Dirty cops and clean living in McQ
It’s 1974. John Wayne is 67. John Sturges is 64. Wayne is the “Duke.” Sturges directed Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). So, fuck off if you think they still need to impress you.
Wayne stars as Lieutenant Lon McQ of the Seattle P.D., a hard-ass with a sports car. His partner, Detective Stan Boyle (William Bryant), is also a drug dealer and cop assassin, gunned down at the start of the picture after disposing of the weapon he uses to kill two officers. McQ’s in the dark about Boyle’s criminal life and gets dragged in when a hit is attempted on his own life. He’s soon on the hunt for Boyle’s killer, seeking help from Boyle’s widow Lois (Diana Muldaur) and coked-out mistress Myra (the awesome Colleen Dewhurst), a pimp informer named Rosey (Roger E. Mosley, pre-Magnum, P.I.), and McQ’s only friend on the force, Franklin Toms (Clu Gulager).
McQ works the fringe and burns the ass of his superior, Captain Kosterman (Eddie Albert), a pig-headed bureaucrat hot to throw McQ out on his rear. When a heist pulls in $2M worth of heroin, McQ is dead sure that the hit on Boyle was ordered by Manny Santiago (Al Lettieri), a drug runner doubling as a construction magnate. McQ confronts Santiago about it and roughs him up in a bar bathroom, costing McQ his badge.
Out on indefinite leave, McQ hires himself out as a private eye to dig up the goods on Santiago under the cover of a local gumshoe named Pinky (David Huddleston – the Big Lebowski in The Big Lebowski ). McQ borrows five grand from his ex-wife, buys a new gun, and steals cocaine from a dealer to butter Myra up for information. Santiago orchestrates a robbery of the confiscated heroin before it’s incinerated. When McQ eventually slips his way into Santiago’s office, Santiago is there to greet him and let him in on the fact that what he actually robbed was powdered sugar. The junk was swapped out by someone in the Department and Santiago had nothing to do with Boyle’s death. McQ is desperate for answers. The uniformed cop shot dead by Boyle before he got it in the back worked the evidence room and when McQ’s dark green Firebird is crushed by two tankers and impounded, he makes the connection. The drugs were hidden in his car by Boyle and handed over to Lois. The only missing piece is the dirty cop helping her out. Lois looks to make a run for it with McQ. She says her late husband’s “grabbing” is no different than other cops on the take or bribed judges. This a chance to go away. McQ isn’t buying and knows there’s nowhere left to go but into the shit storm with Santiago, double-dealt and still on the heroin’s trail. The film’s final sequence reveals Toms as Lois’s insider and lands McQ on the beach, taking out Toms, Santiago and crew.
Sturges knows all about strong leads and the outsider hero. He perfected the model with Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock and gets it right again here with Wayne. Sturges sets up snapshots of McQ’s character and environment. He lives on a boat in the marina, drives a car too sexy and fast for his age, and doesn’t think twice about popping someone in the mouth. More on Wayne later.
Overall, there isn’t a misstep in the casting, except for Kim Sanford, who plays McQ’s daughter in a very brief bit of a scene. She’s cute as hell, but can’t act worth a dick. Her lines were either awfully dubbed or she didn’t quite make it in porn-acting school. It’s bad, inconsequential and hilarious. Since she’s never appeared in anything else (at least according to IMDB), she was probably somebody’s something or other, owed a favor, or blew the right guy on set.
And now to the good ones. Albert is the police politician, spouting just the right amount of bullshit. Gulager’s voice and inflection as Detective Toms are something out of a 1950s sitcom and serve to make him appear sympathetic, smartly inflated and then left alone until McQ puts one in his chest. When Toms shows up at Lois’s place and finds McQ there, it all looks harmless and unrehearsed. He shares a scotch and water, and projects an eternal apology for what each of them has gone through. Lettieri’s Santiago is slimy and slouching, always needing to look up and talk big as the smallest man in the room with the most to lose. (Read more about Al Lettieri in William Boyle’s review of The Getaway .)
Muldaur’s Lois is a widow fighting back tears – of joy or pain, we can never tell. Her performance is all in the body and eyes. She’s stiff as a board when commiserating with McQ about Boyle’s death. Seemingly confused by what’s going on. At first, calling McQ her “brother,” and then switching the flirt on when she’s got him and the drugs on the run. Sturges figured the trick was to keep as much of her full figure in frame whenever he could. There’s a weightlessness in her movement. She’s fragile and unbreakable all at once. And she’s a looker to boot.
