And You Thought It Was Safe(?)

Magnum Force (1973)
"...especially when it comes to tedious Crime Dramas."

“…especially when it comes to tedious Crime Dramas.”

Blanket Spoiler Warning for a forty year old film you should’ve already seen. But, then again, who am I to talk? I’ve seen pieces of Magnum Force over the decades, and everyone’s seen the clip of Harry saying, “Man’s got to know his limitations” for the third and final time, buttoning up Our Theme. That clip’s the next-to-last shot of the film so, in one sense, a thousand Eastwood Retrospectives have already spoiled it in more ways than I ever could, just talking about it.

So let’s talk about Magnum Force, the One With Those Other Vigilante Cops Who Don’t Play By the Rules. The film that exists explicitly because everyone called Dirty Harry fascist. It’s star, a self-described “political nothing” who now admits registering with the official Political Nothing Party (the Libertarians) took all the “fascism” talk personally. Especially since an early draft of Dirty Harry‘s script centered around, not a psycho killer vaguely based on Zodiac, but a gang of vigilante cops much easier to confuse for fascists than Hangdog-faced Harry.

Eastwood liked that script, but Don Siegel preferred the one with Scorpio. And America agreed, making Dirty Harry the fourth highest grossing film of 1971, right behind Diamonds Are Forever. With Dirty Harry only eight million dollars less popular than James Bond, a sequel was inevitable. Or so we’d say on this side of the 1970s, a decade that, among other things, saw sequels gain a measure of acceptance in polite company. They’d always existed, of course, but Hollywood A-listers and cultural pundits shunned them as fundamentally low, pulpy things. Besides, Big Name Stars put butts in movie theaters, not on-going stories. The very idea was regarded as silly, the kind of notion that drove “silly,” “juvenile” stuff like superhero comic books. Movies, the thinking went, could certainly be better than that…couldn’t they?

Time to fly the surly, scowling skies.

Time to fly the surly, scowling skies.

Then television gave consumers the choice to stay home and ignore the Big Name Stars in favor of watching their “stories,” as some soap opera fans still call them (I hope). Then Bond, James Bond, rose from the pages of leisure-suit spy novels and refused to fucking die no matter how intensely people bitched about him. As we saw in the first Dirty Harry film, the long-dead cowboy became a modern Cop Who Doesn’t Play By the Rules, and Beneath the Planet of the Apes made a ton of money despite sucking. Hard. As sequels occasionally do.

Should we add Magnum Force to the Sequels That Suck List? There’s no real way to review this film without comparing it to its predecessor. And there’s no way to do that without letting you know Hal Holbrook is Magnum Force‘s villain. But I gave the spoiler warning right off and we’re a paragraph and a half below the fold by now. Hopefully, it’s just down to you, me, and anyone else who’s either already seen the film or doesn’t care.

Point being, last time, Harry squared off against the Public Menace – the little man playing at supervillainy. This time, he squares off against a villain much more instantly recognizable to his target audience – a fellow cop with his eyes squarely on advancement and a squad of brownshirts ready to prove his bona fides. “There,” says the film. “Is that fascist enough for you? Can ease off on Harry now? Making him miserable is our job.”

We even bombed Harry's mailbox, just to make sure he can't get this month's Hustler.

“Look,” says the film, “We even bombed Harry’s mailbox just so he can’t get this month’s Hustler. Stop shitting on him – we’ve got that market cornered all by ourselves!”

Well, yes and no, movie. Because, just like last time, actually looking at Harry reveals a nihilistic shell of man with a serious hate-on for everything, especially bureaucracy. The bureaucracy’s political affiliations are tertiary concerns at best. Harry hates anything that gets in his way of upholding the law. Considering the inept way his city handled the Scorpio Crisis, that made perfect sense. As did the ending of that Crisis, when Harry threw his badge into the same sludgey pond where he’d just deposited Scorpio himself. Both the maniac he hunted and the institution that empowered him to do so were reduced, in the end, to the same level: two pieces of flotsum, floating in the breeze, with Harry walking away from both once the job was done and the story over.

None of which is even brought up in Magnum Force. Almost as if this were a different draft of the first film’s script (which it was) rather than a sequel, birthed from the first film’s loose threads. Instead, we open with Harry working Stakeout, probably because Hal Holbrooke’s character, Lt. Briggs, put him there, specifically to get his sharp eyes out of the way of Briggs’ street-sweeping-via-execution. Presented to us as the same kind of ineffective, cowardly asshole Harry Guardino played last time, the film hopes we’ll ignore Briggs for the duration, allowing it to hide Who Dun It in plain sight. This works perfectly, since every action Briggs takes, deliberately sandbagging Harry, works on at least two levels. They’re the actions of an antagonist maneuvering the protagonist into joining his little evil club, yes…but a phalanx of Dirty Harry rip-offs have trained us to read them as the actions of any Idiotic Boss in any run-of-the-mill Cop Drama.

