Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The 45th Aninversary of "Madigan" by Fred Blosser

Madigan (Widescreen)

by Fred Blosser

If the late Don Siegel enjoyed the fame of Spielberg, Tarantino, Cameron, or Scorsese, someone would have scheduled a 45th Anniversary Edition of MADIGAN this year on Blu-Ray, with alt-track interviews and other special features.  Well -- interviews might have been a problem.  The list of those from the film who are still living is exceedingly short.  Siegel died more than 20 years ago, stars Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, and Inger Stevens are also deceased, so are most of the principal supporting players, and so are screenwriters Abraham Polonsky and Howard Rodman, for that matter.  Four decades is a long time.

When Siegel’s 1968 police drama debuted on Laser Disc in 1996, I wrote a review for MYSTERY SCENE to celebrate Dan Madigan’s return in a crisp, properly letterboxed home-video format.  If nobody else this year is going to mark MADIGAN’s anniversary, I’ll beg Ed’s indulgence to do so here, and revisit my 1996 review.

As I said then:

“One of Siegel’s best movies, MADIGAN foreshadows some of the same themes and characterizations that the director would revisit three years later in DIRTY HARRY.  New York Police Department Detective Dan Madigan (Richard Widmark) and his partner Rocco Bonaro (Harry Guardino) roust lowlife Barney Benesch (Steve Ihnat) for routine questioning in a Mob murder.  When they surprise him in bed with his girlfriend Rosita, the detectives don’t know that Benesch has cause for alarm -- he was the triggerman in the killing.  The sight of the naked Rosita distracts Madigan and Bonaro long enough for Benesch to get the drop on them, steal their guns, and escape.

“Through the rest of the movie, Madigan and Bonaro chase Benesch while Police Commissioner Anthony Russell (Henry Fonda) fumes over Madigan’s maverick style.  Russell has other troubles as well.  A politically powerful black minister (Raymond St. Jacques) is pressuring the commissioner to bring charges against cops for alleged brutality against the minister’s son.

“Chief Inspector Charlie Kane (James Whitmore) assures Russell that the allegations are groundless, but Russell has begun to mistrust his best friend . . . he’s discovered that Kane is on the take, and he’s torn between friendship and his uncompromising moral ideals in dealing with the situation. . . .

“When police sharpshooters trap Benesch in a tenement, Madigan impatiently rejects a bulletproof vest in his eagerness to charge in and redeem himself.  The resulting shootout in close quarters is an explosive masterpiece of direction and editing, a textbook example of cinematic style. . . .

“It’s a riveting scene, and it’s a joy to see it restored through letterboxing to its original Techniscope dimensions after years of being mutilated in the panned-and-scanned videocassette version of MADIGAN. . . . It’s also a revelation to see how Siegel used his widescreen compositions to draw subtle comparisons and contrasts between his two central characters, Madigan and Russell.

“Throughout the movie, each man is defined by his relationship with his closest friend.  By putting Madigan and Bonaro within the same frame in scene after scene, Siegel quietly emphasizes their teamwork and mutual loyalty.  When Russell and Kane share the frame in their scenes, it highlights the growing tension between the two as Kane’s human frailty gnaws at Russell’s rigid code of ethics.  This technique is vital for building visually to Russell’s ultimate decision on Kane’s fate, but it becomes lost in pan-and-scan editing, which isolates one character at a time in awkward close-up. . . .

“Widmark and Fonda are well matched as two men who have more in common, at a certain level, than either recognizes.  These days, when any Generation X icon can be cast as a tough cop . . . it’s nice to see actors who could bring some inherent believability to their roles.”

As I noted in 1996, the historical significance of MADIGAN can hardly be overstated. Widmark's character was one of two movie cops from 1968, the other being Steve McQueen’s Frank Bullitt, who ushered in the era of the maverick police detective, with Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle and Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan soon to follow, and all the hot-headed cops played by Bronson, Gibson, Stallone, Seagal, and dozens of other action stars not far behind.  Laser discs are obsolete, but fortunately, so are the crappy pan-and-scan prints that I complained about in 1996.  Absent an Anniversary Edition, a widescreen DVD edition of MADIGAN is readily available, and a similarly decent letterboxed print occasionally runs on Turner Classic Movie.

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Bill Crider said...

I loved this one when I first saw it. Great role for Widmark.

Mathew Paust said...

I second Bill's comment. As for Fonda, I don't believe he ever gave a bad performance.

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