Directed by John Sturges
Written by Lawrence Roman
Cinematography: Harry Stradling, Jr.
Film Editor: William H. Ziegler
Music by Elmer Bernstein
Cast: John Wayne (Det. Lt. Lon “McQ” McHugh), Eddie Albert (Capt. Edward Kosterman), Diana Muldaur (Lois), Colleen Dewhurst (Myra), Clu Gulager (Frank Toms), David Huddleston (“Pinky” Farrell), Jim Watkins (J.C.), Al Lettieri (Manny Santiago), Julie Adams (Elaine), Roger E. Mosley (Rosey)
For weeks, I had a melody stuck in my head. I knew it was from a film score, probably from the 70s, that was all I could figure out. My first thought was that it might be the work of Lalo Schifrin, or maybe part of David Shire’s score for The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (1974).
Then, watching an episode of The Rifleman, I saw the credit for the show’s producers, Jules V. Levy and Arthur Gardner. They later teamed up with John Wayne’s Batjac to make McQ (1974) and Brannigan (1975). That jogged my memory — the tune was from Elmer Bernstein’s score for McQ. I promptly pulled out the movie, which I hadn’t seen in at least a decade.
John Wayne in a contemporary cop story is a bit jarring. John Wayne in a contemporary anything is a bit jarring. Seeing him drive around in a Trans Am is odd. So is seeing a tiny snub nose revolver in Duke’s huge hands (he has a Colt Python and a S&W Model 10). That weaponry gives way to something more fitting to the great John Wayne — a MAC-10 submachine gun. But you quickly get used to all this — John Wayne is John Wayne.
They say this picture came about because Wayne turned down Dirty Harry (1971). John Sturges was brought in to direct. Sturges and Wayne working together sounds like a dream come true. It’s a shame it was this late in both their careers. Sturges’s handling of the action scenes is as masterful as ever, but it’s a lot talkier than it needs to be. This was Sturges’s next-to-last film.
Wayne is Lon McHugh, a Seattle cop. A good friend on the force is gunned down, and as he looks into it, Duke discovers there are crooked cops stealing confiscated dope and selling it, with the help of a big-time local smuggler (Al Lettieri). McQ becomes a target of the cops, the crooked cops and the bad guys. That’s not the kind of thing John Wayne approves of, and he gets to the bottom of it as the bodies and wrecked cars pile up. It plays exactly like what it is, a 70s rogue cop movie filtered through John Wayne — which means the anti-hero thing is dialed way back.
One of the picture’s highlights is its cast. Wayne’s terrific. Eddie Albert and Clu Gulager are fine as cops. David Huddelson is cool as a P.I. friend of McQ’s. Julie Adams has a single scene as Wayne’s ex-wife. And Roger E. Moseley is fun as one of Wayne’s informants.
Al Lettieri makes a swell bad guy, as always. He’d been in The Godfather (1972) and The Getaway (1972), and he’d follow McQ with Mr. Majestyk (1974). Sadly, he’d have a heart attack and pass away the next year. What a shame, he had a lot of movies left in him.
Acting honors go to Colleen Dewhurst as Myra, a waitress and addict Wayne reaches out to for information. She brings a real sadness to the role, and Wayne offering her some cocaine (taken from a smalltime crook) is heartbreaking. If you hate the rest of the movie, her scenes are worth the whole thing. Of course, she’d appeared with Wayne before, in The Cowboys (1972).
There’s a good car chase, with an interesting twist. Wayne’s in a 1973 Brewster Green Pontiac Firebird Trans Am chasing a green and yellow delivery truck. He takes a number of detours and side streets to catch up to the truck, only to spot an identical truck in his rearview mirror. Duke’s reactions and impatient slow burn behind the wheel help make for a very effective sequence.
The picture’s big finish features another car chase, this time with the crooks chasing Wayne on the beach at speeds of around 75 miles an hour, ending with an incredible car-flip stunt. Hal Needham, the stunt man who’d later turn director (Smokey And The Bandit, etc.), broke his back developing the stunt. To quote Car And Driver, “the cop flick also contains the debut of the McQ Cannon, as it has become known. Created by Hal Needham and still in use today, it allows a car to be barrel rolled without a ramp by basically fitting explosives to its undercarriage. The test run on a dry lake almost killed Needham, so the film’s spectacular beach rollover was performed by Gary McLarty.” It’s quite a scene.
Elmer Bernstein’s score is a perfect blend of 70s’ jazz-funk crime picture music and the kind of score Bernstein had written for previous Wayne movies like The Sons Of Katie Elder (1965). Bernstein has also scored Sturges pictures like The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). The composer’s work for McQ works really well for the film and (in my case at least) gets stuck in your head with ease. A CD of the complete score was released by Film Score Monthly.
During the shooting of the beach sequence, the cast and crew stayed at The Polynesian Motel in Oceans Shores. Wayne stayed on his yacht, The Wild Goose, and sailed around the area on weekends.
McQ is no Rio Bravo (1959), and it’s no Dirty Harry (1971). But it’s got a lot going for it, mainly Wayne himself. He could carry a picture without breaking a sweat. The cast is terrific and the action scenes are exceedingly well done. What more do you need?