Magnum Force (1973): Understanding Violence
Magnum Force is an action thriller featuring the return of headstrong detective Dirty Harry taking on his own kind on the streets of San Francisco. Controversial on release, it has since become a well-respected entry in the genre, considered highly influential and ahead of its time.
The early 1970s saw a rise in heavy-hitting, street-level gritty dramas that were tough, sharply critical of society and ultra violent. It was new age for cinema and many films were experimenting with limits and themes, pushing envelopes and challenging norms. The Dirty Harry series, which began in 1971, triggered a firestorm of criticism while raking in big profits at the box office. Extreme violence, especially toward women, and progressively antagonistic celebrated male behavior had many in the industry up in arms. The first film was a jarring, oppressive look at a police state mentality with scathing cynicism hurled at sweeping political and social changes.
In the second film, the tone softened a bit but the amorality of its villains and Harry’s attitude toward procedures in policy certainly hadn’t. But there were other issues. For example, one scene where a killer used drain cleaner to murder a victim was copied in real life in the horrific HiFi Murders of 1974 and had many blaming the film. (It should be noted that the Drano scene went on to be homaged in other films as well). That said, Magnum Force remains a taut, gripping, and well-directed thriller with some standout performances.
The story centers on San Francisco Police Inspector ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) tracking down a group of vigilante motorcycle cops who are systematically taking out criminals who have beaten the justice system. These are brutal slayings committed with no regard for police work, their thinking being that the courts are unreliable and can be bought. Harry, already an iconoclast in the department, investigates on his own, much to the dismay of his superiors who claim he is too aggressive and reckless, leading to a number of tense and violent showdowns.
Directed by Ted Post, Magnum Force might have been heavily criticized at the time but it is films like this that often define an era, and this, like many in this decade, would go on to earn high marks for its gritty realism. Eastwood turns in another solid turn that helped shape, the cool, smooth and confident hero, one that would become arguably the very standard by which the 80s action star was modeled. Magnum Force is one of those older films that still holds up, despite its low budget, lifted by Eastwood but also the supporting cast, which includes Hal Holbrook (Into the Wild) as Harry’s immediate supervisor and David Soul (Starsky & Hutch) as a renegade cop who thinks the courts have failed society. It’s good entertainment and like every movie, has one great moment.
First and foremost, and perhaps without saying, Harry didn’t get his moniker because he skips showers. No, ‘Dirty Harry’ earned his name because he doesn’t always play by the rules, even though he most assuredly respects them. In the first film, we learned he wears his badge with honor but also with a sense of fascism. Authority begins and ends with him, and the bad guys must go down, even if the rules he his bound by bend along the way. Violence begets violence in his world.
With that in mind, this moment is all about making a choice and begins when Harry meets four rookie motorcycle cops at a firing range who all demonstrate highly impressive shooting skills, which wins over Harry from the start. Not long after, a series of bizarre murders occur where mobsters and criminals are being systematically put down with explosives, sub-machine guns, and silenced weapons. At first, Harry thinks it’s an old friend and former cop who has fallen on hard times and became suicidal, but things change when evidence suggests something a little more troubling. Motorcycle cops have formed a death squad from inside the department, and Harry soon suspects exactly who they might be. His boss Briggs (Holbrook) however, is not convinced.
Briggs thinks it’s another mob boss doing the killing and orders Harry to lead a raid to bring him down. Harry complies but requests a couple of those rookie cops to join him. When they arrive at the boss’s estate, they quickly learn the boss has been tipped off and has men lying in wait. In the firefight that follows, one of the rookies is gunned down as well as the boss and his men. Inside though, after the raid is over, Harry finds nothing incriminating to implicate the mobster. That’s all he needs. He was set up to die.
Later, at Harry’s parking garage, he pulls in, a bit battered from the gunfight, and in the shadows, is met by three uniformed cops on motorcycles. They have a simple message: Either Harry is with them or against them. But what makes their argument compelling is the fact that, as they say, of all people, Harry should understand their position.
The judicial system, which they see as rigged, controlled by money, and corrupt in favor of wealthy criminals, has failed. By taking out high profile mobsters, they are sending a signal to both the law and the public that there is right in this world and for their actions, these killer cops should be heroes.
Led by Davis (Soul), they sit side-by-side in their leather uniforms and bright white biker helmets and dark shades on police bikes, calmly and with direct but even tones. Their suggestion that Harry should best understand them is the turning point. Perhaps not convinced Harry will really join them (hence the three of them), it’s no surprise that Harry replies with equal candor that the men have misjudged him. There is a quiet understanding between them, a sense that there is much to happen the next time they meet but for now, no action is action enough. The moment serves only as confirmation of what and who the vigilantes are and why they will proceed. Or so we think. Harry is a tough cop who may bend the rules, but never breaks them, and while he may be called “dirty,” he is never unjust and never corruptible. The cops ride away with that understanding, and ready themselves for one of their own to face them.
I love the way Post and Eastwood pit this hero against the real dirty cops. In a series known for its brutality, we have this revealing moment that is not about gunfire but is as dangerous and truthfully, far more filled with tension. Harry is positioned as the good guy, the light steaming on him while those in shadow linger with malice. The three bad cops are not cartoon characters but authentic and written so we might even back their belief, despite the manner in which they choose to practice it. There is a certain resolve to Harry as he stands there, realizing he is now a target and how where he stands makes for an easy place for them to end him. But he is not swayed by their intimidation or their cause, defiant to what he knows is the wrong answer to a good question. What happens next is the start of a deadly third act, but because of this moment, has far more weight. And while the film may not reach the same heights as its predecessor, it succeeds on its performances with this moment in a dark garage an important moment.
Magnum Force (1973)
Director: Ted Post
Writers: Harry Julian Fink, Rita M. Fink
Stars: Clint Eastwood, Hal Holbrook, Mitchell Ryan, David Soul