Daily Archives: October 2, 2016

Magnum Force (1973)


*. I think it’s worth beginning by pointing out that there were no plans, when making the first Dirty Harry film, for there to be a sequel. It was not envisaged as a franchise, of the sort that we’ve become used to. Instead, Harry throws away his badge and it looks like he’s going to be leaving the force.
*. The reason I begin by mentioning this is that rarely, if ever, has a film franchise transitioned so smoothly into formula and even self-parody. From the cool blue sky above the sniper’s rifle at the beginning of Dirty Harry we now get Harry’s .44 Magnum against a blood-red backdrop. Harry recites an abridged version of his famous final lines from that picture and then we’re into the formula.
*. The formula includes a bunch of basic elements. An opening scene showing the villain(s) in action. Then transition to Harry vs. the bureaucracy. An introduction to Harry’s minority partner (a Mexican-American in the first film, an African-American here, a woman in The Enforcer, a Chinese-American in The Dead Pool). A mini-scenario showing Harry in action (eating a hot dog and foiling a bank robbery in Dirty Harry, eating a hamburger and foiling a plane hijacking in Magnum Force). Bon mots delivered while heading out the door. A subplot involving gangsters gunning for Harry (Palancio, Threlkis, Janero) that has nothing at all to do with the main story but which keeps Harry on his toes. A scene where someone threatens to call the police on Harry only to have him respond that he is the police. Some chase scenes. Lots of shots looking down the barrel of a gun (in both directions). The partner going the way of one of Spinal Tap’s drummers. A violent finale set in a deserted location (a quarry in the first film, a decommissioned aircraft carrier here, Alcatraz in The Enforcer, an off-season amusement park in Sudden Impact).



*. Why I say self-parody is because this film ups the ante in ways that are pretty ridiculous. It was obvious even to contemporary reviewers (I quoted one of them in my notes) that Dirty Harry was full of improbabilities, but Magnum Force makes us suspend our disbelief even further. The rogue cop guns down a car full of bad guys in broad daylight in the middle of a busy street and nobody sees him? Harry pretends to be a jet pilot and turns the tables on the bad guys by slamming on the brakes while preparing for take-off? Instead of shooting a single woman in a swimming pool (as in the first film) an entire pool party is massacred? This is all pretty silly, isn’t it?
*. Near the beginning of his DVD commentary, screenwriter John Milius (whose tough-guy persona may involve a bit of self-parody too) says that Magnum Force was “not supposed to be more of the same” but was rather meant to present “the flip-side of the coin of the first one.”
*. But is this movie really setting the politics of Dirty Harry on its head, with its vigilante cops as the bad guys? In the first film the bureaucracy wasn’t the enemy, but more a hindrance than a help. It was a problem to be overcome, and even the lawyers didn’t like the system they served. But here the police and other higher-ups are the enemy. It’s still Harry against the system, even more so.
*. By the way, if Briggs is only a lieutenant, why does he seem to be practically in charge of everything?
*. From my notes on Capricorn One: “Hal Holbrook. The face of compromised power. The burned-out conspirator. . . . You can never quite trust him, even when he’s playing one of the good guys.”


*. Pauline Kael’s review is an important one, not because of its critique of the film’s politics but because it identified Magnum Force with what was about to become a very popular strain in American filmmaking: the body-count movie. Within this aesthetic Harry’s “gun power makes him the hero of a totally nihilistic dream world.” That dream world is one where we aren’t cued to be affected by mayhem and slaughter.
*. Kael’s conclusion is worth quoting in full: “It’s the emotionlessness of so many violent movies that I’m becoming anxious about, not the rare violent movies (Bonne and Clyde, The Godfather, Mean Streets) that make us care about the characters and what happens to them. A violent movie that intensifies our experience of violence is very different from a movie in which acts of violence are perfunctory. I’m only guessing, and maybe this emotionlessness means little, but, if I can trust my instincts at all, there’s something deeply wrong about anyone’s taking for granted the dissociation that this carnage without emotion represents. Sitting in the theater, you feel you’re being drawn into a spreading nervous breakdown. It’s as if pain and pleasure, belief and disbelief had got all smudged together, and the movies had become some schizzy form of put-on.”
*. Was the slasher film, or the ’80s action films where Rambo or Schwarzenegger simply piled up bodies like cords of wood, simply an extension of this same nervous breakdown? What does it mean that we identify with Harry, whose slow, implacable pace (even in pursuit or escape mode he never seems hurried or in a rush) makes him appear to be a precursor of the Terminator or RoboCop? It’s not just that we’re not being cued to be affected by the violence, it’s that we are being cued to not be affected.


