Friday, October 14, 2005

MADIGAN (1968) - Don Siegel

There are some movies that later became TV shows which you would initially never think could make a smooth transition. M*A*S*H for instance. Who would have thought they could make a solid TV show out of Altman’s inspired yet rag-tag, sarcastic, and generally plot-less take on doctors in the Korean war?
    
Don Siegel’s Madigan is NOT one of those movies. It seems to be an early template for the modern-day cop show and later, in fact, became a TV show of the same name. I’ve never seen the Madigan TV show, but I have seen enough NYPD Blue’s and the Hill Street Blues to draw the comparison. Apart from the ending (which I won’t spoil), a little bit of nudity and the run time, it feels like it could be a TV pilot.
 
What’s fresh about the movie Madigan may be stale by today’s TV standards. But given the year it came out, it seems ahead of its time in terms of dealing with the public and private lives of cops in a grown-up manner, as opposed to say a more procedural Dragnet or Naked City. Siegel does this by splitting the difference in story, focusing alternately on the trials of a NYC police commissioner played by Henry Fonda and a beat cop played by Richard Widmark. Widmark’s dilemma: a routine bust that just got away with his gun has turned into a prime murder suspect, and he got 72 hours to find him. Fonda’s dilemma: dealing with his recent revelation that his top police chief and best friend is dealing in dirty business with the local crime boss.
 
Police politics and corruption. This is nothing that a pitch-perfect show like The Wire hasn’t handled ten times more effectively. But what distinguishes Madigan from other cop shows and movies of its time is the screen time Siegel gives to the Fonda’s and Widmark’s female relationships. Fonda is a lonely bachelor having an affair with a married society woman while Widmark is trying to keep his neglected wife and marriage together. These subplots seem to take up half the movie, making the investigations on both ends leisurely by comparison. In fact, I found myself more intrigued by whether or not Widmark’s wife was going to cheat on him after he left her in the care of a bachelor cop at the Captain’s Ball, than whether he was going to catch the bad guy in time.
 
Admittedly, these male-female relationships are a bit dated, but no more than work life-personal life dynamics in Michael Mann’s Heat. Siegel’s not afraid to paint in shades of grey making both his characters a bit unlikeable, thereby far more realistic and interesting. I wonder if all the grey areas were whitewashed out of the TV version. I guess I’ll have to wait for the “Madigan” DVD box set…

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