Of all the genres and sub-genres in the history of Hollywood filmmaking, there is one that ranks above all others as being my favorite. Surprisingly, it has no name, yet when it is referred to by students and historians of film such as me, is instantly recognized and understood by all.
With no official appellation, we are left to encapsulate and label it using any number of adjectives and descriptors. My typical go-to is something along the lines of “the gritty, realistic neo-noir crime films of the late-1960s to mid-1 970s.”
There are a number of reasons why this phantom genre is my favorite. Not only does it contain some of the greatest films of the era, but many received massive box-office takes and a multitude of Golden Globe and Academy awards. Titles such as Bullitt, The French Connection, The Driver, and The Seven Ups rank high amongst the group.
Of course, these movies have commonalities such as hard cops, vicious bad guys, gratuitous gunplay, and milieus featuring the trash-strewn streets of America’s biggest cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
If you’re really paying attention, though, you’ll also note that these films contain unforgettable and ground-breaking car chase sequences involving some of the most iconic muscle cars of the era.
Can you catch the drift as to why these movies are amongst my favorites? Yeah, I thought you could.
The 1974 “gritty, realistic neo-noir crime film”, McQ, resides in this pantheon, and as such, will be our focus for this month’s edition of Rob’s Car Movie Review.
McQ was produced by Warner Brothers in association with Levy-Gardner Productions and Batjac Productions and was distributed in the United States by Warner Brothers.
Legendary director John Sturges, of Bad Day at Black Rock, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Magnificent Seven, and The Great Escape fame helmed the film based on a script by Lawrence Roman.
The movie was a vehicle for John Wayne, who wanted to get away from the Western genre that had made him a star and encompassed a majority of the films he made. Co-starring was Eddie Albert, Diana Muldaur, Colleen Dewhurst, David Huddleston, and Al Lettieri.
Wayne plays Lon “McQ” McHugh, a Seattle police detective, who wakes up one morning to learn that his longtime friend and fellow officer, Stan Boyle, has been gunned down along with two other police officers. His bad morning is exacerbated when McQ is shot at by, and kills, a known hitman.
Believing the shootings are the work of left-wing militants, the head of the homicide investigation, Captain Edward Kosterman (Albert), immediately orders a dragnet and brings in dozens of politically extreme students and street folk. McQ vehemently disagrees with Kosterman and puts the blame at the feet of local shipping magnate and suspected narcotics dealer Manny Santiago (Lettieri), a man he and Boyle had been trying to pin drug offenses on.
Despite being warned by Kosterman to leave the investigation alone, McQ begins to tail Santiago. Upon learning that Boyle has died of his injuries, McQ lets his temper get the better of him, and savagely beats Santiago. As a result, Kosterman confines McQ to desk duty, which prompts McQ to resign from the force.
Enlisting the help of friend and local private investigator, Pinky (Huddleston), McQ uncovers a plot by Santiago to steal confiscated cocaine and heroin from the police department’s evidence vault.
After a failed pursuit of the crew who perpetrated the heist, McQ breaks into Santiago’s office but is discovered by Santiago and his henchmen. Santiago reveals to McQ that the drugs he stole turned out to be powdered sugar, and suggests that the real drugs had to have been stolen over time by corrupt members of the police force.
McQ talks with Boyle’s widow, Lois (Mulduar), who seems to know more than she is letting on. After this, McQ puts all he has discovered together in his mind and realizes that the murders of Boyle and the other officers were committed by higher-ups in the force trying to cover up their theft and sale of the drugs. Enraged, McQ decides to take on the dirty cops by himself.
In many ways, McQ plays like a poor man’s Bullitt or Dirty Harry, and in fact, the ties between the three films are numerous. Wayne had been searching for an action vehicle in which he could play a cop for several years and had been passed on for both Bullitt and Dirty Harry because he was deemed too old.
Like Bullitt, McQ was originally intended to be a vehicle for Steve McQueen, who ultimately passed on the project fearing typecasting. When Wayne landed the role, the script had to be extensively rewritten for the 66-year-old actor. And indeed, Wayne feels grossly out of place here, trying to fit the role of action hero and ladies’ man.
The plot of McQ is rather convoluted and plays out at a pace that makes it seem way longer than its one hour and 51-minute run time. The acting, with the exception of Al Lettieri, who puts in a typically strong performance, is largely forgettable, and at times downright wooden.
The lighting, camerawork, and editing are equally banal compared to the likes of Bullitt, and could easily belong to a period movie-of-the-week or soap opera. There are many continuity errors scattered throughout the film, and more than once, truly awful match-on-action cuts.
Having said all that though, McQ is not a terrible film, and in fact, has its moments.
Firearm enthusiasts will revel in the first screen appearance of the MAC-10 submachine gun with its iconic two-stage suppressor, which McQ uses to good effect against the baddies.
And then there’s the cars and automotive action. There is a bevy of truly awesome cars in the film, as well as two superlative chases.
The hero car is McQ’s 1973 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. Painted in glorious, and rare Brewster Green – a dark forest shade – the car looks especially good without all of the typical Trans Am accouterments like screaming chickens, stripes or the 5-mph bumpers that the next model year car would be saddled with. Accentuating the stealthy, plain-Jane look are the stock Rallye II Wheels shod in meaty, white-letter Firestone tires.
The interior of McQ’s car is also neat and stock, with a black vinyl interior, chrome engine-turned dash inlay, and a floor console shifter for the Turbo Hydramatic three-speed slushbox.
The two cars used in the film did indeed pack the 455ci Super-Duty V8s that the Trans Am was famous for, which were good for 310 ponies and 390 lb-ft of twist. Sharp-eared viewers, though, will note another tie-in with Bullitt, as most of the Trans Am’s sounds in the movie were stolen from Frank Bullitt’s Mustang! Only John Sturges and his sound effects crew would know why, since a ’73 Trans Am 455 SD typically sounded pretty good on its own.
McQ puts the spurs to his steed in a lengthy chase of a laundry truck containing the drugs from the heist, which sees him thrashing the car on a dirt road, doing burnouts, making a couple of Bullitt-style jumps over hills, and racing down various Seattle alleyways at high speed. Sadly, the Trans Am sees its untimely end as it is crushed between two big-rigs in a pivotal scene. Shame on you, Hollywood.
Another great car used in the film is Stan Boyle’s wife, Lois’ 1969 Plymouth Belvedere sedan. Also painted a lovely shade of green, McQ uses it in the film’s final chase on a beach. With that grille and what possibly sounds like a 383 cubic inch V8, it’s a very cool four-door indeed.
The non-featured cars in McQ are like a Golden Era car show. In addition to the requisite police Dodge Polaras, Ford Galaxie 500s, and Plymouth Furys, I spied a 1970 Dodge Challenger, a ’72 Charger, a ’70 Mustang, and a host of other excellent muscle cars while watching.
McQ is the kind of film that couldn’t get made today: complicated, slow-paced, and starring a sexagenarian lead actor. While not an awful film, it lacks much of what made Bullitt and Dirty Harry such classics of the genre. As such, McQ feels much like an also-ran, except for the most avid John Wayne fans. I give it six out of ten pistons.