Thursday, March 29, 2012

Magnum Force

The best thing about Magnum Force – aside from being one of those rare sequels that can more than hold its own – is that it gets the viewer to rethink and reassess the original Dirty Harry. It has a lot of the things we come to expect from the subgenre and from sequels in general: it tries to go bigger with its stunts and chases (which, really, the first film didn’t have), it’s a bit more bloated, and it has a lot of those cliché interactions between the rogue cop and his superiors. But it also has a lot of ideas in its head; it’s more than just a cash-in (even though it did make more than the original). Magnum Force has ideas and allows us to look at the original with a better understanding of its themes thanks to its tackling of and response to the criticisms the original film received.

This brilliant plot twist of Magnum Force pits Callahan against an extreme version of himself: a group of vigilante motorcycle cops are killing the baddest of the bad guys in San Francisco. The filmmakers – Eastwood in particular – seem motivated to make a movie that is more than just an action-packed sequel, instead responding to remarks that the first film glorified a fascist character. Here, though, in Magnum Force we have the true fascist characters in the vigilante death squad. Inspired and taken by Callahan’s mystique, these rookie cops (played by then up-and-comers Tim Matheson, David Soul, Kip Niven, and Robert Urich) believe in an even more extreme form of justice for criminals. They’re also naïve enough to believe that Callahan will not only understand why they do what they do, but that he’ll join their “cause.” Of course, by the end of the film we see that they’re really just puppets being manipulated by a higher-up in the department, the lieutenant that butts heads with Callahan throughout the film (played to perfection by Hal Holbrook). It’s a wonderful twist to the original’s premise and a fresh take for the character as the film takes head-on the criticisms hurled at the originals right-wing tendencies. Here, the filmmakers (let’s be honest, Eastwood directed this even though Ted Post’s name appears under the “directed by” credit) have Harry take on an even more extreme version of himself.

Eastwood wanted this script written to show that Harry – even though he has an extreme view of justice – wasn’t a full-fledged vigilante. He still believes in the law just not the version that society in practicing. He tells his Lieutenant that he’s just waiting for a good version of the law to come around, but he is trying to uphold the law because without it there’s anarchy. And that’s the difference between Harry and the death squad: he’s unwilling to let anarchy rule even though these cops are killing murderers and drug dealers.

The way Eastwood plays Harry this time around is interesting, too. The film opens with Lalo Schifrin's funk/jazz score playing over the credits that have a “if Clint Eastwood made a James Bond movie” feel to them. After all, he’s still the guy that personifies the cool cop. After the opening death scene where a motorcycle cop shoots a recently released criminal (again, the justice system is broken as it lets criminals off the hook on a technicality), we’re introduced to Callahan as the lieutenant informs us that Harry shouldn’t be there since he isn’t on Homicide anymore. After seeing the dead body, he asks his partner if he’s hungry. The motif of Harry eating food after seeing a dead body or having his meal be interrupted while something big goes down is further established in the opening (and runs throughout most of the series, most famously in Sudden Impact). But Harry hasn’t devolved into full caricature by this point in the series (that wouldn’t happen until the ‘80s), and really the opening only serves to give an exhilarating introduction to our favorite renegade cop as he talks his way on board a flight, disguised as the pilot, that is being high jacked until he puts an end to the terrorists attempt at a skyjacking. I love the way Eastwood talks about how a “man’s got to know his limitations” to the lieutenant as he steps off the plane, which sets up a nice running theme throughout the film.

Just what are Callahan’s limitations and just how far is he willing to go when faced with a kind of justice that he doesn’t altogether disagree with? Oh, he’s still the same Callahan that responds to the lieutenant’s warnings about costing the city money because of all the dead bodies (“Someone is trying to put the courts out of business”) with lines like “So far you haven’t said anything wrong.” He still has no regard for the red-tape and the constant worry about the department’s public image, but he also has to think about what his limits are, and that’s the kind of twist Eastwood and writers John Milius (Conan the Barbarian) and Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter) give the character to keep him from becoming repetitive. There’s a key line that keeps with the fascist view of the character posited famously by Pauline Kael where Harry says, “There’s nothing wrong with shooting, as long as the right people get shot.” This is still the same Harry Callahan that doesn’t pay attention to the fine print and knows evil when he sees it because he can feel it in his gut; he just knows. And, quite ironically, Magnum Force gives Harry a set of antagonists that take this philosophy too far forcing him to become the voice of reason.

