Remembering Two Icons of Film Noir: Richard Widmark & Jules Dassin
Two men in their nineties. Two icons of film noir. Both dead, exactly one week apart. As we know, death is a time for reflection. Often it serves as the final opportunity for the public to collectively take the measure of a man. Newspapers run tributes, and a sudden increased awareness in the work of the dead boosts sales. It's a good excuse for a wave of people to finally pick up that DVD they've just never gotten around to purchasing. For the perpetually gloomy fans of film noir, this one-two punch seems especially painful. We knew both Richard Widmark and Jules Dassin had enjoyed long, full lives, and that they were unlikely to ever make any more films, but it almost felt like they'd go on forever. Just the idea that the two men were still around was somehow comforting.
A common story in American folklore tells of how both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on July 4th, 1826, the nation's 50th birthday, with Adams using his final words to rue the false fact that Jefferson had outlived him. This always comes to mind for me when two closely connected persons happen to perish within a relatively short time of one another. It might sound silly to categorise Dassin and Widmark as the Jefferson and Adams of American film noir, but certainly each man was a vital element of that stylistic movement in late '40s/early '50s Hollywood. If an occasion to rank the noir directors and actors came along, both Dassin and Widmark would have to be near the top in their respective fields. Looking back now, the similarities of the two men provide a happy entry point through their professional lives, albeit one that illustrates starkly dissimilar career trajectories.
Widmark was an accidental movie star who cut his teeth on radio plays after teaching at an Illinois college. He took a generic gangster role as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death, where he was initially unwanted by director Henry Hathaway, and parlayed it into an Oscar nomination and marquee-ready movie stardom. The bad guy parts persisted initially, including a nice turn in William Dieterle's The Street with No Name, but Widmark was able to pull off the rare segue from villain into leading man. The upside to this Bogart-like transition particularly materialised in a pair of films noir made for Fox, Widmark's home studio. In both Dassin's Night and the City (1950) and Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street (1953), Widmark was given the role of the antihero a couple of decades before it became fashionable. Fuller always had the actor in mind for Skip McCoy, a small-time crook who inadvertently draws the attention of the government by taking microfilm during a routine subway pickpocket. With his perpetual smirk, Widmark is wholly believable as a guy who could live in a boat docked on the Hudson River.
McCoy isn't just a petty pickpocket, though. He's remarkably shrewd and aware of his status as a three-time loser. Widmark stays as cool as those beverages McCoy keeps stashed away in a cooler he lowers into the water. My favorite line in the picture comes when Skip is being pressured to tell the authorities what he knows about the microfilm. In 1953, in red-baiting America, Fuller dropped a line like "Are you waving the flag at me?" into Widmark's mouth and the proud liberal actor spit it out with defiant conviction. For that moment, the fact that Skip McCoy is a perpetual crook seems irrelevant. Widmark, whose brother was a prisoner of war in WWII, and Fuller, who served proudly on the front lines, dared anyone to question their patriotism. Widmark had already witnessed from afar the effects of HUAC and its resulting blacklist when Dassin was shoved off to England to make Night and the City.
Jules Dassin was one of eight children born into a Russian Jewish family in Connecticut. He started his film career at MGM, making a fine short from Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart (available on the Shadow of the Thin Man DVD as a special feature). This lead to a variety of assignments, none of which Dassin seemed to be particularly proud of, including the John Wayne-Joan Crawford vehicle Reunion in France and the box office success The Canterville Ghost. Eventually, the director teamed with celebrity producer Mark Hellinger for a pair of gritty, noirish pictures that began to define a more palpable style for Dassin. Brute Force, made for Universal and starring Burt Lancaster as a prison inmate, is an incredibly tough, unrelenting picture about a prisoner and the sadistic guard (played by Hume Cronyn) who has it in for him. As Dassin later commented, the inmates are all whitewashed, but it's an effective film all the same, and especially important in the director's sharp emphasis on redefining a career that was decidedly featherweight at the time.
Re-teaming with Hellinger and Universal, next came The Naked City, a procedural police drama that now plays more like a television serial than a film. Its influence remains immeasurable, but everything's played for maximum safeness. After he was prevented from having final cut, Dassin lamented the release version as excluding some of his more favoured juxtapositions between the wealthy and the poor, and those in need of new home furnishings versus the ones who simply needed a home, claiming that he left a screening of the finished film in tears. Regardless of whether this is true, and I have no reason to doubt the director, Dassin had an eye for realising the final version's flaws. The pervasive tameness of the film takes away from the electricity engendered by the decision to shoot on location in New York City. Watching the movie now, the slow crawl of the plot seems comparatively weak in relation to the still-exciting cityscapes.
The two films Dassin made for Daryl F. Zanuck at Fox are even better than his previous work. Thieves' Highway, starring Richard Conte as a returning war vet who sets out to avenge the damage done to his produce truck driving father, remains a special achievement in low-budget film noir. Conte was never better, but the real revelation, aside from Dassin's tenaciously perfect direction, is Valentina Cortese as a tender prostitute who also happens to be involved in Lee J. Cobb's fruit and vegetable syndicate. Cortese's performance does well to show how skillful Dassin could be at directing female actors, an attribute that would shine even brighter later in the filmmaker's career when he teamed up with the ebullient Melina Mercouri. Following Thieves' Highway, the pink fire surrounding Dassin was beginning to rage. Zanuck, apparently protecting his filmmaker, shipped Dassin off to England to make Night and the City while things got increasingly out of hand on the home front.
