04 September 2009

Movie review: McQ

McQ (1974)
Directed by John Sturges. Starring John Wayne, Eddie Albert, Diana Muldaur, Clu Gulager, Colleen Dewhurst, David Huddleston, Al Lettieri.

On the day when Scotland was handing out clan names, one clan arrived late to the table. The officer in charge told them that they had run out of names, and only had a single letter left. The clan leader sighed, and accepted the name “McQ.” The clan did not know that one day a lad of theirs would make good in the Seattle Police Department. Or that John Wayne would play him.

It seems easy to imagine that McQ was meant to be a fresh start, a “game changer” for an aging star who saw himself getting replaced in the tough-guy universe. John Wayne had gotten passed over for the part of Dirty Harry because of his age, and McQ looked like his way to get in on the field of the gritty contemporary crime dramas that had flooded into theaters in the wake of Bullit and The French Connection and the Eastwood explosion. But looking back from 2009, McQ is obviously an experiment, a chance for Wayne to enjoy himself, and not an attempt to create a new trend for him. He was too old for a complete action hero revision, having turned sixty-eight when filming started. He had already achieved the most any actor in a single lifetime could have wanted; the Oscar for True Grit in 1969 was really a Lifetime Achievement Award—if ever he deserved an Oscar for an individual performance, it would be for Red River or The Searchers, two of my favorite movies of all time. And he would not survive the decade. The Duke wasn’t out to grab a new audience—if he were, he would have taken the offered role in Blazing Saddles. He just wanted to do some work, try something fun in modern-dress, get to punch people while wearing a suit and tie instead of a cowboy shirt or combat fatigues.

And so, McQ.

As for John Sturges, the fellow who directed The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and Bad Day at Black Rock, at this point he was funding his retirement. At least McQ is more lively than the director’s one film with Clint Eastwood, 1972’s soporific Joe Kidd. I’m a huge Eastwood fan, and even I have trouble getting through that one. I do like the train crashing into the saloon, but that’s it.

The story of McQ is mostly inconsequential, and except for the action set-pieces and great on-location photography in Seattle, McQ’s script feels like most of the TV police procedurals of the decade. It also has surprisingly slim controversial content considering that it took its cue from Dirty Harry and that Wayne was public with his right-leaning views. Det. Lt. Lon McQ, who lives the bachelor lifestyle on a houseboat, wants to know who gunned down his friend, Sgt. Stan Boyle (William Bryant). He places his detective instincts on wealthy drug dealer Manny Santiago, whom he accosts in a men’s bathroom. Santiago is played by Al Lettieri, one the great thugs of film acting (who unfortunately died the year after the film’s release), so you can understand why McQ might assume he’s behind his old pal’s killing. McQ’s boss Ed Kosterman (Eddie Albert) immediately removes him from the case, and McQ pulls a fit and resigns the police force so he work with his private detective buddy Pinky (David Huddleston) and solve the case. But he ends up discovering unsurprising corruption in the force and a hunt for $2 million dollars worth of drugs. The script does pull out a good twist in the finale, but most the time the movie saunters around, seeming to wonder where this is all leading. Even McQ doesn’t quite seem clear, and he ends up more a dupe than a detective. But he’s John Wayne, so in the end you know the bad guys will be wearing lead as accessories.

McQ has plenty of historical interest. It’s a typical if unexceptional example of the verité crime films of ‘70s, that bizarre region between the days of film noir and the emergence of the modern “action picture” in the ‘80s. The location work in Seattle is realistic and striking, and the few pieces of action generate some kick, especially the beach chase and shoot-out climax that has a superb car flip and John Wayne brandishing the new MAC-10 machine pistol. Two Mack trucks also try to make a Wayne-and-Pontiac sandwich when the former detective pushes too far into the corruption in the department.

But as with a lot of Sturges’s later pictures, McQ suffers from a pacing defect. It’s not as bad as Marooned or Joe Kidd, but some sequences lead nowhere. The semi-romantic scene with Colleen Dewhurst is a major plot-stopper that seems to go on four five minutes longer than it should. Dewhurst, an underrated actress, is excellent, but the dialogue never seems to know when the scene is over.

McQ has the requisite “In the Thrilling Style of Bullit!” street chase. Wayne has a sleek black beauty of a Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, although his opponents are stuck tooling around in a linen cleaning service truck. However, this is Seattle, and you know how hard the freeways are to navigate, so Wayne has a helluva task just getting on their tail. It’s a fun chase, although derivative—you can check off all the shots borrowed from French Connection and Bullit. Some innocent guy on a motorcycle wipes out; at least McQ doesn’t run down a baby carriage.
In addition to the Trans Am accessory, the film is very impressed with the new Ingram MAC-10 machine pistol. You’d think the movie would come with coupons for it the way it pushes the weapon both in the story and on the posters. But I don’t think gun dealers should just let an unlicensed cop carry an unlicensed gun out of their shop, no matter how cute a quip he makes out of the “unlicensed” business. Heck, at least get paid.
The film also has a great last line that manages to wrap up the movie better than a huge scene of explanations and bonding et al. I’ll wager it was the first line the screenwriters came up with when writing the script.

Wayne’s performance here isn’t so much laid-back as it is mannered. He’s surprisingly mellow considering he’s taking on what supposed to be the new era tough-guy character. It’s not a great performance, but it is John Wayne and the man has that special magic. He’s one of my favorite actors, and I like watching him in almost anything. Okay, maybe not The Conqueror, let’s not get crazy. (And he made that the same year as The Searchers!) He’s at his best in his scenes with Diana Muldaur who plays his dead partner’s widow, Lois. The tension between them plays out well without overdoing it.

The score from Elmer Bernstein, who wrote classic music for two of Sturges’s films, The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, provides accompaniment that’s part ‘70s groove, but with bits of Bernstein’s big sound thrown in. It’s a popular score among enthusiasts, but I like Lalo Schifrin better for this sort of material.

John Wayne would star in only three more movies after this one. He assayed the cop role again in Brannigan, reprised his Oscar-winning part of Rooster Cogburn in, ah, Rooster Cogburn with Catherin Hepburn, and gave one of the best farewells ever from a screen icon in the brilliant Western The Shootist, which paired him with Dirty Harry director Don Siegel and cast him one last time with Jimmy Stewart, who has a small role as a doctor who diagnoses Wayne’s gunfighter with cancer. Two years later, the actor himself would be diagnosed with stomach cancer, and he died on 11 June 1979 at the age of seventy-two. He is buried in Pacific View Memorial Park cemetery in Corona del Mar.

John Sturges would direct one more film, The Eagle Has Landed, before retiring in 1976. He died in 1992 with an embarrassment of riches to his credit.

Epilogue of an interesting fabrication: When I was in college I read a bizarre piece of trivia about McQ in a reference book in the student library. It claimed that when Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in the Phillipines through Proclamation No. 1081, all television stations in Manila started broadcasting McQ. Why? I don’t know, and although I clearly remember reading this trivia, I know now that it can’t be true because Marcos declared martial law in September 1972, sometime before McQ’s February 1974 release date. Whoever hatched that one . . . weird story.