I touched upon this in my post on Dirty Harry, but it’s even more important with Magnum Force to bring up the context in which the film was made. Understanding the political context gives one a better understanding of Dirty Harry and where it’s coming from with its protagonist’s point of view. Understanding the context of Hollywood at the time helps understand why Dirty Harry and Magnum Force (and The Enforcer for that matter) were so popular in the ‘70s. 1970s in Hollywood was the time of risk taking; a time where a lot of liberal points of views were given an outlet. It was an era of pessimism (and rightly so considering what the country was going through) that dominated the most heralded and critically acclaimed American movies. And then here comes Eastwood and his Harry Callahan and it gives a voice to the more republican point of view. This is a hero that is proactive about his beliefs and doesn’t bother to stop and ask for another’s opinion along the way. Dirty Harry is the antithesis of the hero found in most American movies in the 1970s. Eastwood himself even spoke to this in Patrick McGilligan’s biography, Clint: The Life and Legend (this quote also conveniently appears on Clint’s Wikipedia page):

"Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino play losers very well. But my audience likes to be in there vicariously with a winner. That isn't always popular with critics. My characters have sensitivity and vulnerabilities, but they're still winners. I don't pretend to understand losers. When I read a script about a loser I think of people in life who are losers and they seem to want it that way. It's a compulsive philosophy with them. Winners tell themselves, I'm as bright as the next person. I can do it. Nothing can stop me."

I love that quote. Sure, it may rub some people the wrong way (and I am in no way saying I agree with whatever right-wing interpretation one wants to bring to the film; I think I covered that in my last review of the original film), but I love how Eastwood uses the character to assert himself at a time when people felt helpless. There was a lot of boisterous activity and protest going on at the time, but ultimately people felt helpless against the machine. Think about what the message was in classic films like Chinatown where the characters, no matter how hard they try to understand, are powerless against the inevitabilities of power and corruption. But here comes Harry Callahan – no matter what political lens you look at him through – that just does. Harry Callahan is definitely not a loser, and in Magnum Force he continues to evolve as the character by giving even more levels and depths to the cynical cop that would create the “cool cop” archetype (the cop that’s always at odds with his superiors and plays by his own rules) and set the trend for all cop films that followed, even to this day.

Director (in title only) Ted Post doesn’t seem as adept as Siegel as he films the action like his TV shows with a lot of wide shots/establishing shots, birds eye, low angle but without much rhyme or reason. The unfolding of the narrative is a little too deliberate for the type of film Magnum Force is (and wants to be), and a director like Siegel would have tightened up the story a little bit. The film has interesting ideas, but it’s pretty banal looking and lacks a lot of the energy contained in the first film. The one thing Post (or Eastwood) does do well is shoot everything in the daylight giving the film an unsettling feeling: not only do we usually feel safer during the day, but that’s also when we’re supposed to feel safer with all of the police on duty – it’s the opposite of the seedy, nighttime aesthetic established in the first film by Siegel. Eastwood had disputes with Post on the film over who was really directing the action (specifically the final motorcycle duel), and it would be the first of many instances where Eastwood would fire a director and finish the film himself (I believe there was a Director’s Guild rule that became known as the “Eastwood rule” because this happened so often). Eastwood did it to better directors like Philip Kaufman (The Outlaw Josey Wales), so it’s no surprise he did it to a hack like Ted Post.

The film utilizes San Francisco in a much more generic way (chases and the like) that was pretty common on television at the time. It’s not as seedy or interesting as the San Francisco in the original, and for that some of the film suffers for it. It’s not the same enemy territory as it is in the first film except in dialogue only (there’s a great scene where Harry talks to one of his buddies who is complaining that “a hood can kill a cop, but a cop can’t kill a hood!” because of the “kids” in the DA office), and that’s a shame because the setting of San Francisco in the ‘70s – the epicenter of liberalism – created such a great (and sometimes comical) juxtaposition for Harry in the first film that they didn’t really bother exploring that same feeling (which is what gave the first film a lot of its exploitation feel; they would revisit this tone with The Enforcer, though). Still, there are certain aspects of the use of San Francisco in the daylight that make the film stand out from its predecessor. Harry isn’t tracking down the same kind of killer, so the aesthetic doesn’t call for sleaze and unease; rather, the death squad is made up of cops so the aesthetic should be clean and crisp – safe almost. And that’s just what Frank Stanley’s cinematography is: harmless and serviceable but effective in getting its underlying point across (interestingly, like Post, Stanley would talk about Eastwood’s lack of preparation for certain scenes and the movie in general essentially saying that he was the equivalent of Ed Wood – that he would breeze through a scene and claim that if they got the gist of it the audience would follow along because they loved his characters so much).

