Manhattan detective Richard Widmark is up the creek without his .38 special — a maniac killer has stolen it. He’s desperate to get it back, while his personal and professional problems pile up. Henry Fonda, Inger Stevens and Harry Guardino give sterling performances, but the assured direction of Don Siegel is what keeps us on edge throughout. The classic crime saga pushed the limits of the incoming Ratings System — yet provided a style template for a decade of Universal cop shows. Siegel utilizes blunt jarring cutting effects to make its violence feel extra-intense — and for warped screen villainy, Steve Ihnat’s Barney Benesch has no equal — he has less than three minutes of screen time, but you’ll never forget him.
KL Studio Classics
1968 / Color / 2:35 widescreen (Techniscope) / 101 min. / Street Date November 12, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Inger Stevens, Harry Guardino, James Whitmore, Susan Clark, Michael Dunn, Steve Ihnat, Don Stroud, Sheree North, Warren Stevens, Raymond St. Jacques, Bert Freed, Harry Bellaver, Frank Marth, Lloyd Gough, Virginia Gregg, Woodrow Parfrey, Conrad Bain.
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Film Editor: Milton Shifman
Visual Effects: Albert Whitlock
Original Music: Don Costa
Written by Henri Simoun (Howard Rodman), Abraham Polonsky from the novel by Richard Dougherty
Produced by Frank P. Rosenberg
Directed by Donald Siegel
Seven or eight rapid cut-backs might as well substitute SPLICES for BULLETS IMPACTING.
Fifty-one years after the fact, Don Siegel’s crackling New York cop tale will remind many viewers of umpteen-thousand New York- set law ‘n’ order TV shows to follow. It doesn’t matter that some aspects of Madigan seem a bit familiar, as the caliber of writing, acting and directing here can’t be faulted.
In the summer of ’68 Universal pushed Madigan as cutting-edge quality goods. The violence of Don Siegel’s breakthrough cop show felt appropriate for a season of assassinations and civic unrest. One policeman surrenders his gun to a violent criminal, an unthinkable humiliation that becomes an intense personal trial. The budget compromise of splitting the filming between NYC and the Universal City backlot now sticks out like a sore thumb, but back in the day we didn’t take notice of such things. Madigan established a template for a world of TV production, and set the tone for two subsequent Siegel films. The tale of Detective Daniel Madigan retains its gritty edge, even if Coogan’s Bluff and Dirty Harry made news for introducing Clint Eastwood to the cop genre — along with harsh spaghetti-western values.
On a routine roust in Spanish Harlem, detectives Danny Madigan and Rocco Bonaro (Richard Widmark & Harry Guardino) are momentarily distracted, and held at gunpoint by the unbalanced suspect Barney Benesch (Steve Ihnat). Danny’s gun is taken, which puts him in a 36-hour tailspin trying to get it back. Madigan already has problems: Police Commissioner Russell (Henry Fonda) disapproves of him and wouldn’t mind seeing him fired. And Danny’s neglected, emotionally upset wife Julia (Inger Stevens) is making unreasonable demands. Commissioner Russell is disturbed by his own crisis of ethics — his right-hand man Inspector Kane (James Whitmore) seems hopelessly tangled up in a corruption case. Russell disapproves of Danny Madigan’s old-fashioned style of policing, but is himself doing some serious cheating, cohabiting with his upscale mistress Tricia Bentley (Susan Clark). How can Russell act on others’ morals without being a hypocrite? On the night that Danny needs to stay on task, he risks everything by taking Julia to a police ball — where he then must park her with a departmental ‘friend’ who turns out to be an unprincipled Lothario (Warren Stevens) eager to take advantage of Julia’s emotional state. Then the worst happens: while Danny and Rocco turn the town upside down, Benesch murders one policeman and wounds another with Madigan’s gun.
The superior Madigan is notable and commendable from multiple angles. Seventeen years after his last credited theatrical screenplay (I Can Get It for You Wholesale), the ’40s king of film noir Abraham Polonsky bounced back from the blacklist on this show, as a co-writer with screen credit. Co-writer Howard Rodman may have been responsible for reorganizing the original novel, which centered on the Police Commissioner character — in the book, Madigan only made it two-thirds of the way through the storyline. The story does seem reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s classic Stray Dog (1949), which uses the same idea of the theft of a policeman’s gun. That film has the added cultural wrinkle that guns are so scarce and controlled in Japan, that detective Toshiro Mifune’s failure and shame are magnified tenfold.
