Madigan (1968) ****

Reignited the careers of director Don Siegel (no Hollywood traction since Hell Is For Heroes in 1962), Richard Widmark (reduced to supporting roles) and Henry Fonda (no longer first name on the team sheet for the biggest pictures) and reinvented the cop thriller as a gritty urban affair. The plot – chasing down a suspect – is a MacGuffin to explore tough police methods, corruption, and the harm the job does to the domestic lives of the police.

Detective Dan Madigan (Richard Widmark) and partner Rocco Bonero (Harry Guardino) come woefully and embarrassingly unstuck when hood Benesch (Steve Ihnat) evades capture and steals their guns. They have 72 hours to bring him back or be suspended. So, basically, they spend most of the time following a bunch of leads, intimidating anyone who gets in their way, including a helpless secretary. And while Bonero is happily domesticated, Madigan’s lonely wife Julia (Inger Stevens) is fed up with late nights and broken promises to the extent of considering a one-night stand when hubby stands her up once too often.  

Commissioner Russell (Henry Fonda) has his hands full dealing with the errant detectives  without the ramifications of corruption involving his best friend, long-time cop Chief Inspector Kane (James Whitmore). The widowed Russell would be a poster-boy for the principled cop except he’s having an affair with married woman Tricia (Susan Clark).

While Madigan is kicking and snarling his way through the underworld, Russell is trying to work out how to save his friendship and his affair. And while they might appear opposites, the classy top officer and the street cop, the uptight Russell envies Madigan’s way with people. Madigan is comped drinks and even a suite at the Sherry-Netherland hotel not merely because he’s a cop but because his charm goes a long way.

And while Russell dithers over helping out a friend, Madigan has no qualms about being taking for a ride by an old pal down on his luck and in need of an excuse to be bought a drink. When it comes down to it, Madigan is the better advert for humanity.

The soap opera elements don’t intrude too much on the thriller. Madigan and Bonero go in with fists blazing and work their way through a menagerie of skunks including Castiglione (Michael Dunn) and stool pigeon Hughie (Don Stroud). Benesch is a piece of work, not just clever enough to use his lover’s nudity to distract the attention of cops, but sufficiently hard-boiled to shoot a cop dead in the street and have little hesitation in opening fire on anyone who comes too close.

There’s some fascinating internal cop politics as Kane locks horns with Chief of Detectives Lynch (Bert Freed) over the latter’s insistence on suspending Madigan. And Russell has to finagle his way through the problems a well-heeled son is causing a rich doctor (Raymond Jacques).

Every time the pace slackens, the movie falls back on the old Chandler routine, have someone come through the door with a gun (a fist would suffice). Madigan is a driven cop, struggling to hold onto his marriage, Julia too often the sacrificial lamb. And for all his outward bravado, there’s a superb scene when unexpectedly encountering Russell he turns into a stammering ball of nerves, like a schoolkid anticipating a roasting from a headmaster.

Richard Widmark (The Bedford Incident, 1964) has a hell of a part, tough guy, check, but with a side helping of kindness, and pretty assured on the loving front, investing what could have been a fairly cliched character with a good deal of complexity. Henry Fonda (Firecreek, 1968) does a lot of pacing as his self-esteem implodes; how can he be a good guy if he’s running around with another man’s wife and how can he stick to his principles if he’s going to let a pal away with corruption?

Inger Stevens (Firecreek, 1968) is impressive as the disappointed wife trying to keep disappointment at bay. Harry Guardino (Hell Is For Heroes) always makes a good sidekick, but James Whitmore (The Split, 1968) digs into a sack of guilt as he attempts to avoid the oncoming storm. Don Stroud was almost auditioning for Don Siegel – he would turn up again in Coogan’s Bluff (1968) and Joe Kidd (1973); Susan Clark, too, Eastwood’s squeeze in Coogan’s Bluff. In smaller parts are Sheree North (Lawman, 1971) and Raymond St Jacques (Uptight, 1968).