But I don’t want to delve too far off into the negative here. These are all really just nits I’m picking as Magnum Force is an effective cop film that is a worthy addition next to Dirty Harry, and it probably stands as my favorite sequel of the series. Like I said, there is really something to the premise of Magnum Force as a commentary on the cries of the first film’s detractors. What’s most interesting about the film is considering that it could have been better had they not made it so long. Milius claimed that the big car chases and motorcycle duel at the end of the film were added to his script. Indeed, they do feel superfluous considering the first film didn’t need those things to be an effective and visceral cop picture. According to Milius, he had written a much leaner film more aligned with the original. Interestingly enough, some of the elements of Magnum Force (and definitely elements of the later films, especially The Enforcer and Sudden Impact) are wrongfully attributed to the original film.

People have a tendency to project a lot of the action scenes and clichés onto the first two films; when in actuality, the original Dirty Harry was pretty light on the generic action scenes that seemed tacked on to the end of Magnum Force; it’s the latter entries in the series that people often confuse with these first two, and these first two are films that have more fleshed out ideas – more to say – than the other films in the series. As the only Dirty Harry movie to be over two hours, sure Magnum Force seems a bit bloated at times, but it’s got more than enough going for it thematically (and with Eastwood’s performance) that we forgive its relatively banal chases that seem more at home in the action-driven The Enforcer and Sudden Impact.

Magnum Force would be the beginning of an interesting trend in the series: With the sequel and the films that followed, the filmmakers really challenged the film’s harshest critics by taking those criticisms and working them into their plots (along with real crimes that occurring that affected the mood of America a la Dirty Harry) and have what the detractors hate about the film act as Callahan’s primary conflict while he remains the same proactive (anti)hero that doesn’t give a damn about civil liberties for criminals or the fine print. It’s the main reason why the series – for how far into cliché it sinks –remains interesting all these years later; it’s one of the reasons why they’re so re-watchable, and it’s definitely the reason why the Dirty Harry films would continue to strike a chord with the public. It’s sometimes hard to watch the series without thinking about where it went and how cartoonish it became, but on its own, Magnum Force not only works extremely effectively, but it’s also the best sequel of the series. 


  1. Such a great followup to your previous post. It's been so long since I've seen Magnum Force I forgot Robert Urich was in it; definitely time for a rewatch. But I did remember just how bright and sunny the film was, very disconcerting and, I thought at the time, possibly a mistake. Excellent analysis on why the light of day works so well in this film.

    By the way, do you know what year Eastwood said that bit about wanting to play winners?

    1. Stacia:

      I found the context for the quote. It was when Clint was talking about his role in The Beguiled and why people didn't buy him in that role.

    2. Strange, I wrote a reply earlier tonight but it's gone. I checked and every reply on EVERY blog I went to tonight has disappeared. Guess I should check into that.

  2. Thanks, Stacia! Yeah, I love the fact that they decided to shoot all of the murders during the day; it definitely adds to the uneasy feeling of the film and makes the death squad more menacing as villains.

    I'm not sure when that Eastwood quote was from. I found it on his Wikipedia page in reference to the first two Dirty Harry movies, so I'm assuming it's around '72 or '73. Which would make sense considering the types of movies Hoffman, et al were making and the types of characters they were known for playing.

    Thanks again for your interest in these pieces. I appreciate it!

  3. Top notch piece, Kevin! It's interesting that what Pauline Kael (whom I love) objected to about the movie as being a cynical ploy-- Harry finding himself on the opposite side of where he stood in the first film-- is what's most interesting about MF. And I really appreciate you pointing up the effort Eastwood put into separating the reality of Harry's behavior from simple vigilantism. I'm sure you must have listened to Milius' audio commentary-- pretty entertaining stuff. And I also did not know about Eastwood's conflicts with Post. Thanks for crafting another terrific read. (I apologize for the generic quality of this comment, but I'm three sheets to the wind on NyQuil right now!)

  4. Well hopefully you're feeling better, Dennis. I know all too well about being loopy on NyQuil! Hehe. Re: Pauline Kael. I'm getting ready to finish my piece on The Dead Pool, and it's interesting that in that movie (which is really not meant to be taken seriously at all), there is a film critic who is a victim of the "dead pool" that is the spitting image of Kael. I think Eastwood was having some fun there since Kael was one of the most ardent detractors of the series.

    I didn't listen to Milius' commentary (although I did see some interviews with him that appear on the Blu-Rays), but I'll have to do that this next weekend. I'm going to try and try to throw an addendum to these Dirty Harry posts with thoughts on his non-Harry cop movies, The Rookie and Tightrope, so hopefully I'll have time to go back and watch this film with Milius' (who is always a character) commentary.

    Thanks for checking this out and for the comment. Get better!