Widmark and Dassin now seem like a perfect team. Both men of conviction, left-leaning Hollywood players capable of fierce greatness and steadfast in their beliefs. Absolutes are of modest helpfulness, but I'm convinced that Night and the City was the high point of both men's respective careers. Widmark as Harry Fabian, a soulful loser on the wrong side of reality who garners far more sympathy from the viewer than he theoretically should, is heartbreakingly perfect. I know that a video obituary for Widmark would be his Tommy Udo pushing poor Mildred Dunnock down those stairs in Kiss of Death, but if there was any creative justice in the world it would instead feature Harry Fabian's final monologue to his girlfriend, played by Gene Tierney. Fabian is one of the more disgustingly repulsive characters in film who can actually elicit real, tearful sympathy from the viewer. Widmark plays the role like an oblivious simpleton, selfish but somehow unaware of the harm he's constantly causing himself and those around him. It's a defining film noir, a standard bearer for holding up anything studios dare label as such, and even multiple viewings fail to prepare an audience for how devastating Fabian's final act plays itself out. Fabian is simultaneously giddy and desperate, proud of himself for one last con.
After Night and the City, the two men's careers went decidedly different ways. Widmark continued playing leading man roles throughout the rest of the decade and beyond, working for John Ford twice, playing Jim Bowie in The Alamo, re-teaming with Fuller on Hell and High Water, and focussing mostly on war and western pictures. After being freed from his Fox exclusivity, Widmark made some interesting choices, both good and bad, but rarely did he get a chance to play such complex characters in the vein of Skip McCoy and Harry Fabian. Dassin, on the other hand, caught the brunt of being named twice in his colleagues' testimony (by Edward Dmytryk and Frank Tuttle) and even had a project unravel because Zsa-Zsa Gabor was advised not to work with him. After five years of unemployment, the director finally got the opportunity work again, with an adaptation of Auguste Le Breton's Du rififi chez les hommes.
Known in English simply as Rififi, Dassin's film hardly resembles the source material, and its admirers couldn't be more grateful. The picture revolves around Jean Servais as Tony le Stéphanois, a jewel thief who's just been released from a stint in jail. He wants to see the woman he's been thinking about for years, but she's moved on to a nightclub owner. The heist he originally declined now seems more inviting. At the centre of Rififi is a scene lasting over 30 minutes that's free from dialogue and music. The viewer hears only what the characters would. This methodical staging of a robbery laced with sweat and nervous tension is arguably the finest example of an extended, dialogue-free sequence in the history of post-silent film. Shrouded in darkness, the four men, including Dassin as an Italian safe cracker, are the epitome of professional efficiency. Dassin the director even teases out the wordless interplay after the heist, knowing he has a riveted audience in the palm of his hand. Later on, when the character Dassin plays is shot on-camera for breaking the rules of informing, it's impossible not to draw a connection with the blacklist.
In terms of film noir, Dassin remains royalty. Brute Force, The Naked City, Thieves' Highway, and Night and the City were released in consecutive years betwen 1947 and 1950, with Rififi following five years later. With the possible exception of The Naked City, these films share a distinctive theme of desperation, a noir staple, where we see unconventional protagonists put in increasingly hopeless situations. The men who get the spotlight are only comparatively good. A prisoner, a vengeance-crazed war vet, a small-time grifter, and an ex-con thief are somehow transformed into heroes. Their counterparts, however, are worse, and we're thus inclined to root for the lesser of the evils. Dassin tips his hand towards these beautiful losers, but never through sentimentalising their actions. Their behaviour is merely a reaction to the surrounding madness. If you're going to whittle down film noir into thematic bullet points, look no further. The unforgiving refusal to play it safe (negated slightly by studio interference) shines through here with appropriately filtered light. Without Dassin and Widmark, I'm not sure we'd even have film noir as it exists now. There might be black-and-white voiceovers, a femme fatale here and there, and fate-challenged chumps, but only a character like Harry Fabian could possibly lend himself to the bleak pessimism required by noir.
Though several films of both Dassin's and Widmark's remain unavailable on DVD, their prime work has generally been treated well. Dassin, in particular, found a champion in the Criterion Collection. The high-end boutique label has released all five of the film noir titles mentioned here, in excellent editions. The interviews with the director on their Rififi, Thieves' Highway, and Night and the City discs are particularly worth treasuring, showing Dassin to be a skilled storyteller even in his later life. R2 editions of those three films are also available in the UK, and the BFI's Night and the City release includes the Dassin interview found on the Criterion DVD. Much of Dassin's later work is more rare, but his popular titles like Never on Sunday and Topkapi can easily be found in both regions. Several of Widmark's earlier films, including the titles I've discussed above, are available in affordable editions in R1 and R2. Criterion's Pickup on South Street and either the R1 Kiss of Death from Fox or the R2 from BFI, which includes about 20 minutes' worth of a great conversation with the actor at the National Film Theatre in 2002, are essential noir releases.
Below is a collection of links for DVD Times reviews of films starring Widmark or directed by Dassin:
Brute Force (Dassin, 1947)
Kiss of Death (Hathaway, 1947)
The Naked City (Dassin, 1948)
The Street with No Name (Keighley, 1948)
Night and the City (Dassin, 1950)
Panic in the Streets (Kazan, 1950)
The Frogmen (Bacon, 1951)
Don't Bother to Knock (Baker, 1952)
Broken Lance (Dmytryk, 1954)
Garden of Evil (Hathaway, 1954)
Warlock (Dmytryk, 1959) (2)
To the Devil - A Daughter (Sykes, 1976)