Thursday, October 2, 2014

Madigan (1968)

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.

Commissioner Russell used to be Madigan’s captain back in the days when Madigan was a rookie detective. There has always been tension between the two men, based on their wildly different attitudes and personalities.

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.

All four men are, despite their radical differences in temperament and style, good cops. They represent different ideas of what it means to be a good cop and the differences between their ideas lead to inevitable clashes.

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.

Madigan is married but his marriage is not running all that smoothly. Julie Madigan (Inger Stevens) is fed up being a cop’s wife. She wants a real husband, not a guy who is married to the job. Commissioner Russell has his own domestic problems caused by his affair with a married woman.

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.

What makes this an odd film is that by the standards of 1968 it’s both very modern and very old-fashioned. It’s modern in its emphasis on the men behind the badges and in its very loose narrative structure. But it looks very old-fashioned. Visually it could have been made ten or even twenty years earlier. Seeing this movie you would never know that the 60s had ever happened. You would never know that rock’n’roll had ever happened, or that the previous year had been the Summer of Love or that Woodstock was just around the corner. The detectives still wear hats and could have stepped right out of a 1940s crime movie. Even though it’s in colour everything is grey and very 1940s film noir. 

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.

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