Thursday, September 15, 2011

Magnum Force

 " A man's got to know his limitations. "

Harry Callahan to his superior Lt Briggs.

 After the disappointment of my re-visit to 1988's , The Dead Pool, which I consider the poorest of the 'Dirty Harry' films, 1973's Magnum Force was a relief. Opinions are divided as to whether this is the best of the series or whether 1971's Dirty Harry reigns supreme. I'm not sure on which I think is the better of the two as it is very rare that a sequel equals, or betters, the original. But ever since I first saw Magnum Force I have, in hindsight, always considered it my personal favorite.

 Suffice to say though that both Dirty Harry and Magnum Force are far superior to the next three films. All of which were poor sequels to say the least. Like so many films I have watched recently I haven't watched Magnum Force for nearly 30 years. When younger I thought it one of the coolest films ever!! After last night I still like this film....a lot, and not just as a Dirty Harry outing.

 Filmed in 1973 using Clint Eastwood's Malpaso Company, the film takes Harry in a different direction. In Dirty Harry Callahan was seen as an almost vigilante cop. In Magnum Force Eastwood wanted this changed, and had screenwriter John Milius tone down this aspect of the character, whilst keeping his dislike of  'the system' and crims. In fact it is Harry himself who is investigating the murders of San Francisco's worst criminals. Everything starts to point to a group of rogue traffic cops who have formed a quasi death squad within the police department.

I really liked the premise of Magnum Force. Even as a maverick, who would almost be expected to side with the vigilante cops, Harry keeps within system he despises. This is superb scripting, because even though Harry is his own man he is still a cop, and there to uphold the law. There is the classic scene where the three surviving rouge cops ask Harry to join them, but Harry says to them, " I'm afraid you've misjudged me. " This of course exposes their hand and makes Harry a marked man.  

 Harry realises this and warns his partner as such. Of course it leads to the letterbox bombs, and Brigs turning up to take Harry away, and finish him off for good. It leads to another great scene where Harry again displays his seemingly out of character view, that it is better to go with the system, than against it. Lt. Briggs says to Harry citing his frontier rhetoric, " You're a great cop, Harry... But you'd rather stick with the system. " Harry retortes " I hate the goddamn system, but until someone comes along with some changes that make some sense I'll stick with it. " There is no question that Harry does things his own way, but he will stay within the law to do so.

 So in Magnum Force we still get Harry Callahan, but in the light of who he really is as a cop compared to his Dirty Harry image. But even though Magnum Force isn't quite as bleak, or nasty as Dirty Harry, it is in no way less violent. When you realise this was the early 1970's this was an incredibly graphic film. But not only in its violence but in its use of nude girls. The scene I always remember most from this film is the scene where the naked girl is shot, and falls off the balcony of the building. But conversely, while violent and uses nudity, it is surprisingly free of foul language.

 Interestingly Magnum Force launched the careers for several of its young actors. The more obvious one being that of David Soul who plays John Davis. He of course went on to fame in Starsky and Hutch. Robert Urich went on to Spenser for Hire. The topless blonde girl in the pool scene is no less than Susanne Sommers, who went on to star in Three's Company. Of course Hal Holbrook was a more than established star, and as of writing is still alive aged 86 ( his last film appearance being in Water for Elephants ).

A typical shot, and one that defines the film.
 At a shade over 120 minutes long Magnum Force is the longest of the series. Compare that against the disgracefully short 89 minutes of The Dead Pool. This is even with two deleted scenes that explore in greater detail Harry's growing suspicions of of Davis, Grimes, Astrachan, and Sweet. When released Magnum Force was a commercial success and eventually grossed US$58 million in the US alone. But it received a mixed critical response from 'more of the same', to Pauline Kael, a harsh Eastwood critic, mocking his performance writing, " He isn't an actor, so one could hardly call him a bad actor. He'd have to do something before we could consider him bad at it. And acting isn't required of him in Magnum Force."

