Most longtime crime-fiction fans have probably seen the 1968 film Madigan. Directed by Don Siegel, who’d go on to make the first of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry movies in 1971, Madigan starred Richard Widmark and Harry Guardino as a couple of case-hardened New York City police detectives struggling to run down a hoodlum on the loose in Spanish Harlem. Henry Fonda played the city’s by-the-book police commissioner, who was aggravated by the cowboy tactics of Widmark and Guardino, while James Whitmore executed a splendid turn as a chief inspector suspected of doing favors for a dirty-money man.
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Although not universally celebrated (the New York Times described the picture as “respectable but slack-jointed”), Madigan was applauded for its tight scripting and urban grittiness, and Siegel was singled out for his taut direction. Widmark’s Det. Dan Madigan was memorable enough that in 1972, he was asked to reprise the role in Madigan, one of three TV shows rotating under the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie umbrella. The fact that the original film hadn’t ended well for Widmark’s character didn’t sour the network’s hopes that he could breathe new life and renown into the part. Unfortunately, Madigan was cancelled after only six episodes.
For all the people familiar with Madigan—the large- and small-screen versions—I’m surprised by how many are unaware of the novel that inspired them both: The Commissioner, by Richard Dougherty.
Siegel’s 101-minute film adheres quite faithfully to the main plot lines of this 368-page book, though—not surprisingly—it emphasizes the story’s dramatic elements. Dougherty’s novel is more character-propelled and thoughtful. The author once did time as a city hall reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, and he was a deputy New York City police commissioner for community relations in the 1950s, so he knew his way around Gotham’s political and police circles. While Dougherty denied that The Commissioner was a roman à clef, it was certainly informed by his experiences with the NYPD and his enthrallment with the workings of power.
This story takes place over a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and centers around two players. First, Police Commissioner Anthony Russell, a former cop who grew up poor and Catholic, and is viewed by many of his officers as too “strict and severe,” but also as distinguished and honorable. (How they’d react to discovering that this married commissioner has an upper-class mistress would be anybody’s guess.) And second, Dan Madigan, a still-handsome and college-educated detective in his mid-40s with an ambitious, lonely wife and “well over twenty years in the Department,” most of those spent with his less-dashing partner, Italian-American family man Rocco Bonaro.
Madigan and Bonaro are tasked with bringing in a Puerto Rican-born ex-con named Barney Benez, who’s wanted for questioning in connection with a Brooklyn homicide. Their simple chore goes bad, though, when Benez—who they find in bed with a young woman—grabs hold of his gun while the detectives are distracted by the nude miss’ sudden scurry across her apartment. Benez forces the cops to hand over their own pistols and leaves the men trapped on the building’s roof, while he flees.
Embarrassed and fuming, Madigan and Bonaro roust all of their contacts and snitches to help locate Benez, while Russell keeps track of their efforts from his bureaucratic pinnacle. But the commissioner has other problems, including a leader of the local black community who believes his psychologically fragile son—mistakenly grilled after a Coney Island rape—was abused by the investigating officers. Then there’s the predicament of Chief Inspector Charley Kane, Russell’s “most intimate and trusted friend,” whose voice appears on a wiretap, promising to help an operator of illegal enterprises. The commissioner has made a reputation combating his department’s tradition of corruption. He can’t look the other way just because his pal Charley finds himself in hot water. Yet, can he really fire the man who calls himself “the Commissioner’s strong left arm?”
In the same way that Stanley Ellin’s excellent 1958 novel, The Eighth Circle, is a meditation on what it’s like to be a private eye, rather than strictly a private-eye novel, The Commissioner is too simplistically described as a police procedural. Dougherty doesn’t steer clear of all that subgenre’s conventions; there are some tense episodes here, and the denouement possesses drama and surprises both. However, he also doesn’t limit himself to what readers expect from such stories. He delivers disquisitions on the NYPD’s authority structure, as well as the roots of Russell’s affair and even the décor of his Manhattan flat. While many writers reduce their characters to recognizable quirks, Dougherty’s people boast generous backstories and raw-edged flaws.
The author is deliberate with his prose, and he asks readers to be patient with his process—whether he’s spinning off pages of interior dialogue from an inebriated Charley Kane, or leading us through the rituals of a police captains’ dinner, during which the controlled Russell realizes why it is about Madigan that irritates him so:
“It seemed somehow that Madigan was a truly modern man—nothing was important. That was what made them natural enemies because if what Madigan represented, consciously or not, was right, then conduct didn’t matter, and if conduct didn’t matter, then neither did men. They became absurd, life became an absurd condition bordered on the one side by the intolerable and on the other by the impossible. It was a condition which asked and allowed for nothing but the exercise of a directionless freedom. Madigan tacitly said to him: Russell, can’t you see what a farce it all is? Don’t you realize it’s all phony? And this was an attack one had to fight.”
There’s a sense of cluttered, low-key realism here that you don’t often find in police stories. William J. Bratton, who served as New York City police commissioner during the 1990s, once confided: “As a kid in Boston I was a police buff at the age of 7, and in the early 1960s I discovered The Commissioner. It influenced my life so much, I began to visualize my future, imagining what it would be like if I could be police commissioner of New York.” Anybody who’s read this novel knows just how he felt.