By Peter Bogdanovich | Peter Bogdanovich March 14, 2011 at 3:58AM
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.