Don Siegel’s 1968 cop thriller Madigan has most of the strengths one associates with the director but it’s also an intriguingly schizophrenic film.
It was based on a 1962 book called The Commissioner, which as its title suggests dealt mainly with a police commissioner. For the movie the decision was made to add a new character, Detective Daniel Madigan, and to shift the focus to this new character.
Commissioner Anthony X. Russell (Henry Fonda) is very much a do-it-by-the-book sort of cop, scrupulously honest to an almost pathological degree and a great believer in the idea that police officers have to maintain the highest possible standards of ethics.
Detective Daniel Madigan (Richard Widmark) is a very different sort of cop. Madigan doesn’t even know there is a book to go by and even if he did know he wouldn’t read it. He’s a street cop. Everything he knows about being a cop he’s learnt on the streets. Madigan has rather flexible ethics. He’s quite happy to accept freebies and in fact can see no problem if people want to do favours for cops. That’s the sort of behaviour that Commissioner Russell instinctively mistrusts - he sees it as dangerously close to corruption. Madigan doesn’t see it that way. He knows where to draw the line. He would never actually act corruptly but he can’t see any reason why a cop needs to be obsessive about such things.
Chief Inspector Charles Kane (James Whitmore) is Russell’s oldest and closest friend, but Kane has become involved in some dealings that could be interpreted as unethical.
Detective Rocco Bonaro (Harry Guardino) is Madigan’s partner.
The structure of the movie is rather interesting. There is a central plot but it’s not very important. Mostly the movie simply takes a look at a few days in the lives of four very different New York cops, following them though both professional and personal crises. These crises are really just everyday life to a policeman. The interest comes from seeing how four very different men approach the job and how they try to juggle the life of a cop with some sort of personal life.
As for the main plot, it concerns a hoodlum named Barney Benesch (Steve Ihnat). Benesch is a dangerously unstable and violent individual and the problems start when Madigan and Bonaro try to pick him up and he escapes from custody in circumstances which are rather embarrassing to the two harassed detectives. They thought it was a fairly routine matter but it transpires that Benesch is wanted for murder. It’s made fairly clear to the two detectives that if they hope to continue their careers in the NYPD they had better find Barney Benesch, and find him quickly.
Given the film’s structure the performances are crucial, and all the leading players deliver the goods. Fonda has the most thankless part, Russell being a very distant sort of man who has repressed his emotions almost completely. Fonda plays the part very effectively but Russell’s cold-fish personality means that he is almost inevitably overshadowed by Widmark and Whitmore who play much more larger-than-life characters.
Whitmore was a fine reliable character actor and makes Chief Inspector Kane colourful while just managing to avoid making him a loveable Irish cop stereotype.
Widmark has the most demanding rôle, Madigan being a naturally abrasive character. The challenge was to keep the abrasiveness whilst also making him sympathetic. Widmark succeeds pretty well in doing this. Madigan is a guy trying his best. He wants to be a good cop and he’d also like to be a good husband. He just hasn’t figured out how to do both at the same time.
It’s fascinating to compare this movie with Dirty Harry, which Siegel made just three years later. They look like they were made decades apart. This is especially interesting because the two movies have definite thematic affinities, both dealing with cops close to the edge.
Siegel had done quite a bit of television work and Madigan, despite being shot in Cinemascope and despite the location shooting in New York, has something of the enclosed look of a TV cop show. Dirty Harry on the other hand has a much more cinematic feel.
Madigan is a tough but intelligent cop movie from a director who did that sort of thing particularly well. Highly recommended.