But the show belongs to Don Seigel. There can be few directors so out-of-favor that they are able on their return to kick start a new cop cycle that culminated in Dirty Harry (1971). While this pulls no punches on the action front, it’s the quieter behind-the-scenes domesticity that almost as much catches the eye, the way he gives the characters time to breathe, opens them up to reveal more intricate inner workings.

It also spelled rebirth for blacklisted screenwriter Abraham Polonsky (Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, 1969) in his first credit under his own name for 17 years. He didn’t do it all himself, though, Howard Rodman (Coogan’s Bluff) sharing the chores, the pair working from the novel The Commissioner by Richard Dougherty.

The Movie That Never Was: The Long-Lost Screenplay of Abraham Polonsky’s “The Gladiators” *****

This is the second volume of The Gladiators vs Spartacus opus, published separately to the tome I reviewed on February 24, 2021. Reading Abraham Polonsky’s screenplay is like having a piece of history in your hands. And it is a fascinating read. Polonsky’s take on the Spartacus legend was quite different to that of Dalton Trumbo for Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 Spartacus. Based on works presenting alternative visions, Polonsky’s on the book by Arthur Koestler and Trumbo’s on the Howard Fast novel, suggested there would be differences.

The most initial significant departure is that Polonsky gives considerably less emphasis to Roman politics. It’s a classic three-act film, the first section revolt and escape, part two battle against pursuing Romans, the final segment betrayal and defeat. Rather than viewing the uprising as a glorious event, Polonsky concentrates (as does Koestler) on conflict among the escapees. Where the relationship between Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons follows a pure Hollywood arc, the female lead here, Lydia, is a more unusual character and for most of the time Spartacus fends her off. 

Top pic: Variety, June 24, 1959, p44; above Variety, February 12, 1958, p3. Ira Wolfert was a “front” for the blacklisted Polonsky.

And the revolt kicks in right away. Within 25 minutes (allowing one minute of screen time for every screenplay page), Spartacus spares the life of rival gladiator Crixus and together with their compatriots they rise up against their oppressors and escape to Vesuvius. Immediately, the differences between Spartacus and Crixus become apparent, the former wanting to press on, while Crixus wants to stop at an inn (“half-brothel, half resting place”), eat his fill, get drunk and have sex. To Spartacus, self-indulgence risks turning the men into a drunken horde, but to others (as expressed by the poet Fulvius) “this is freedom…the first thing a man wants back is his vices.”

But unexpected freedom brings a rebellion “without leaders, without plans, without hope” and the gladiators have attracted a rag-tag of other slaves. Crixus wants to discard these camp followers, head south, steal a ship and get home. Addressing the horde, Spartacus is brutal in his assessment, “I see a host of dead men” unless they submit to his authority and “swear by the gods never to surrender.” Crixus refuses and leads his Gauls away. With the Roman legions in pursuit, and blocking the one path up the mountain, Spartacus begins to train his horde. In a brilliant scene, the slave army, “faces and bodies blackened with charcoal,” descend on vine ropes on the outside of the crater in the darkness to surprise the Roman encampment.

When Crixus returns, he sees not a rabble but a proper army, Spartacus the undisputed commander. Spartacus plans to build a Sun City in alliance with the “old Greek cities conquered by Rome.” But such coalitions require compromise, forcing Spartacus to return to the Greeks slaves who have run away to join his army. “Every road has its detours,” says Spartacus. Naturally, his decision causes dissension, especially from Crixus. In order to win, Spartacus is willing to become a tyrant. (“It’s survival. It’s a detour. It’s a way around what we can’t go through.”)