The story takes an interesting look at various forms of police corruption. Danny Madigan is held in low esteem by the rigid Commissioner because he still indulges the old-school traditional perks granted New York policemen of rank. He lives above his salary grade in all things — merchants keep him dressed well and restaurateurs comp his meals. It’s likely that his apartment rent is low — all because the civilians like having a close & friendly personal connection to the law. But the real corruption takes place in the rarified air of city politics. Commissioner Russell is no salt of the earth family man, as in Blue Bloods, but a patrician celebrity in a penthouse apartment, hiding an illicit relationship. When not spending his days attending lame luncheons, Russell is bombarded with political headaches — corruption he can’t overlook, pressure from a social activist (Raymond St. Jacques). But he’ll vent his ire on Madigan’s shameful mistake, a PR disaster. Madigan is already a risk-taker, but 1968 audiences would likely judge him more ‘moral’ than Commissioner Russell. When things are too hot at home, Danny will crash with an old girlfriend, Jonesy (Sheree North). But his side of the relationship is genuinely platonic — he fends Jonesy off with the oath that he loves only Julia. It’s to Widmark and North’s credit that this is even a little bit believable.
Danny and Bonaro weed through some colorful informants, in standard cop show fashion. Harry Bellaver is a punch-drunk ex-boxer and Michael Dunn an information source that can be tapped at Coney Island. Young punk Hughie (Don Stroud) eventually comes forth with the clue that leads them to Benesch. Many of these scenes were filmed on NY’s city streets, but quite a few use Universal’s back lot, and look it; we Californians didn’t notice but New Yorkers probably objected. Matte artist Albert Whitlock added painted backgrounds to a couple of shots filmed in downtown Los Angeles, that are so good that they had to be pointed out to me in this disc’s audio commentary.
Madigan seethes with violence despite even though its actual intense action is very limited — less is more. No shots are fired in the opening standoff in Barney Benesch’s room, yet a tone of chaos and disorder is strongly established. The crazy Benesch is fully capable of murdering the detectives in cold blood. He’s so trigger-happy, that later in story he easily gets the draw on a pair of sharp cops that spot him on the street. This is the movie for Steve Ihnat. The great actor had played a crucial role in Arthur Penn’s equally violent The Chase but was mostly seen in TV shows and small parts in pictures like In Like Flint and Hour of the Gun. We remember him warmly from a fine two-part Outer Limits show, The Inheritors.
If they had held their guns sideways, the entire crime filmography of John Woo would have been rendered unnecessary.
Back in film school we were obsessed with the editing of recent violent movies, from Bonnie and Clyde through The Wild Bunch. What exactly did the fancy angles, quick cutting and slow motion effects accomplish — did they make violence and mayhem more horrible, or did they just glamorize it? Critics noted the shocking effectiveness of Madigan’s final shoot-out, which centers on four or five jarring, short reverse-angle cuts of two men in a claustrophobic apartment kitchen, holding two guns each and blasting away at each other at close range. More than twenty shots are exchanged in about eight seconds. If they had held their guns sideways, the entire crime filmography of John Woo would have been rendered unnecessary. Editor Milton Shifman came from the TV show The Naked City, as did much of Madigan’s creative personnel, but we have to think that former editor and montage expert Don Siegel had a hand in cutting the scene.
The fast cuts in the hallway are purposely ragged, jumpy, lacking pretty compositions. We barely know where we are, and it’s all over in a flash. In 1968 it felt like someone was kicking the audience. I once read that Howard Hawks disliked Sam Peckinpah’s slowed-down violence. For lack of a more thoughtful response, Hawks said that ‘he could kill twice as many men in half the time.’ (Or something to that effect, my memory is fuzzy.) Don Siegel’s opinion of gunfights that become visual ballet is closer to Hawks’ view. The seven or eight rapid cut-backs in Benesch’s narrow kitchen might as well substitute SPLICES for BULLETS IMPACTING — Danny and Benesch are slammed down by pure action cinema.
