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Madigan

by Peter Bogdanovich
March 14, 2011 3:58 AM
5 Comments
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A rough but effective sketch for the Clint Eastwood-Don Siegel Dirty Harry can be found in the Richard Widmark-Don Siegel police-detective picture made three years earlier, which Siegel had wanted to title Friday, Saturday and Sunday, after the three days the story plays in, but which was released in 1968 as Madigan, the last name of Widmark’s character (available on DVD). This was especially irritating to Siegel since the Academy Award winner for best foreign film just the year before had been the popular Elvira Madigan. But Hollywood producers and studio executives in those days, of course, gave even less of a thought to foreign films than they do today. In fact, Madigan is an excellent example of a late ‘60s major studio picture—-Universal being the last to have contract players—-behind which there is some personal and subversive writing and, especially, direction. It is a movie with serious intentions compromised by “front office” interference, disguised to look bland, yet filled with disturbing reverberations, all supplied by occasionally good dialog, generally fine acting and terrific mise en scene.

Among the most noticeably annoying elements that Siegel fought against—-as with the title—-and lost, is the dreadful score by Don Costa, who was one of Frank Sinatra’s lushest arrangers, but is out of his element here, each cue sounding like a buildup to a Sinatra vocal. Scene after scene that is exceptionally directed visually is marred by redundant, distracting or vapid music. Nothing seems to date a picture more quickly than its musical score. Most of the interiors of Madigan are over-lit in the usual ‘60s Universal-television manner, and some of the writing obviously smacks of producers’ desires for over-clarity and explicitness. The probably unnecessary looping (post-recorded dialog) of whole scenes betrays a definite split in the way the picture was shot and the way it was completed. Numerous action sequences—-an area in which Don Siegel is by now an acknowledged master—-are glossed over with absolutely unnecessary music, always a sign of somebody’s insecurity. Don told me he had wanted all of these to play only with dialog and sound effects.

Although there are a number of scenes with women, most of them are among the weakest in the movie, mainly because of the writing. Siegel tends to shoot these in middle-distance shots that purposely make no endorsement or viewpoint felt, leaving the audience to make their own judgments. Nevertheless, the final scene with Inger Stevens as Widmark’s wife is emotionally by far the most powerful in the entire film.

The main center of focus, however, is on the men and the often criminal way the plainclothes police behave in their pursuit of a vicious killer. Indeed, the occasionally thin line between the ways of law enforcers and those of habitual lawbreakers, and the morality thereof, is one of the two key themes of Madigan, as of Dirty Harry—-a recurring concern in Siegel’s pictures—-as is the essential theme of moral ambiguity: with both Widmark on the street and Henry Fonda (as police commissioner) in an office learning that people are not so easily defined by good or bad, right and wrong.

Fonda has such star authority that his performance is, as it often seemed with him, effortless. Widmark is an experienced hand at making hard cases strangely likeable without trying, and Harry Guardino is at his most personable as Widmark’s partner. The picture is saved by them from its imposed compromises, as well as by the brilliance of Siegel’s direction, especially in the final shootout, which is one of the most brilliantly shot and edited pieces of film I’ve ever seen. (As a tip of the hat, I used part of it playing on a TV in the background of a scene in my film, Mask.) This has never failed to move me, not only for the poignancy of its outcome in the story, but more perhaps for the absolutely unpretentious, thoroughly unpredictable and riveting way the sequence is put together. Truly skillful and sensitive craftsmanship always gets to me.

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5 Comments

  • Lina Lamont | February 10, 2012 3:20 AMReply

    I Liked It!

  • Mark | March 27, 2011 12:51 PMReply

    You nailed it on the score. It really does a disservice and reminds me of low budget television scores of that era.

    The visual style is uneven as it swings from dynamic feature compositions to mundane television style (mostly in the dialog scenes).

    It's also interesting to see that Popeye Doyle is just around the corner time-wise. Is that the feel that Siegel was hoping for?

  • raquel | March 18, 2011 5:32 AMReply

    Director Ewing Miles Brown says Sam Botta has lost 70 lbs for Movie Tech Studios pre-production of "Live Fearless with Sam Botta"

  • mike schlesinger | March 14, 2011 9:38 AMReply

    Peter, you keep ragging on the script, yet you don't mention the writers. And in fact, the screenplay is by two of the best in the business: Abraham Polonsky (a former blacklistee from whom much of the "subversive" text may well have come) and Howard Rodman. Neither of these fine gentlemen would willfully dumb down a script, so it would be a fairly good assumption that a third, uncredited hand was at work here--though I've never found the "obviousness" quite as bothersome as you do, especially as Siegel was coming off some Universal TV-movies, and were this not in 'Scope, it might well have been likewise. I think some further research is definitely in order here.

  • Mr. Wu | March 14, 2011 6:30 AMReply

    Strange forces are at work here, sir. I just recently concluded my very own Howard Hawks at Home film festival, wrapping up with Rio Bravo almost at the same time that you posted your thoughts on the film. The silent films from 1927 you spoke of, many will be playing in Seattle beginning next month. And now the mention of a Don Siegel film comes on the heels of my recent trip to San Francisco. The highlight of the vacation was the night tour of Alcatraz. (Yes, I'm a tourist, I know, but I dare anyone to come to Seattle and not go up in the damn Space Needle.) Of course I had seen Dirty Harry, The Killers, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and been dutifully impressed with the straightforward, unpretentious direction. So upon returning home, I thought a screening of Escape from Alcatraz was appropriate, and was happy to see the same intelligent, admirable traits at work in that film as well. It is exactly what the title says it is, no more and no less. I thought to myself, I'm digging this Don Siegel guy--what else does he have that's cool? Well, it looks like I didn't need to wonder for very long.

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