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Chapter 40: The Tough Cop

The tough cop genre is definitely coming into its own. On TV, the new Kojak series, starring the tough and cynical Telly Savales, has become one of the best shows on television. In the movies, it is particularly significant that two of the great Western heroes have recently shifted to the tough cop role. As urban crime has become the concern of ever greater numbers of Americans, the tough crime fighter—in this case John Wayne and Clint Eastwood—has doffed his horse and ten gallon hat for the Magnum and the police badge.

John Wayne moves into the role of tough cop hero in McQ, directed by John Sturges. There is no such thing as a bad John Wayne picture, and it is good to have Big John, or Lt. McQ, on hand to carry on a one-man struggle against the rackets and against crooked colleagues. And yet, the picture is no better than workmanlike. It is surprisingly slow, for one thing, and the creaky action only highlights the age of Wayne and Eddie Albert. Also, the standard behavior of the females in falling all over the hero lacks a certain amount of credibility in the case of the aging Wayne. Al Lettieri makes a promising, shambling villain, but the female leads lend no help: Diana Muldaur seems to have only one expression: hangdog, while Colleen Dewhurst—billed on all sides as one of the great actresses of our epoch—croaks her way through a terrible performance. Warning to Warner Brothers: if McQ is going to stick around, you’d better come up with faster action and a better director.

The tough cop picture has done far better by Clint Eastwood. His first effort, in Dirty Harry, was one of the great films of the last several years. The leftist intellectuals virtually sputtered with fury over Dirty Harry, for here was Eastwood as Inspector Harry Callahan of San Francisco stalking a mad dog killer while being subverted and hobbled at every hand by liberals, politicians, and bleeding hearts. Dirty Harry, apart from being fast and exciting, was an explicitly right-wing, anti-criminal-coddling movie, and thus drove the liberal critics to inchoate rage. But it was not only the movie and its theme that aggravated them; it was also Eastwood himself. For of all the heroes in movies, Eastwood is the most ruthless, the most implacable, in his battle for the right and against criminal aggression. The critics who scorn Eastwood for his “lack of acting ability” don’t understand the character that he is creating. For Eastwood’s implacable calm is the result of his decisiveness, his ability to make instant—and correct—decisions in the midst of drama and danger, to make what he knows are the right decisions without moping or agonizing. Hence, Clint Eastwood is the polar opposite of the whining modern anti-hero beloved by the avant-garde. In a sense, the left intelligentsia were quite right in identifying Eastwood—or rather the Eastwood figure—as their deadly enemy. Hence their vituperation.

Now dirty Harry is back, in Magnum Force, directed by Ted Post. Like its predecessor, it is fast, tough, and exciting, beginning with a dramatic shot of Harry Callahan’s Magnum revolver, and continuing to the final reel. If it is a bit less rightwing or less exciting than its predecessor, it remains one of the best movies of recent months.

The plot is particularly interesting in the light of the previous picture. At the end of Dirty Harry, Harry had tossed his badge into the river, the symbol of his disgust with the liberal, criminal-coddling System. At the beginning of Magnum Force, Harry is inexplicably back in the police force; early into the picture, he finds that the killers he seeks are a group of young police rookies organized into a paramilitary squad to wreak vengeance upon criminals whom the courts let loose. Harry rejects what seem to be youthful disciples of his own creed, and defends law and order against them. Why does he do so? Unfortunately, Harry doesn’t seem to be able to articulate his own position, confining himself to: “You guys misunderstood me,” and “I hate the System too, but you’ve got to stay within it until a better one comes along.” Has Harry gone liberal? I think we can reassure Harry fans that it ain’t so. If Harry could spell out his own position, perhaps he would say that he exacted vengeance on his own against a mad-dog monster, and not against mere racketeers; also his was an individual response, and not an organized gang—a gang, by the way, that committed unforgivable excesses, including the murder of fellow policemen. No, Harry has not gone liberal; his is the optimum degree of “dirt,” neither bleeding-heart nor fascist. Long may he prosper.

[Reprinted from Libertarian Forum 6, no. 1 (1974).]