Divisions within the army lead to a showdown. Crixus and Spartacus fight, at one point Crixus sparing his opponent’s life, to repay the debt from their skirmish  in the arena, and, reprieved, Spartacus kills him. But, eventually, Rome exerts its power, the slaves are betrayed, Spartacus refusing an opportunity to save himself, and in the final battle overwhelmed by superior forces, resulting in “eight thousand slaves on eight thousand crosses, all the way from Capua to Rome.” The screenplay ends in mythical fashion (i.e. true Hollywood). Spartacus’s body cannot be found. “They say the ground opened beneath him and swallowed him up. And some say he’ll be back.”  The final scene is of Spartacus’s infant son in the desert of Qumrum “empty, formidable, immense, the barrenness everywhere and yet here the spirit and first sign of modern man.”

Polonsky’s epic (two hours forty minutes by page count) is driven by conflict, not just against the pursuing Romans, but by different attitudes within the slave army as to the best way to achieve – and enjoy – freedom. The Crixus approach would be to loot every city. Spartacus adopts a policy of the end justifying the means. These “detours” were crucial to Koestler’s assessment of the true cost of revolution (taking the Russian revolution as his starting point). This is not a story of an impotent leader, driven to destruction by more powerful forces, but one where an individual, taking up the mantle of leadership, must make cruel decisions. This is the battle commander as politician. He faces a chorus of dissent from his own chief supporters – the poet Fulvius, the priest and scribe John, and his “wife” Lydia – who challenge his rulings, each with their own idea of how the revolt should fulfill its destiny. Spartacus himself is under little illusion, resisting attempts at deification, far more realistic than your standard Hollywood revolutionary. He does not believe in the gods or destiny and, ultimately, considers the revolt has little chance of success.

Polonsky, too, ignores the rules of the Hollywood romance. There is no meet-cute, Spartacus distrusts the willful and obsessive Lydia, possessor of mysterious powers, and, unlike the Hollywood standard attraction of opposites, there is no happy reconciliation. “I would never pick a wife who wanted to rule all men, the gods, and the world,” he tells her, “I would never choose a superstitious woman like you, with a tongue like a snake.” As for many a slave, the only freedom he enjoys, beyond a brief period unshackled, is the freedom not to die in servitude. From reading the screenplay, this is very much a movie I would have liked to see take its place on the big screen as an intelligent and challenging epic.

However, the actual screenplay only forms part of this 500-page-plus volume. Dr Fiona Radford provides extensive annotations and a critical commentary to the screenplay, drawing on both historical and literary sources and on Koestler’s book and Polonsky’s own notes. The commentary is worth reading in itself. Also included are draft scenes omitted from the revised script, lengthy excerpts from Polonsky’s Journal (which touches upon the screenplay and the blacklist) plus a survey of Roman gladiators in fiction and film from 1822 (Susanna Moodie’s Spartacus: A Roman Story) to 2020 and an examination of how Polonsky’s screenplay drew upon the source material, what he left out and what he invented. Henry Macadam and Duncan Cooper contributed the background essays. The combined volumes of The Gladiators vs Spartacus come to around 1,000 pages and a thousand more informative and highly readable pages would be hard to find. Dr Radford, by the way, along with Dr Peta Greenfield, runs a fascinating podcast-driven website “The Partial Historians” focusing on ancient Rome.

Note: I have not previously awarded marks to book reviews, in part since some are mine, modesty forbids, but if I ever there was a case for a five-star review, both these volumes fall into that category.

As with volume 1, The Gladiators vs. Spartacus Vol 2 is published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Yul Brynner vs. Kirk Douglas: The Battle for ‘Spartacus’ *****

When I wrote my book some years back on the making of The Magnificent Seven (1960) I was aware that Yul Brynner had attempted to set up a project called The Gladiators in direct opposition to rival Kirk Douglas venture Spartacus. What I didn’t know until I came across this fascinating new book, telling the untold story of The Gladiators vs. Spartacus, Dueling Productions in Blacklist Hollywood by Henry MacAdam and Duncan Cooper, was just how close Brynner came to derailing the Douglas production. Indeed, at first it appeared Brynner’s The Gladiators, based on the novel by Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon, The Ghost in the Machine), was a cinch to be first past the post. After winning the Best Actor Oscar for The King and I (1956) and starring in box office behemoth The Ten Commandments (1956), Brynner was set to become a movie mogul after being handed a record $25 million – $230 million at today’s prices – from United Artists for 11 pictures. His first project was The Gladiators on a $5.5 million budget, Meanwhile, Douglas, rejected for the title role in the forthcoming Ben-Hur, his picture Paths of Glory (1957) producing dismal returns, struggled to find funding for Spartacus, based on the book by Howard Fast.   

