Critics have rarely cracked the whip harder than on the Dirty Harry film series, which follows the exploits of a trigger-happy San Francisco cop named Harry Callahan and his junior partners, usually not long for this world. On its release in 1971, Dirty Harry was trounced as 'fascist medievalism' by the potentate of the haut monde critic set, Pauline Kael, as well as aspiring Kaels like young Roger Ebert. Especially irksome to the criterati was a key moment in the film when Inspector Callahan, on the trail of an elusive serial sniper, is reprimanded by his superiors for not taking into account the suspect's Miranda rights. Callahan replies, through clenched teeth, "Well, I'm all broken up about that man's rights." Take that, Miranda.
Pauline Kael never forgave Clint Eastwood for that statement or for making Dirty Harry, and she was on hand to set her hooks into the inevitable sequel that followed in 1973, Magnum Force. Of that film she wrote: "Clint Eastwood isn't offensive. He isn't an actor, so one could hardly call him a bad actor....And acting isn't required of him in Magnum Force, which takes its name from the giant's phallus." She also railed at the film for the same mistakes as Dirty Harry, namely portraying the act of killing as disassociated from reality. "A tall, cold cod like Eastwood removes the last pretensions to human feeling from the action melodrama, making it an impersonal, almost abstract exercise in brutalization."
The rejection of Magnum Force must have felt, on some level, like a slap in the face to Eastwood, who made the film as a direct answer to the critics of Dirty Harry who thought that film was openly advocating law-sanctioned vigilantism. In Magnum Force, the villains are dirty cops - dirtier than Harry. Not that Harry ever turns into a pinko or anything, but it's interesting to note that Magnum is the only Dirty Harry film in which the carefully chosen villains are not symbolically loaded to stroke right-wing agitation. (Dirty Harry - a drug-addled psychotic; The Enforcer - anti-Vietnam revolutionaries; Sudden Impact - a crazed female, killing men; The Dead Pool - Hollywood degenerates)
Cultural or philosophical issues aside, however, Magnum Force is also a surprisingly well-directed thriller, head and shoulders above the other entries in the series in both substance and style. The story is simple: a cadre of first-year motorcycle cops form a death squad in order to take out the city's untouchable criminals, thinking they can bolster what is, in the Dirtyverse, a catastrophically impotent justice system. Detective Callahan is slowly drawn into the plot after noticing the world-class marksmanship of the supposedly green rookies on a firing range. While going through the motions of searching for a suspect in a series of execution-style murders of known criminals, he starts a parallel investigation to find the real culprits. Things quickly come to a head in a dark parking garage, where, poised on their Moto Guzzi bikes, the killer CHIPS confront Harry and invite him to join their gang:
Astrachan: Do you have any idea how hard it is to prosecute a cop?
Callahan: You heroes killed a dozen people this week. What are you gonna do next week?
Davis: Kill a dozen more.
Callahan: Is that what you guys are all about? Being heroes?
Davis: We're the first generation that's learned to fight. We're simply ridding society of killers that would be caught and sentenced anyway if our courts worked properly. It's not just a question of whether or not to use violence. There simply is no other way, Inspector. You....of all people...should understand that.
Grimes: Either you're for us or you're against us.
It's a tense, fatalistic confrontation, bearing not only the mark of screenwriter John Milius (Jaws, Apocalypse Now) but also of Clint Eastwood's impressive directorial style. Eastwood, then a producer and aspiring director, had a public falling-out with director Ted Post during the filming of Magnum Force and more or less took control of the picture. Post went on record saying that his directing of the film had been "countermanded." Perhaps so, but despite the power struggle, the end result is excellent. The film sparkles with little details that stick in the memory, such as a late scene when a villain tries to aim a gun while wiping blood out of his eyes, and a moment on a firing range when Harry Callahan walks blithely away from a pop-up cardboard cop as it topples over.
Hal Holbrook also shines as Briggs, breathing life into what was, even in the 70s, the most shopworn bromide in modern film: the angry police captain. With his hooded eyes and Southern dandy demeanor, Holbrook is able to easily switch from gentleman to slimy huckster with a few twitches of his caterpillar eyebrows. Albert Popwell is also memorable in the film as a pimp who runs afoul of the motorcycle gang. In one of the quirks of the series, which I'm completely at a loss to explain, Popwell appeared in four out of five of the Dirty Harry films, but playing a different character each time.
All of the Dirty Harry films make for interesting time capsule material, if for no other reason than their jarring cultural anachronisms, of one stripe or another. Take, for instance, the bizarre, wocka-wocka 70s scores that seem positively pornographic today, or the frank bigotry of the Harry Callahan character (In The Enforcer, he responds to a gesture from a group of black men with "That's mighty white of you") or the feeling of post-Vietnam malaise that creeps into the frame in the early films; the notion that taking back the streets was almost impossible. Whose side was the public really on - were they with the cops in the trenches or the pencil-pushing lawyers? A question like this sounds dated to us, but lest we forget, being politically anti-cop and anti-military was something less than off-limits in this period. Whether you want to relive the 70s or you just want a top-shelf police thriller, Magnum Force is a great choice.