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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Wayne Mops Up Seattle Streets

McQ (1974) Is Duke In Twilight and Modern Dress

I get sneaking notion that, given choice of John Waynes to watch, most would just as soon it be a McQ, or Brannigan, or Big Jake, as any of the rest. Too many of classics are over-exposed, or served in too deep a dish, like freighted-with-politics The Searchers, which revisionists now call "not enjoyable." Will they realize (or admit) that their own over-analysis has made it so? TCM ran the 70's three last week, in succession, and in wide HD, to benefit of each, and maybe it was relief to have Wayne in stuff you could half-watch while steaks grill or books get read. He's heavy (or tactfully: well-fed), rug-bedecked (did villainy ever think to snatch off his piece?), and isolated (Duke seldom gets to "belong" in late vehicles). McQ has odor of a Starsky/Hutch or other TV chase after "dirty" cops or dealers with their "junk," Wayne too long at the fair (age 66) being understood at the time. Sick abed John Ford made near-an-end note of Duke "playing policeman in some rubbish," instead of being nearer Palm Desert to visit, the old man knowing well a reality of jobs taken just to stay active.

So what is good about McQ? I found several things to like, this a first ever view --- like others, I ducked it when new (McQ took years to break even, says Scott Eyman's definitive Wayne bio). Actually, the thing works as clinical exam of an icon on plod to career close. Seems Wayne knew McQ for "pedestrian" work it was, but who was offering better? Modern-dress action wasn't unknown to him, as witness contempo investigation Duke ran as Big Jim McLain in 1952, relaxed and engaging coat-tie work to make us wish he'd been a detective more often. McQ borrowed off Bullitt, Wayne making McQueenish noise in a Trans-Am, critics/public in '74 seeing McQ as his answer to Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry. Inhibiting was belief by Wayne/Batjac that his was still a "family" audience, thus violence/sex kept below "R" level. A sharper edge to the knife might have renewed his action brand, but Wayne wasn't for assuming such risk at so late a date, and he'd not approve explicit stuff in any case.

Seattle location is a help --- again, it was Steve McQueen who taught H'wood to set action on (actual) streets, having insisted on S.F. authenticity for Bullitt, which others emulated once they saw success of his. Based on theory that a big man needs a big gun, Duke gets his cannon to dwarf Eastwood's comparative pea-shooter, and it's fun seeing him knock out carloads of villainy with a single shot. Good players who'd lately done better movies are along, Al Lettieri to evoke The Godfather, Eddie Albert anticipating a later the same year The Longest Yard. Anyone who worked with late-in-day Wayne could depend on being asked about it during interviews to come. Julie Adams, doing but one sequence with Duke, has been go-to for McQ lore since, her quotes on the experience found in Eyman, Ronald Davis, elsewhere. McQ unmask of Mister Big in department corruption comes straight from C. Chan's playbook --- look for your least likely suspect --- another of reasons Wayne came to rue the job. Mighty tired stuff in 1974 to be sure, but quaintness and even pathos of tired-out Duke giving it one more thrust lends McQ value not so apparent then. Who knows but what belated appreciation for McQ may lead to repeat spin of Brannigan?


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Folks forget that this show business meaning you show up for business when you're called. In her youth Mae West thought Sarah Bernhardt should have quit while she was head. Then in Mae's twilight years we get MYRA BRECKINRIDGE and SEXTETTE. Certainly not Mae at her scintillating best but, what the heck, she was well paid for strutting her stuff. She's easily the best part of MYRA and I think everyone involved, including Mae, knew that SEXTETTE was pushing it but what the heck, why not? We still have her pre-code films which are razor sharp and, if the code managed to dull the razor, her post-code films still have magic. Ditto John Wayne. Making movies is a crap shoot. Some that should have been great turn out duds. Some everyone thought would be a dud turn out to be classics. Had he quit we would not have ROOSTER COGBURN and THE SHOOTIST. The last is a fitting sunset on a great career. As to THE SEARCHERS, I avoid like the plague the intellectual masturbation that too much film writing is about. I had an 18 year old who loved movies. He took a university film course. I said, "If you take that course it will kill your love of movies." "I'll find that out for myself," he said. Well, his love for movies was killed dead. David Mamet in his book BAMBI VS. GODZILLA warns his readers not to take film study courses. The movies were, are and always will be about fun. As old Hollywood used to say, "If you have a message use Western Union." Not that a movie can't be fun and have a message. But if the message is delivered in a way that turns off the listener the person delivering it has failed. Recently I read an interview with that kid's university prof. He upfront said, "If you take our course it will kill your love of movies." At least he was honest about it. Mamet in his books TRUE AND FALSE and BAMBI VS. GODZILLA states, "STAY OUT OF SCHOOL." I'm with him. Bernardo Bertoluci said the same' "Film students should stay as far away as possible from film schools and film teachers. The only school for the cinema IS the cinema. The best cinema is the Paris Cinematheque. The best teacher is Henri Langlois." My Toronto programs have always been designed as film schools for those astute enough to use them that way which, now and then, a few are.

