From the back of the box: “After his best friend, Sgt. Stan Boyle, is shotgunned to death, Lt. Lon McQ finds himself in trouble with his superiors when he beats up the man he believes was responsible, Manny Santiago.”
“Shotgunned to death.” What a turn of phrase. Is being “slightly shotgunned” a thing? “Shotgunned a bit.” Also, come to think of it, is McQ even a name?
Legend has it that John Wayne turned down the role of Harry Callahan because he didn’t want to play an anti-hero. That did not, however, stop him from dipping his toes in the “gritty urban crime thriller” pool. McQ was the first of two excellent entries in the genre he starred in, the other being the following year’s somewhat lighter Brannigan.
Despite it’s Dirty Harry-style underpinnings, McQ is at its core a film noir, with all the double crosses and troubled dames you could hope for. There are nods to The Maltese Falcon and Farewell My Lovely and that classic noir trope the McGuffin is present, if in the very ’70s shape of a truckload of drugs. It starts as a cop thriller but McQ soon hands in his badge to become the most noir of protagonists, a private eye. However, he is neither the standard pulp-era hard-boiled cynic nor the amoral ’70s anti hero. Nearing retirement, he’s seen it all and though, as is the way in these films, he’s willing to play hard and fast with the small matter of suspects’ rights, he is at heart an old-fashioned good guy. When Wayne delivers a very of-its-day line about “women’s lib”, he does it with a cheerfully rueful acceptance, Lawrence Roman’s script hinting at the changing times without overplaying its hand.
The capable supporting cast includes a raft of industry stalwarts of the day (several of whom had appeared in then-recent Wayne vehicles) – Eddie Albert, David Huddleston, Clu Gulager and William Bryant as well as future TV regulars Diana Muldaur, Julian Christopher and Roger E.Mosley. Not forgetting of course Al Lettieri as Santiago in full “slimy bad guy” mode.
The most memorable performance in the film is Colleen Dewhurst’s note perfect informant, Myra. In a layered, sympathetically played scene recalling Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely (and a likely influence on the 1975 film adaptation), McQ visits her to get information. He pays her in cocaine and ends up sleeping with her. A less typically “John Wayne” scenario is difficult to imagine.
Of course, there’s plenty of action here. Directed by genre giant John Sturges (Bad Day at Black Rock, The Magnificent Seven), McQ uses its Seattle locations to great effect, with fast cars and shootouts galore. There are memorable set pieces (McQ in his Trans Am being crushed between two trucks, a climactic beach front car chase) aided in no small measure by some terrific music. Really, apart from Wayne, the star of this film might just be Elmer Bernstein’s score, one of his best. The bold, brassy main theme fits Wayne to a ‘T’.
The urban thrillers of the 1970s produced many memorable movies from Dirty Harry to Death Wish and Get Carter. If McQ doesn’t quite sit at the top of that list, it certainly has its place alongside some of the lesser known gems of the era like Shamus, Sitting Target and Night Moves.
I watched this on VHS, a pre-cert rental copy that I picked up a few years ago for not cheap. This was due to there never having been a UK DVD release, though a glance at eBay shows me that US versions are now available at a reasonable price. There’s also recently been a reportedly very decent Blu Ray release, again USA only. These have to be worth checking out as the VHS print suffers noticeably from being panned and scanned.