(1968)3Bruce EderDon Siegel recognized gold when he saw it -- he reportedly had misgivings when producer Frank P. Rosenberg first asked for him as the director of Universal's adaptation of Richard Dougherty's novel The Commissioner because the two had clashed in earlier years on the series Arrest & Trial, but the book and the screenplay, written by Howard Rodman (who ultimately took the pseudonym Henri Simoun) and revised by longtime movie blacklistee Abraham Polonsky, offered too good a chance to make an exciting location-based police thriller. Siegel succeeded and then some, creating a movie that functioned on two levels, with two separate but interlocking story lines: a violent story about police officers on the streets of New York, and the drama of senior police commanders and their own life-and-death decisions. The city of New York, as much as the leading actors, was the "star" of the film. Although part of the movie was done on a Hollywood backlot and soundstage, there was enough New York shooting and enough of the pulse and rhythm of those streets to give the movie extraordinary verisimilitude, so that, at times, it feels as if one is watching a documentary. Cinematographer Russell Metty, whose career went back to the 1930s, used the widescreen Techniscope image to brilliant advantage, capturing the constriction of New York's tenements and the wide expanses of skyline with equal facility.
What Siegel and the writers never quite licked was the edict of the studio management that the film focus on Richard Widmark's Detective Madigan rather than on Henry Fonda's Police Commissioner Russell, who was the central character of the book. Siegel put everything he had into Widmark's scenes and embraced a dramatic arc that encompassed Madigan's story, but the unifying element of the movie remained Fonda's character, whose story was as central to the finished film as Widmark's. What's more, Fonda's scenes with Lloyd Gough, Woodrow Parfrey, Susan Clark, and James Whitmore were extremely powerful, a match for Widmark's scenes with Harry Guardino, Michael Dunn, Inger Stevens, and Sheree North. There are also excellent supporting performances by Dunn, Whitmore, Don Stroud, Henry Beckman, Ray Montgomery, and, most surprisingly, Harry Bellaver (best remembered from the TV show Naked City) as an alcoholic tipster. Sharp-eared viewers will be able to pick up little remnants of Polonsky's classic work from the 1940s, especially in the scene in which Whitmore's character is confronted with the transcription of the shakedown. "All the rest is conversation," he remarks, a phrase from Polonsky's script for Robert Rossen's Body and Soul (1947), starring John Garfield. The presence of ex-blacklistee Lloyd Gough (who, in that earlier movie, uttered that line) as Assistant Chief Inspector Earl Griffin, is another "in" reference to Polonsky's past.
Not everything about the movie is perfect. In real life, first-grade detective, the rank held by Madigan and Bonaro, is an extremely elite rank within the NYPD, coming with the equivalent of lieutenant's pay and a lot of respect, and is impossible to achieve without the good graces of the commissioner's office, so it is difficult to believe Russell's antipathy toward Madigan. It's also far-fetched that a pair of such men could make such a botch of a routine job or that the chief of detectives (Bert Freed) would be quick to hang them out to dry. But those flaws (and the fact that Madigan and Bonaro are allowed to confront Benesch without wearing bullet-proof vests) aside, Madigan is a brilliant film. In fact, it ended up being two great movies in one, telling two separate, full sets of stories woven around characters who are only seen onscreen together in the final sequence. Interestingly, in addition to spawning a short-lived series with Widmark in the 1970s, the movie served just as much as the dry run for the series Kojak, another Universal production.
It's a seemingly peaceful spring morning in New York City -- graduation day at the Police Academy -- and Police Commissioner Anthony X. Russell (Henry Fonda) is looking forward to giving a speech to the new officers. But all isn't well: Russell's been given apparently incontrovertible evidence that his oldest friend, Chief Inspector Charles Kane (James Whitmore), is shaking down a bar owner, and a black minister (Raymond St. Jacques) is claiming that his son was brutalized when he was picked up for questioning in a rape/assault case. Then Russell gets a call informing him that two first-grade detectives, Daniel Madigan (Richard Widmark) and Rocco Bonaro (Harry Guardino), allowed small-time hood Barney Benesch (Steve Ihnat) to get the drop on them, steal their guns, and escape while they were trying to pick him up for questioning at the request of Brooklyn detectives -- and Benesch is now a suspect in that earlier murder in Brooklyn. Madigan has other problems, including the fact that the commissioner -- his ex-captain -- doesn't trust him, always believing him to be a loose cannon who has taken advantage of the badge in accepting favors and cutting corners where peoples' rights were concerned. Madigan also has a beautiful, upwardly mobile wife (Inger Stevens) who loves him but can't abide all the time his job takes him away from her or crimps her socializing; and he has never fully gotten over Jonesy (Sheree North), a saloon singer he knew before he was married. Madigan and Bonaro are given 72 hours to bring in Benesch and begin beating the bushes for leads. They get help from "Midget" Castiglione (Michael Dunn), a bookmaker and an old enemy of Benesch's, and a nervous, long-haired punk named Hughie (Don Stroud). While the clock ticks away on Madigan's and Bonaro's careers, the commissioner must decide how to deal with Kane, whose father -- also a police officer -- was like his own, and he must also fathom how a four-star chief could be involved with anything as tawdry as pressuring a tavern owner. Russell genuinely believes that there must be "one standard, one rule" for any member of the department, but in the course of this one weekend, he finds this notion shattered by what he discovers about Madigan, King, and himself. Meanwhile, Benesch is still on the loose, acting like a complete psycho and a threat to anyone who crosses his path. Russell's and Madigan's paths finally cross personally, as the detective proves -- and the commissioner discovers -- just how good a cop he is.