Today, we continue our look at the Dirty Harry film franchise by taking a look at the second film in the series, 1973′s Magnum Force.
Despite the fact that Dirty Harry famously ended with Harry Callahan throwing away his badge in disgust, Magnum Force reveals that Callahan (played again by Clint Eastwood) is still a member of the San Francisco Police Department. He’s got a new partner (Felton Perry, a likable actor in a thankless role) but he’s still butting heads with his superiors at the department. He’s also still got a way with the one-liners. When Lt. Briggs (Hal Holbrook) brags that he never once had to draw his gun while he was in uniform, Callahan replies, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
While Callahan is busying himself with doing things like gunning down robbers and preventing an attempt to hijack a plane, a group of motorcycle cops are gunning down the town’s criminals. They begin by killing a mobster who has just beaten a murder charge on a technicality but soon, they’re gunning down anyone who has ever so much as been suspected of committing a crime. Alone among the detectives investigating the murders, Callahan believes that the killers are cops and, even worse, he suspects that his old friend Charlie McCoy (played by Mitchell Ryan) might be a member of the group…
Though it suffers when compared to Dirty Harry, Magnum Force is still an exciting and effective action film that is clearly a product of the same period of time that gave us such classics of paranoid cinema as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. Whereas Dirty Harry took an almost documentary approach to capturing life and death in San Francisco, Magnum Force is a film that is full of dark shadows and expressionistic angles.
In Dirty Harry, the Scorpio Killer was both an obvious outsider and an obvious force of destruction. The film’s dramatic tension came from the fact that he was so clearly guilty and yet nothing could be done to stop him. The villains in Magnum Force are the exact opposite of Scorpio. As chillingly played by David Soul, Robert Urich, Tim Matheson, and Kip Niven, the killer cops are distinguished not by their otherness but by their total lack of individuality.
In the film’s best scene, they confront Harry in a parking garage and basically tell him that he’s either with them or against him. Sitting on their motorcycles, wearing their leather jackets, and with their grim faces hidden behind their aviator sunglasses, these cops are the ultimate representation of faceless fascism. After listening to their excuses, Harry asks if they consider themselves to be heroes.
“All of our heroes are dead,” one of them replies, delivering the film’s best line.
Obviously, Magnum Force was made to be an answer to those critics who claimed that Dirty Harry was a fascist film and it is a bit jarring, at first, to see Harry “defending” the system. (“I hate the goddamn system but until something better comes along…”) When Harry tells the killer cops, “I’m afraid you’ve misjudged me,” it’s not hard to see that this is the same message that Eastwood meant to give his critics.
However, what makes the killer cops in Magnum Force such interesting villains is that they are, ultimately, tools of the system that they’re attempting to destroy. By killing off criminals as opposed to arresting them and putting them on trial, the killer cops are minimizing the risk of the flaws inherent in the system being exposed. Hence, by defending the system, Harry is helping to expose and destroy it.
When I told Jeff that I was planning on watching and reviewing all of the Dirty Harry films, he suggested that I watch them in reverse-order. His logic was that, since the films tended to get worse as the series progressed, watching them backwards would allow me to end my project on a happy note as opposed to a note of bitter disappointment. I took his advice and I’m glad I did. While I disagree with him about whether or not The Dead Pool is a better film than Sudden Impact, I do have to agree that the first two Dirty Harry films are dramatically better (and quite different in tone) from the ones that subsequently followed.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the third film in the series, 1976′s The Enforcer.