I find this slight-of-hand trick fascinating. Had this been the first Dirty Harry film, instead of the second, that mill might produce a slightly less homogeneous product. But if that were the case, the Twist of Magnum Force wouldn’t work at all. You can’t put a character in a Who Dun It right upfront, do next-to-nothing with him, and not expect me to be suspicious…unless that character fits a genre role so well, he practically disappears. With the rest of the movie already on such shaky ground, it needs all the help it can get to avoid joining the ranks of its rip-offs. Expectation simultaneously helps and hurts this, propping it up even as it provides the best means to tear it down. Here we are, two movies in, and already the symptoms of sequelitis are showing (try saying that three times fast).

"I hate staring down those things."

“I hate staring down one of those things.”

Sequelitis is a tricky thing – this and Dirty Harry don’t look much alike. One continues on for thirty minutes after reaching a near-perfect climactic moment. The other barely gets started until the forty-five minute mark. But we’re reviewing the second one, so let’s give it the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say its makers were trying to make things easier for the, like, five people in the U.S. who didn’t see Dirty Harry. They wanted to ease everybody in and give Harry a chance to be awesome. So they did the bank robbery scene again – but it’s in an airport this time! Because Airport was a movie in 1970, and hijackings were A Real Big Thing throughout the decade. This has the double effect of re-introducing Harry to new, potential fans and servicing his existing fans…like so much in Magnum Force. Why else would it open its credits with a shot of The Gun and conclude with the famous question: “Do you feel lucky?”

Not, really, movie, no. Because future Red Dawn director John Milius shares credit for this script with future Heaven’s Gate director Michael Cimino, though Milius has gone on record washing his hands of these action scenes. The shoot-out in the plane, the shoot-out on the docks, and the climactic car chase through the shipyards are all spectacular. Someone certainly learned everything a man can learn from Bullet…including how to use the streets of San Francisco.

Just don’t ask me who’s responsible for all this, because the history of this movie is an ungodly mess of bruised pride and big egos. Starring in the fourth highest grossing movie of 1971 gives your opinions some real weight and, by ’73, Eastwood had begun to swing it around. Credited director Ted Post considers this the point where “Clint’s ego began applying for statehood” and their arguments created one of the angriest sets I’ve ever heard tell of, outside the 1990s. It’s amazing this movie exists in as coherent a form as it does. Eastwood claims credit for some of his own scenes and flat-out refused to reshoot others, taking a very Ed Woodian “C’mon, Ted, what’s to protect? It was perfect!” attitude towards the whole enterprise. I wonder where his mind was at the time…already on Thunderbolt and Lightfoot? Or did he switch to auto-pilot because he’d already made something very much like this movie in 1968 – as a Western called Hang ‘Em High? Or did he genuinely know he could get away with it? That his audience would follow him anywhere as long as he looked tough enough and growled every line through his teeth like a angry dog?

Sure wish I knew which of this movie's three competing directors came up with such nice uses of light and shadow, so I could praise them by name. Ah well.

Sure wish I knew which of this movie’s three competing directors came up with such nice uses of light and shadow, so I could praise them by name. Ah well.

Either way, Eastwood’s auto-pilot is equal to the average man on his best day after eight hours of sleep and the most motivational sex you can have. The kind that gets you up in the morning, ready to go…no, not that way…though sometimes…well, you know what I mean, right? I hope you do. In any case, I can’t fault Eastwood’s judgement, because he was right and he’d spend the next twenty years paying his bills with this Standard Man With No Name shtick. Even in cases where he had a name. (He had three in the Dollars trilogy, but we’ll save that for later.) I only wish Harry, the character, were a little smarter. Than the movie could be half an hour shorter.

Within ten minutes, he’s at the first crime scene. He’s a John Milius character at this point, so you know he knows his guns: how they sound, how they smell, where a killer needed to stand to make bullets go where they went, the whole deal. After that distraction at the airport, ten minutes later, he meets the four rookie traffic cops who’ll be his vigilante counterpoints for the remainder. The simple sight of Sweet (Tim Matheson) outlined in silhouette, his target range ear-muffs forming the outline of a traffic cop’s helmet, was enough to set off my spider-sense, and I’m far from a San Francisco Police Inspector. Of course, Harry doesn’t have access to my perspective, but c’mon, dude. Two plus two still equals four.