Promotional ad in 1958 for Yul Brynner as Spartacus in ‘The Gladiators.’

There are instances of two studios embarking on similar projects at the same time – sci fi adventures Deep Impact and Armageddon appeared within months of each in 1998 but Warner Bros and Twentieth Century Fox decided to combine competing movies about a skyscraper on fire into The Towering Inferno (1974). Here, as much as efforts were made to combine the projects both actors were determined to continue the battle despite the potential competition. At another point, Brynner sought to recruit Douglas for The Magnificent Seven. The race to the screen went back and forth for a couple of years, Brynner unable to choose between the historical drama and the western, while Douglas had the luck to have as his agent  Lew Wassermann, in the process of buying up Universal who determined that Spartacus would be the ideal prestige vehicle to relaunch the studio.

What gives this volume special significance is that the films were being produced against the backdrop of the blacklist, the anti-Communist hysteria stirred by HUAC in the late 1940s/early 1950s. Screenplays for both films were the work of blacklisted writers, Abraham Polonsky on the Brynner side and Dalton Trumbo for Douglas. Polonsky was writer-director of Force of Evil (1948) as well as writer of another quintessential film noir Body and Soul (1947), for which he was Oscar-nominated, before his career was prematurely interrupted. Trumbo was held in even greater esteem, Oscar-nominated for Kitty Foyle (1941), and with A Guy Named Joe (1943) under his belt. While blacklisted, both wrote under “fronts”, Trumbo responsible for the Oscar-winning screenplays for Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956), Polonsky successfully switching for a time to television. Both productions proceeded with the need to keep secret the real screenwriters, Ira Wolfert fronting for Polonsky, author Howard Fast unknowingly doing the same for Trumbo.

The parallel tales of two ambitious producers dueling for supremacy and of two blacklisted writers fighting for survival make a thrilling read. At any moment, either production could be killed by revelations about the screenwriters, while the planned films faced a succession of what seemed sometimes insurmountable obstacles. Both movies pursued, for example, the same three stars – Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov. Martin Ritt, initial  director for The Gladiators, dropped out while Anthony Mann, in the same position for Spartacus, was fired. Script problems dogged both pictures. Rivalry was conducted openly in the trade press while the productions clashed over the title. Even when Spartacus nudged ahead in the production process, the spiraling budget almost put paid to the endeavor, while The Gladiators hovered in the background, intent on capitalizing should, as appeared for a long time the most likely outcome, the Douglas film flop at the box office.

The third riveting element of this book is a scoop. The authors have located the original Polonsky screenplay for The Gladiators, believed lost for over 60 years, and so are able to contrast the different approaches to the subject of the Spartacus revolution. (In a separate volume, the entire screenplay has been published with annotations and critical commentary by Fiona Radford and background essays by MacAdam and Cooper). Koestler was a cult figure, far better known than Howard Fast, and has remained in the literary consciousness ever since his suicide in 1983. With The Gladiators failing to reach the screen, Polonsky remained under the Hollywood radar for several years before his career revived with the screenplay for Madigan (1968) and as writer-director of modern western Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969) starring Robert Redford.  The revelation that Trumbo had written Otto Preminger’s Exodus (1960) and the involvement of Polonsky in The Gladiators helped break the blacklist. Trumbo went on to enjoy a successful official comeback, biopic Trumbo (2105) depicting the tribulations he suffered as a blacklistee.

The book is available from Cambridge Scholars.

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