mature and Richard Widmark processed through the system to give them a better sense of the characters they were playing.)

Kiss of Death isn’t a perfect movie, but it stands up to repeated viewings, and its use of music and location are both revolutionary. If you don’t believe me, take it from Walter Winchell…

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