Madigan (1968)


(director/writer: Don Siegel; screenwriters: from the book The Commissioner by Richard Dougherty/Harry Kleiner/Abraham Polonsky/Howard Rodman; cinematographer: Russell Metty; editor: Milton Shifman; music: Don Costa; cast: Richard Widmark (Detective Daniel Madigan), Henry Fonda (Commissioner Anthony X. Russell), Inger Stevens (Julia Madigan), Harry Guardino (Det. Rocco Bonaro), James Whitmore (Chief Inspector Charles Kane), Susan Clark (Tricia Bentley), Michael Dunn (Midget Castiglione), Steve Ihnat (Barney Benesch), Don Stroud (Hughie), Sheree North (Jonesy), Raymond St. Jacques (Dr. Taylor), Bert Freed (Chief of Detectives Hap Lynch), Warren Stevens (Capt. Ben Williams), Harry Bellaver (Mickey Dunn); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Frank P. Rosenberg; Universal; 1968)
“A pleasing but disjointed film noir.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A pleasing but disjointed film noir (too many complicated storylines to resolve, as the stories run into each other not doing them complete justice) directed with an open-minded view for tragedy by Don Siegel (“Private Hell 36″/”The Lineup”), which was adapted by writers Harry Kleiner, Abraham Polonsky and Howard Rodman from the book The Commissioner by Richard Dougherty. It became the model for the TV crime show of the same name and many other such 1970’s TV crime dramas. It evokes a sense of the changing values in society that also catches up with the police force, and makes them confront difficult situations with a new approach. It’s a complex story that follows a number of storylines from the martinet commissioner’s, Tony Russell (Henry Fonda), to the trials and tribulations of hard-nosed Detective Daniel Madigan (Richard Widmark). It alters the book’s main focus on the commissioner, and instead focuses on Madigan–using the commissioner only as the glue that holds the story together. By going beyond the action scenes–what most crime dramas shoot for–its main purpose becomes to question matters of love, infidelity, friendship and identity. The manhunt after a wanted murderer takes a back seat to the human drama facing both the Fonda and Widmark characters.

At daybreak on a sunny spring day veteran Manhattan detectives Madigan and his long-time partner Rocco Bonaro (Harry Guardino), as a favor to a Brooklyn precinct over a request to bring Barney Benesch (Steve Ihnat) in for routine questioning regarding an ongoing criminal investigation, arrive at an upper Manhattan tenement building and find him in bed with a woman. They break in despite not having a warrant. Distracted by the naked woman, Barney gets the jump on them and steals their guns before fleeing. Before you can say embarrassment, the police commissioner is told by his good friend, Chief Inspector Charlie Kane (James Whitmore), what happened. But the Inspector excuses the detectives because they weren’t aware the suspect was wanted for murder and thought it was just a routine arrest, therefore letting their guard down. Russell mulls over his busy schedule for the day that includes addressing the graduating class at the Police Academy and a meeting with a civic minded black pastor, whose son was picked up for molesting a girl and has in turn charged the police with brutality and racial discrimination; and, the commissioner must confront his childhood pal over the matter of him being on tape (thanks to Internal Affairs) extorting money from a known mob boss.

The commissioner swiftly acts, giving the detectives 72 hours to find their lost man or face a departmental hearing. Working without sleep, the detectives use informers to help in their search, intimidating a frightened midget bookie (Michael Dunn), an enemy of Barney’s, into cooperating. Madigan’s delicious but unrealistic wife Julia (Inger Stevens) is upset that she’s left alone watching TV all the time while hubby works long hours and insists he takes her to the fancy Captain’s Ball in a swell midtown hotel, something she’s been looking forward to for a long time. But when an informant (Don Stroud), who acts as a pimp for Barney, leads them to where the hunted man is staying in Spanish Harlem, the cop leaves his wife at the party to be chaperoned by a handsome police captain (Warren Stevens). Fighting off temptation, Julia remains loyal to her hubby and ultimately resists the captain’s advances.

Madigan is pictured as a dedicated but lonely cop who receives free gifts but is not on the take, never selling out on the job. The detective, who does not operate by-the-book and is capable of violently intimidating those under him, is subject to a great deal of moralizing by the seemingly straight-laced commissioner for his blunder, while ignoring that he is hypocritically involved in an adulterous affair (Susan Clark). The viewer finds more to sympathize with Widmark, who is finding it difficult to balance his personal life with his career–which results in his ambiguity to his true identity and whether being a good cop means more to him than being a good husband. The anal-rigid Fonda character has no such ambiguity; the self-absorbed man is sure he’s absolutely right and only questions himself when he’s faced with sticking by his best friend despite the possibility of a scandal.