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.

Coogan’s Bluff (1968) ***

Almost a curiosity in the Clint Eastwood canon from the later perspective, this modern western concerning a maverick Arizona cop pursuing a fugitive in New York could also be interpreted as a riposte to the violent avenger of the “Dollars” trilogy and Hang ‘Em High (1968). Like Rio Conchos (1964) there’s an action-packed start and finish and not much in between unless you count Coogan (Clint Eastwood) being beaten up, and like Firecreek, made in the same year but less of an audience attraction, a slow burn with little of the depth of the Vincent McEveety effort.

It fits more neatly into the “victim” niche of The Beguiled (1970) and Play Misty for Me (1971) with Eastwood, while attempting to present a macho image, set upon by predatory women. Here, although led into a trap by the girlfriend Linny (Tisha Sterling) of the wanted Ringerman (Don Stroud), the victim elements are mostly humorous, Coogan a fish-out-of-water taken advantage of by cab drivers and hoteliers and by a justice system that takes more note of due process than he is accustomed to. Otherwise, it’s pretty much a romance as Coogan, for whom persistence pays off, beds probation officer Julie (Susan Clark).

Coogan is a paid up member of the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am fraternity, frolicking with an adulterous lover in Arizona, and displaying no qualms about getting it on with Linny. In the hands of Jack Lemmon this would be a comedy, so it’s a strange choice for Eastwood unless for experimental purposes, trying to set himself up more as Steve McQueen than John Wayne.

The picture opens with Coogan tracking down a Native American, and manacling him to a pole outside a house while he repairs inside for sex. Interrupted by a sheriff frustrated by his ways, he is despatched to New York where he manages, through a bluff, to have Ringerman removed from Bellevue mental hospital. On the way home, he is ambushed by Linny and some thugs, losing consciousness and his gun, neither going down well with the more bureaucratically-minded Lt. McElroy (Lee J Cobb) whose undercover stake-out plans he has also ruined.

Luckliy, Coogan has chanced upon probation officer Julie who can’t quite manage to deter his amorous advances and at an appropriate moment he sneaks a look at her files for his next lead. Not quite as sharp as he imagines, and clearly not much good at assimilating painful lessons, after a dalliance with Linny, he is astonished to be led into yet another trap. In the end, of course, he gets his man, courtesy of a motorbike chase. But there’s a curious ending. Not only does Julie, who he has betrayed with Linny, turn up to wave him off, but, as if he has now turned into a kinder, more humane specimen, he affords his prisoner a smoke, something he pointedly refused to do with the Native American.

It’s not dated particularly well and modern audiences will have trouble accepting domestic abuse and rape as comedic situations and eyebrows are scarcely going to be raised at the drug-addled Linny nor the club where naked women fly overhead on trapezes. The idea that intelligent women like Julie, weighed down with psych jargon and over-concern for offenders, just need a big hunk in their lives doesn’t fly either.

But if you accept the out-of-towner trope, and are happy to see Clint practising his squint and double take , you will find in between the action  and “victim” agenda, a quite tolerable romance. It was a bold choice for a star best known for killing people. Tough guy that he is, he is flummoxed by the big city and has a hell of a job getting his man. On the other hand Eastwood and Clark have excellent chemistry. This is embryo Eastwood, almost as if he is trying on a variety of screen persona to see what will fit. After Dirty Harry (1971) there was little truck with romance except for The Bridges of Madison County (1995) and In the Line of Fire (1993) so it’s interesting to see his moves, albeit that the best romantic work he did was in the director’s chair with Breezy (1973).

Susan Clark is superb, all the professional confidence of Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969) but the romantic cynicism replaced by an appealing hesitancy. Lee J. Cobb (Exodus, 1960) has little to do except be grumpy, Don Stroud (Madigan, 1968) doesn’t feature prominently enough while Tisha Sterling (Journey to Shiloh, 1968) makes the bigger impact.

Don Siegel (Dirty Harry) would become an Eastwood long-time confederate, directing him in six movies, of which this was the first. He had just made a Hollywood comeback after six years in the feature film wilderness with Madigan (1968), a tougher cop picture. I would be inclined to lavish more critical plaudits on the idea of playing around with the tough guy persona, but I’m not sure that was the intention.

What If: When Harry Met Frank

Apologies for venturing outside my self-appointed remit of the 1960s but this is too good to ignore and the artwork above extremely rare.

It’s pretty hard to get out of our minds the vision of Clint Eastwood as the tough cop of Dirty Harry (1971) especially brandishing his .357 magnum and snarling lines like “Do ya feel lucky, punk?” It was such a high point of Eastwood’s career that it’s hard to see anyone else in the role.

But, in fact, Warner Brothers did. Long before Eastwood entered the equation the studio had Frank Sinatra lined up. If your notion of Sinatra comes from musicals like High Society (1956) or easy-on-the-eye Rat Pack ventures like Sergeants 3 (1963) or his Oscar-winning turn in From Here to Eternity (1953), you would be forgetting his harder-hitting roles in the later 1960s as a tough cop in The Detective (1968) and as private eye Tony Rome (1967) and sequel Lady in Cement (1968).

Nor was Don Siegel a shoo-in for the director’s chair. Warner had already assigned that task to Irving Kershner. The Sinatra-Kershner version got far enough up the production ladder for the studio to produce a piece of artwork with the actor in the title role – see above. This went out in an advertisement that appeared in Variety on November 9, 1970, under the headline “Now In Production Or In The Can (And In Theaters Soon)” suggesting the movie with Sinatra in the title role was pretty much a lock. Though what exactly was in the briefcase was anyone’s guess.

Other films advertised in the same spread were Rabbit Run with James Caan (also seen in this section of the ad) and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller (though under a different title). However, the photo of Sinatra with a briefcase was hardly inspirational and a far cry from the eventual Eastwood image that went with the picture. Whether Sinatra’s interpretation of the character was intended to be quite as tough and mean as that of Eastwood, we shall never know.

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