Set largely in Manhattan's Spanish Harlem, Don Siegel's proficient actioner about cops and robbers launched a new cycle of film about police work (the good and the bad) that reached its height in the early 1970s with the “Dirty Harry” films, starring Clint Eastwood, “The French Connection,” and others.
Based on Richard Sougherty's popular novel, “The Commissioner,” “Madigan” is co-written by longtime TV vet Howard Rodman, (who later opted for the pseudonym of Henri Simoun because it didn't like the film), and Abraham Polonsky (blacklisted writer-directed who made “Force of Evil,” in 1948 with John Garfield).
Richard Widmark stars as detective Daniel Madigan, who with partner detective Rocco Bonaro (Harry Guardino), arrest Barney Benesch (Steve Uinhat), a hoodlum who's hiding out in a shabby flat to avoid indictment by the Brooklyn courts. Benesch is in bed with a naked woman when they break in, which distracts the two cops attention long enough for Benesch to escape.
Police Commissioner Anthony X. Russell (Henry Fonda) reproaches his men for allowing Benesch to get away in such an inglorious manner, and gives them 72 hours to nail the killer.
Meanwhile, we find that Russell has a lot of other woes: he's having an affair with a married woman, Tricia Bentley (Susan Clark), his colleague Chief Inspector Charles Kane (James Whitemore) has accepted bribes to keep a brothel opening, and he must also content with a black minister (St. Jacques) whose activist son was badly beaten by racist cops. Madigan is also under domestic pressure: His socialite wife Julia (Inger Stevens) urges him to give up his career in law enforcement.
Very much a statement of its time, reflecting the growing crime rates in New York City and the inefficiency of the police force, the film is well-directed in a semi-documentary approach. Basically a genre film, “Madigan” is a notch or two above the standard policier due to its star cast, compelling character sketches, occasionally sharp dialogue, and a realistic portrait of urban life in the late 1960s. Which may explain its commercial popularity and impact on Hollywood filmmaking in the next decade.
Expert cinematographer Russell Metty gives “Madigan” the right urban look. The opening sequence, a rare sight of New York City at dawn, with its streets deserted, is powerful, particularly when it's contrasted later on.
Made a year after “Bonnie and Clyde,” the film, considered by some scholars to be noir in mood and tone, continues the trend of depicting moral ambiguity and even corruption when depiction figures of authority. Yet, its a matter of degree, and the writers make sure that we distinguish between a character like Russell, whose transgression are both legal and sexual, and one like Madigan, who is basically honest and whose deviations are easier to rationalize due to the heavy price called by his oppressive job.
As acted by Widmark, Madigan comes across as a sympathetic type, but the scene in which he displays casual aggression or violence toward his secretary, or an innocent dwarf on the beach, also show the toll of doing police work for too long.
Spoiler: Ending Alert
Up to the late 1960s, cops (or sheriffs) very seldom die on screen. In this respect, “Madigan” was one of the first policiers, in which the anti (hero) is wounded and later dies in a hospital.
Running time: 101 minutes
Produced by Frank P. Rosenberg
Directed by Don Siegel
Screenplay: Henri Simoun and Abraham Polonsky, based on the novel :The Commissioner,” by Richard Dougherty
Camera: Russell Metty
Editing: Milton Shifman