Monday 19 October 2020

Movie Review: Madigan (1968)

A tough police procedural, Madigan tackles multiple storylines but is more successful as a television series template than a cohesive film.

In New York City, detectives Daniel Madigan (Richard Widmark) and Rocco Bonaro (Harry Guardino) are humiliated when fugitive Barney Benesch (Steve Ihnay) slips from their grasp and steals their guns during what should have been a routine arrest. They set out to make amends, contacting Benesch's known associates to track him down. 

Meanwhile Police Commissioner Anthony Russell (Henry Fonda) has other problems: he receives proof his long time friend and deputy Chief Inspector Charles Kane (James Whitmore) is on the take, while the distinguished Dr. Taylor (Raymond St. Jacques) is accusing the police department of harassing his Black son.

Madigan is finding it increasingly difficult to manage the expectations of his wife Julia (Inger Stevens), who resents his frequent absences and low salary. Russell is single, but is having an affair with the married Tricia (Susan Clark). Through bookie Castiglione (Michael Dunn) and then part-time pimp Hughie (Don Stroud), Madigan and Bonaro close in on Benesch, but he is determined to evade arrest.

An adaptation of Richard Dougherty's book The Commissioner with a script by Howard Rodman and Abraham Polonsky, Madigan deserves credit for attempting to round the two principal characters into people who have private lives and frustrations beyond solving the crime at hand. And the concurrent stories add a dose of realism, a Commissioner like Russell not afforded the luxury of solving one problem at a time. 

While the change in title from book to film suggests an increased focus on top-billed Richard Widmark's detective, director Don Siegel still tilts the screen time more towards Henry Fonda's commissioner. In this case, this is not necessarily a good thing, Fonda appearing dour and vaguely disinterested throughout. His multiple worries surrounding the evidence against Inspector Kane, Dr. Taylor's allegations of brutality and racism, and his illicit relationship with Tricia spread the movie too thin. Madigan threatens to drop to the level of a television pilot where future episodes will pick up the many loose threads (a short-lived network series did follow).

Siegel does better foreshadowing 1970s urban grittiness and loose-cannon detectives. Madigan deglamourizes New York City into yellows and browns, the action playing out in back alleys, narrow hallways and nondescript motel rooms. And with Widmark relishing his character's joy at operating just slightly over the line, the film starts and ends with short and sharp bangs, taut encounters with the dangerous Benesch making up for some of the flab in the middle. The police officers may have romantic partners to appease and cocktail parties to attend, but nothing replaces the thrill of the chase.

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