The tragedy here is the limited amount of screen time given to Colleen Dewhurst. She’s fantastic. Her only significant scene is shared with McQ when we first meet Myra, who tends bar to cops and crooks alike. She appears only once more to be killed off. Dewhurst plays it like a junkie milkshake. Stirred, thick and tasty, she sweats out McQ’s presence with a cold shoulder, and turns sweet when she sees the powdery treat he’s brought for her. She never takes her eyes off McQ. Not when she puts the record on. Not when she laments her aging face in the mirror, keeping a clean sight on him in the background. And not when she surrenders to his interrogation. The coke opens her up. It makes her vulnerable. She says things to him you wouldn’t dare think she would’ve said five minutes ago. She invites him to bed and offers breakfast in the morning.
Scenes like these are representative of ’70s crime flicks. Minimal cuts where nothing is rushed. Slow and purposeful and meandering, like Myra. There’s no break-neck urge to get to the point. The lull is the point. It’s detective work. It’s posturing. It’s supposed to stagger and stumble and steal a moment or two of our attention.
Shot on location in Seattle, the film’s setting is an odd choice. Seattle is not New York. It’s not Chicago. Not L.A. It’s new, clean and open. Mapped like a postcard between Puget Sound and Lake Washington. Aerated against the Cascades. Even the wheelchair wheeled in by McQ’s nurse at the hospital is the nicest-looking wheelchair I’ve ever seen. But you could swear that the opening scenes look like Manhattan’s East Side under the FDR Drive, or the Gowanus in Brooklyn. There’s great effect in the split shadows and light washing over the buildings, and the cranes reaching into the foggy sky. Seattle looks unfinished. But the film could do with a little more filth. Rosey’s girls need to be hookers in action, and dusting up McQ’s ride with some gravel and sand is just not enough to overcome the beautiful coastline and roads that looked like they were paved yesterday.
The biggest problem is the script. It’s okay, but there’s too much spoken exposition and the plot sometimes gets in the way. And the movie runs too long, which only further exposes the weaknesses in the writing and sacrifices momentum. Maybe all the action scenes, car chases and flying bullets that the budget could buy needed to stay in. But there’s a pile of extraneous characters. We don’t need McQ’s run-in with a punk kid. And we take time out for his ex and her new husband, who never show their faces again. This time could have been spent on Myra. It could’ve been used to explore Lois’s relationship with Toms. Or it could just have been cut altogether.
Wayne is good. He’s very good. And he looks good too. Fit and feisty. And don’t mind the hairpiece much. He was old and a cancer survivor by the time the picture was made. What sets his performance apart from others during this time is McQ’s lack of self-doubt. Wayne’s a throwback to Golden Age good guys, but he embraces the nuances of the ’70s, where right and wrong are fluid concepts, grounded more in outcome than methods. He feeds Myra cocaine without second-thought, even rolling a c-note for her to use. He runs Santiago’s head through a mirror and straight jabs his mug without reflection. And when Lois pours her heart out, he isn’t swayed. He kicks her ass to jail. Wayne’s horseback heroes had an iron will. Emotions ran hot from anger to compassion, but internal struggles were squashed. If the job calls for drugs and police brutality, so be it.
Surprisingly, in storied careers that spanned over thirty and fifty years, respectively, this was the only time Sturges and Wayne worked together. So, you can understand why Sturges showcases Wayne. He’s in practically every scene and gets some James Bond treatment. He has his own theme music, composed by Elmer Bernstein, which sounds like a jazzed-up carnival tune. He has a sweet ride meant more for young bucks with stupid ideas in their heads. He sleeps with a barmaid. He gets into a shootout after a ridiculously fun car chase on the beach. And he’s armed with a bad-ass silencer-capped submachine gun. Yes, a MAC-10 with a silencer.
Director: John Sturges
Screenplay: Lawrence Roman
Producer(s): Arthur Gardner, Jules Levy, Lawrence Roman
Starring: John Wayne, Diana Muldaur, Colleen Dewhurst, Eddie Albert, Al Lettieri, David Huddleston, Roger E. Mosley, Clu Gulager
Release Date: 1974
DVD available here.