Apparently, there’s a deleted scene where Harry looks up the four rookies and finds an article of their’s in some police academy rag – about how “The System” is “too soft” on criminals at the expense of victim’s rights (the kind of thing Harry use to spout off about all the time). I think that scene belongs right here. The Twist at the end, with Holbrook, could still work, but Harry could jump on the plot train twenty minutes ahead of schedule. Chop-chop, people; you’ll be competing with Death Wish movies before you know it.

Jesus, Harry, there's "justifiable paranoia" and then there's "danger to yourself an others."

Jesus, Harry, there’s “justifiable paranoia” and then there’s “danger to yourself an others.”

On the other hand, Wiki has it the scene was supposed to take place way later, which is just my luck. In the first film’s review, I joked about Harry living under a gypsy curse and, instead of getting Harry into the game, Magnum Force spends its first half reinforcing that interpretation. Not only is his new boss is a true supervillain, complete with his own squad of mooks in identical uniforms (traffic cop uniforms, but still), Harry still can’t sit down to lunch without a crime happening in his immediate vicinity. His new partner, Early Smith (Felton Perry) does little to help the investigation…until a mail bomb adds his name to the Harry Callahan’s Partners Memorial Wall. And whatever happened to Frank DiGiorgio, anyway? Don’t his fans deserve some service? Or was “Early Smith” just a name in the script no one felt like changing?

The one bright spot in Harry’s life comes from a friendly neighbor, Sunny (Adele Yoshioka), who goes from “Hi,” to “What does a girl have to do to go to bed with you?” in exactly twenty-six seconds. Do the two develop a deep, personal relationship that adds depth of character to our taciturn, depressingly lifeless hero? Hell no. Sunny has two more scenes before the film drops her like a bad habit. Eastwood claims his female fans sent him sacks full of letters outright demanding a scene where some woman comes onto Harry, and…I don’t know about that…I almost buy that story, Clint. Almost. Your fangirls were already a mighty legion and Sunny is the perfect blank slate of a non-character. The audience could theoretically project themselves into her on a whim, making her the perfect example of a proto-Bella Swan. Still…I’d like to go back in time and ask him to produce said letters.

Once Harry gets on the case, his methodical investigation methods are as careful and procedural as you’d expect, which is a nice bit of consistency. While the villains rush about murdering mobsters, pimps and other cops who happen to see the wrong things, Harry goes about the business of actually building a case, keeping his mouth shut from all and sundry because he’s learned to Trust No One.  The institution that’s sheltered him for twenty-plus-years is now twisting itself into an unrecognizable, evil shape. Harry’s left agreeing with the villains’ righteous ends but morally repelled by their unrighteous means, allowing Magnum Force to reach a degree of meta-textual self-awareness its predecessor couldn’t even see. It puts Harry in the position of his own prospective audience and the starts asking him if he feels lucky. After the week he’s had, I’d say, “No,” no matter how many hot neighbors or old friend’s ex-wives started throwing themselves at me.

"Ugh...did anyone get the number on that Man with No Name?"

“Ugh…did anyone get the number on that Man with No Name?”

So it’s a good movie weighted down by its own excess, bland rehashing, and blatant fanservice. Accompanied by some rather obvious dumbing-down of the Blunt Force Message Trauma, reducing it all to a one-liner. We’re just lucky the one-liner is badass. A man does indeed “got to know his limitations.” I know mine, and Magnum Force scoots right up against them. Why are there three more of these Dirty Harry movies again? And will they get better as time goes on? Or worse? We’ll see once we get to The Enforcer.



4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Ironically I just watched this classic last weekend on the fancy expensive movie channels. It was nice to see Clint where he doesn’t look like a man ready to fall over dead at any moment.

Comment by MuGumBo

Also nice to see this thing still getting air-play somewhere, even if only on the “fancy expensive” channels.

Comment by David DeMoss

Hello. Long-time reader, first-time commentor.

I seldom watch cop dramas/actioners, so I gotta admit that I was as fooled as Harry by Holbrook’s office weanie mien until he turned out to be the villian.

While the Sunny bits were fluff, I do love the look on Clint’s face when she asks “What does a girl have to do to go to bed with you?” A subtle freezing of expression, he believably comes off as having been totally crossed up.

Am I the only one who finds the opening song with the bizarre vocal chorus to be an earworm?

Comment by Alex

Hi, Alex. Welcome to the madhouse. You’re probably far from the only one taken in by Holbrook. He’s way too good an actor to waste on a Lieutenant role in your standard cop drama. For me, I was trying to discount forty years of intervening history, so even though his presence sent up big red flags, I started to doubt myself. He almost got away with it. Imagine what it was like back in ’73. Sometimes I envy that audience…until I buy a documentary off the director’s personal website because I live in The Future and it’s awesome for stuff like that. And while I can’t personally confirm the earworm effects off the opening, I totally agree the look on Harry’s face is priceless:

Comment by David DeMoss

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