 The film whilst violent has one scene that is ugly, even by today's standards. It is there to instill a feeling of sympathy for what the vigilante cops are doing, but it pushed things a bit to far for me. I refer of course to the scene where the prostitute has a tin of drain cleaner forced down her throat by her pimp. The scene actually became a source of controversy in 1974 because it was used in a copy cat murder attempt in Utah. Several victims of a family were forced to drink drain cleaner as the murderers were looking for a unique murder method. Unfortunately we can't stop clowns like this mirroring what they see on the screen, but this scene had me thinking for some time. I don't particularly like it and think the prostitute should have killed of in a more conventional, less distasteful, manner.

 John Millus was the screenplay writer and was a gun aficionado. This led to several things about Magnum Force. The opening credit scene of the hand and .44 Magnum are his inspiration. It is actually the only opening credits of a Dirty Harry film that did not include San Francisco scenery as a backdrop. In the process Millus added in the words " Do ya feel lucky ", as he felt it important to remind the audience of the first film. The whole film has a strong gun theme which includes practice, competition, and on the job shooting. Due to this the initial title of Vigilance, was changed to Magnum Force, in recognition of Harry's .44, and the vigilante's use of the police issue .357 Magnum Colt Python.

 An interesting aside is that at Eastwood's suggestion the character of Sunny, Harry's Asian neighbour/love interest, be added in. This was due to Eastwood receiving numerous letters from female fans who wanted to see ' a female hit on Harry ', and not the other way around. Later we see Harry save her life before she opens his mail box with the bomb inside.

 So is Magnum Force the best Dirty Harry film? I wish I had been able to watch Dirty Harry first, and then this, because I could give a more definite answer. But without question it is at least the second best. I think though that Magnum Force is my absolute favorite. The thing that interested me was the scenes and images I liked as a teen. They have all stuck with me. I think they have stayed with me more than any from Dirty Harry. In the process I feel they have defined the film. The freeway scenes in particular still look great. I always loved the mirror shots with a traffic cop in it as they are so sinister, as we know what is coming.

A brilliant shot, and the type that has stayed with me for 30 years.
 But even as an early 1970's film it still stands up well. Sure some of effects have dated, but the overall visual aspects of the film haven't. I still think it is a great looking film even though it is not one for the great films of the era. But somehow the 1970's feel is what makes this film. If anything I think Magnum Force has only strengthened over the years, rather than weakened, as the next three films have done so markedly.

 Surprisingly for such a strong film I believe Clint Eastwood acted the asshole on set. He had clashes with director Ted Post with Post wondering who was the director! Because Malpaso was his company Eastwood wanted to make the film as quickly and smoothly as possible. Traits the company is now synonymous with. Post felt that Eastwood rushed scenes without taking the time to perfect them. He states some scenes in reality were only about 70% acceptable. And yet Eastwood countered with the comment he knew what the audience would accept. Either way the final product for me is a fine film that I still immensely enjoyed.

 Magnum Force then is probably the best of the Dirty Harry series. The script and premise are excellent. The shots taken on the freeways of San Francisco still look magnificent, and define the film for me. The traffic cop in mirror shots are still sinister, and for me the visual aspects of the film have stood up well, considering it is nearly a 40 year old film. It isn't quite as nasty as its predecessor, but the murder of the prostitute is somewhat suspect, even though this is a violent film. And whilst it cannot, and never will be, regarded as one of the 1970's great films, it is still a fine one none the less. I'm sure all Clint Eastwood fans still love it. I do, and have since I first saw it many, many years ago.

 An iconic Clint Eastwood film that has stood the test of time extremely well. For me, more than anything, the shots of the San Francisco freeways and streets define this film. They are still visually appealing as they ever were. And we get the same Dirty Harry, but in a more 'with the system' approach!!

IMDB has this with 7/10 which is about right I feel.

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