Richard Widmark should have gotten a career jolt from this superior, well received show. He’d be excellent in the mis-judged but interesting The Moonshine War, a couple of years later. The great Inger Stevens hadn’t long to live; hers was a tragic career doing sensational work in mostly unworthy movies that offered her talent little chance to bloom. Her traumatic final-scene confrontation with Henry Fonda’s character is perfect, especially when we learn (through this disc’s commentary) that she had to play it cold, on her first day of filming.
Henry Fonda gets second billing but seems to realize that he’s really playing support too; his reserved, un-charismatic Commissioner is so underplayed as to shrink into the woodwork. Of the other major roles, James Whitmore and Susan Clark are just adequate, while Sheree North brings something special to her ‘Jonesy.’ The always- exceptional Harry Guardino takes the task of sidekick support several steps beyond the norm, making the Madigan-Bonaro teamwork feel natural and convincing. Guardino never let a film down; he even made an oddly-conceived Barabbas work well back in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings. I’ve already extolled Steve Ihnat’s eccentric, frightening villain:
“Well what are you waiting for, BO-NAR-O?! You and Madigan LOST YOUR NERRRRVE?!”
Some attempts to make Madigan seem a tough guy are a bit forced. He and Bonaro harass and terrorize an uncooperative secretary (Virginia Gregg) much as had Lee Marvin back in Siegel’s The Killers. But one potential cliché is avoided by strong direction and forceful dramatics. Danny Madigan rushes into battle in an alley, as bullets rain down on an army of cops. Eager to get back in Commissioner Russell’s good graces and engage one-on-one with Benesch, He tosses aside the body armor that was apparently considered an elective precaution: “The hell with these vests!” His decision doesn’t point to a good outcome.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Madigan gives us (finally) a great encoding of a movie that belongs in the pantheon of cop shows. The indelible image is of Richard Widmark grimacing as he charges with both guns blazing — I remember a film magazine that studied the final shoot-out scene shot-by-shot. Although the heroes seem middle-aged — Richard Widmark was already 53 — their body language is simply too cool for words. They live their weary lives wearing the same wrinkled suits. Their postures and gestures when preparing for battle, guns out and hands at the ready, exemplify the difference between noir-era ritual and a more modern ‘improvised’ personal style.
The original Techniscope (half-frame) cinematography looks good, even though most of the stage interiors are not visually distinguished — barely more thoughtful than high-key TV work. The New York footage is excitingly real, and the L.A. substitute street scenes for the conclusion will only look wrong to New Yawkers … we Angelenos know zilch about such NYC details. Only the backlot daytime scenes disappoint, with the same Hollywood extras strolling by and the same picture cars driving in circles.
I enjoyed the disc’s three-way audio commentary with the caveat that one of the speakers — I couldn’t identify him by voice — wandered off into too many lengthy tangents. Maybe they wanted him to — ? But I’m envious of all three speakers’ ease with talking on the fly, and I learned quite a lot. Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson divulge good information about the way the movie came together, the animosity between director and producer, and anecdotes from the set, such as the exaggerated PR stories about street thugs harassing the actors. One technical point — they ask why such a gritty cop show needed to be shot in ‘scope. The answer is that for two or three years, Universal filmed most of their movies in the half-frame Techniscope format, a screwy policy that saved a little money and time, but left them with a delicate original negative. This accounts for the slightly coarser grain, although the ability to use non-Anamorphic lenses often resulted in a shaper, optically superior image. Technicolor printing for the screen compensated for the smaller film gauge as well.
We wonder if Albert Whitlock filmed the movies’ matte shots in full anamorphic 35mm and printed them down, or if they had to be filmed in Techniscope as well. The image just below adds a detail of NYC skyscrapers to a shot filmed in downtown Los Angeles.
← The commentary experts mention a racy poster design, which was easy to find online (this can be seen larger by opening in a new window). They also point out and describe Don Siegel’s alternate plan for how the main titles should have worked in the film’s opening. The three emphasize the movie’s connection to the earlier TV show The Naked City, and the way Madigan codifies the ‘Universal look’ for TV shows to follow, right down to the typeface of the titles. The music has the Universal TV feeling as well, although I really like Don Costa’s film score.
We’re told that Costa worked primarily as an arranger for big singing stars. I remember his great theme from 1960’s Because They’re Young, an instrumental that mixes ‘101’ strings with a western guitar, and seems to predict The Magnificent 7 Theme and The James Bond Theme. Some TV spots (with some questionably racy shots!) and a trailer are also included.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson; TV spots, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: November 15, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson