Don Siegel recognized gold when he saw it -- he reportedly had misgivings when producer Frank P. Rosenberg first asked for him as the director of Universal's adaptation of Richard Dougherty's novel The Commissioner because the two had clashed in earlier years on the series Arrest & Trial, but the book and the screenplay, written by Howard Rodman (who ultimately took the pseudonym Henri Simoun) and revised by longtime movie blacklistee Abraham Polonsky, offered too good a chance to make an exciting location-based police thriller. Siegel succeeded and then some, creating a movie that functioned on two levels, with two separate but interlocking story lines: a violent story about police officers on the streets of New York, and the drama of senior police commanders and their own life-and-death decisions. The city of New York, as much as the leading actors, was the "star" of the film. Although part of the movie was done on a Hollywood backlot and soundstage, there was enough New York shooting and enough of the pulse and rhythm of those streets to give the movie extraordinary verisimilitude, so that, at times, it feels as if one is watching a documentary. Cinematographer Russell Metty, whose career went back to the 1930s, used the widescreen Techniscope image to brilliant advantage, capturing the constriction of New York's tenements and the wide expanses of skyline with equal facility.
What Siegel and the writers never quite licked was the edict of the studio management that the film focus on Richard Widmark's Detective Madigan rather than on Henry Fonda's Police Commissioner Russell, who was the central character of the book. Siegel put everything he had into Widmark's scenes and embraced a dramatic arc that encompassed Madigan's story, but the unifying element of the movie remained Fonda's character, whose story was as central to the finished film as Widmark's. What's more, Fonda's scenes with Lloyd Gough, Woodrow Parfrey, Susan Clark, and James Whitmore were extremely powerful, a match for Widmark's scenes with Harry Guardino, Michael Dunn, Inger Stevens, and Sheree North. There are also excellent supporting performances by Dunn, Whitmore, Don Stroud, Henry Beckman, Ray Montgomery, and, most surprisingly, Harry Bellaver (best remembered from the TV show Naked City) as an alcoholic tipster. Sharp-eared viewers will be able to pick up little remnants of Polonsky's classic work from the 1940s, especially in the scene in which Whitmore's character is confronted with the transcription of the shakedown. "All the rest is conversation," he remarks, a phrase from Polonsky's script for Robert Rossen's Body and Soul (1947), starring John Garfield. The presence of ex-blacklistee Lloyd Gough (who, in that earlier movie, uttered that line) as Assistant Chief Inspector Earl Griffin, is another "in" reference to Polonsky's past.
Not everything about the movie is perfect. In real life, first-grade detective, the rank held by Madigan and Bonaro, is an extremely elite rank within the NYPD, coming with the equivalent of lieutenant's pay and a lot of respect, and is impossible to achieve without the good graces of the commissioner's office, so it is difficult to believe Russell's antipathy toward Madigan. It's also far-fetched that a pair of such men could make such a botch of a routine job or that the chief of detectives (Bert Freed) would be quick to hang them out to dry. But those flaws (and the fact that Madigan and Bonaro are allowed to confront Benesch without wearing bullet-proof vests) aside, Madigan is a brilliant film. In fact, it ended up being two great movies in one, telling two separate, full sets of stories woven around characters who are only seen onscreen together in the final sequence. Interestingly, in addition to spawning a short-lived series with Widmark in the 1970s, the movie served just as much as the dry run for the series Kojak, another Universal production.