*. Let’s keep with that connection to the slasher genre for just a moment. The scenes where women throw themselves at Harry were added later because women had (so he says) written Eastwood letters specifically asking for scenes where women came on to him (and not the other way around). Eastwood and Milius were apparently proud of the fact that such scenes didn’t get in the way of the storytelling, but I’m not so sure. They’re totally extraneous and this is the longest of the Dirty Harry movies. Milius was also initially against them because he thought of Harry as “God’s lonely man.”
*. In any event, Harry never does hook up with Carol (Charlie McCoy’s ex), and we’re never quite sure what goes on between him and Sunny. At least one of their dates is interrupted by a phone call. Meanwhile, Milius notes that “sex is really dangerous in Dirty Harry movies . . . anytime somebody has sex they usually get killed.” This is overstating the case, I think, but it is true that we do see the playboys and semi-naked girls at the pool party being shot up, and then the coke heads getting massacred in their love nest. So there is a connection to slasher films here as well, with the sex = death angle and Harry as a sort of moral puritan standing above it all.
*. Is, or was, the mafia that big in San Francisco? I honestly don’t know. I never thought of San Francisco as a mob town.
*. Is it likely that Davis and Sweet would conduct the raid on Palancio’s hideout wearing their motorcycle helmets, when they drive there in a car? That seemed absurd to me. Who wears a helmet in a car? I mean, motorcycle patrol cops don’t wear their helmets all the time, do they?


*. At one point Harry’s partner Early tells him that the vigilantes, who out-of-uniform do have a kind of metrosexual look, were presumed to be gay in police college. “Everybody thought they were queer for each other.” And I suppose their uniforms make them look as much like members of the Village People as they do the angels of death in Orphée. But the suggestion of homosexuality is something else Magnum Force shares with other Dirty Harry films. We can’t imagine Scorpio having a girlfriend, and he does have that line where he’s impressed by the size of the gun Harry pulls out (“My, that’s a big one!”). In The Enforcer, just before blowing up Bobby Maxwell, Harry snarls “fucking fruit!”, which I think can only be interpreted one way. In none of these cases are we told that the villains are gay, but the implication is certainly there.


*. I wonder how seriously John Milius expects to be taken. On the commentary he insists that the vigilantes, at least before killing Charlie, “have done nothing wrong” and that Harry understands this. Apparently they are just “serving out justice.” During the pool massacre scene he remarks that “we just know that those are bad guys” because the girls are topless. “Even though we don’t know who they are, we know that if they’re up there, cavorting around, looking sort of, you know, Italian-American or whatever, looking like goombahs, then they must be bad guys, you know. They’re living too well to be honest citizens.”
*. I don’t mind this, as it is revealing, but I’m always disappointed when people doing a commentary aren’t very informed about the film they’re watching. I cringe when an actor or director says they haven’t seen the movie in twenty years. Shouldn’t they be expected to do a little prep?
*. I thought of that while listening to Milius because on several occasions he makes mistakes talking about the first film, which he also had a role in writing (though uncredited). Also typical is what he says of the guy who plays the pimp: “this actor does seem very familiar, [he] does seem as though he’s in a lot of these films, probably a friend of Clint’s.” In fact his name is Albert Popwell, and he was the injured bank robber in Dirty Harry (“I gots to know”), played Mustapha in The Enforcer, and appeared as Horace in Sudden Impact. Did Milius really not know this? In his commentary on The Enforcer, director James Fargo refers to Popwell as “part of Clint’s little repertory group,” so he probably was a friend.


*. The ending is satisfactory. I like how Harry is without a gun and has to dispose of four villains without one. But the jump off the deck of the carrier doesn’t seem like it should have killed Davis, as it obviously didn’t injure the stunt man who actually did it. At least Briggs gets blown up real good and, as with the first film, we don’t waste any time cutting back to the police station to wrap things up. When the shooting stops and the dust settles then the credits run. That’s economy.
*. A man’s got to know his limitations. Indeed. But after two movies Harry clearly hadn’t come up against his yet. Only audiences could judge where those limitations were. There were three more films to come.