8:40 AM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

So Mamet is essentially saying, "Don't take movie courses but read my books about them."? That sounds kinda wacky to me.

10:31 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Good point, Stinky, though I do think Mamet is on to something. Remember when "The Searchers" was still a lively action western, and "Vertigo" a heavier, but still entertaining, Hitchcock?

Excess of analysis has made viewing of both a hazard duty, especially in some classrooms where they're wrung dry of entertainment.

Maybe there's a column in all this, where I could add my own two cents to increase burden on these and other classics. But wait --- for all I know, Greenbriar has done precisely that for the last (almost) ten years.

10:52 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

This was a favorite film for me. It began playing in the "Sábados de Super Acción", the action movie marathons on TV frequently were I finally managed to see it for the first time after missing it on another channel (in a similar kind of movie marathon) a few month before. Besides THE SHOOTIST, McQ is probably the most interesting of all of the final John Wayne movies. When I used to see this movie in Argentina (in a chained telecine) it looked somehow older than it actually was; but when seen in a high quality version, already in the United States, the experience was completely different: the Seattle of the seventies that can be seen in the movie is impressive and the place is probably not so different today. The thing is that Wayne was already old when he made this film and he could have been very effective in similar settings. BIG JIM MCLAIN is no example of anything (it is his worst film), but TROUBLE ALONG THE WAY which is also a contemporay story and he is very good in it.

12:26 PM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

Re: Film school: I don't mind film analysis/criticism. What bothers me are articles/blogs/podcasts that don't recognize, appreciate, or acknowledge the realities of the business or the collaborative nature of moviemaking, or ignore the time and climate (business, cultural, technical, or political) when a movie was made.

1:11 PM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Bad teachers or bad writers can wring the joy out of anything. Recognize them and avoid them.

5:39 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

What I remember of the Warner Oland/Charlie Chan movies was that the bad guy was usually the actor with a mustache.

12:51 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon checks in with observations on John Wayne, "McQ," and over-analysed movies:

Hi John,

I think you're coming down on the fence on "McQ"...yes?

You know, I like "McQ". Part of what I like about it is, I'm 62! Ha! But, I'm half-serious. With some elbow room for (enormous?) exaggeration, I think they play Wayne for an older fella in this, and that it works. At no time am I feeling I'm being forced to accept a 1950's-looking or behaving John Wayne in full caps. And, I think Wayne certainly became a constantly easier and more comfortable actor, just literally almost playing himself. This is the only key on the big, fat key ring the young actor typically distrusts, because he distrusts himself. It's understandable! You aren't a proven entity as a young anything---least of all to yourself. And I think based on some clips included on one of the many, many interesting extras about John Wayne on one of the Fox Blu-rays, showing him in early Fox pictures OTHER than "The Big Trail" (in which I think he's consistently quite good for a new kid on the block), Wayne too had to find his center and his screen confidence.

I always enjoy your way of touching base with the greater world of traditional films and genres, and I don't disagree with you at all that "McQ" plays more like TV show expanded (in length and SIZE) for the theaters of 1972. But it demonstrates that if you take out 'Chad McClure' (with a nod to "The Simpsons") and put in John Wayne, you can't say it doesn't make any difference. Rather, I should say, I think it DOES make a difference! And there are, as I believe you duly noted, some damn good actors in this. I was very lucky to work on a film each with the late, great Eddie Albert, and with the very-much-alive Clu Gulager. In fact, Clu I understand is a regular attendee of both American Cinematheque at the Hollywood Egyptian Theater, and also the New Beverly Cinema, one of the stalwart survivors of the mini-explosion in 'revival' cinemas all around and about L.A. in the late '60s through the counter-explosion in home video and home theater (and now, to be sure, streaming.) But, there's just something about seeing a movie in a theater, and evidently Mr. Gulager concurs. I know that back when I met and worked with him, he was always planning his OWN movies, and was a huge enthusiast; plus, he loved the business, and had all kinds of gossip (true, false?---you could never tell with Clu!) to impart, mischievously of course.

But, my other favorite element in "McQ" is...hey, ELMER BERNSTEIN, of course!! Nobody could write a narrative jazz score quite as suavely and effectively as Bernstein, in spite of heated competition in the '60s from new guys on the block (considering Bernstein's career kicked off in the earliest '50s) Jerry Goldsmith and Lalo Schifrin. Of course, Franz Waxman was also fluent with jazz and then there was the ultimate smoothie, Henry Mancini. But, what I like about all the fine film composers of that period is that they absorbed jazz into their own style, not the other way around. Bernstein did a lot of work on Wayne films, including those the actor produced (though the crews were pretty much hired by Michael Wayne, evidently.) There's another example here of that marvelous kind of 'copacetic' deal happening, when the personality of the music and a film personality meld nicely.

4:41 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Craig Reardon:

I certainly sympathize with posted remarks about film criticism. I developed a gradual distaste for much of it when I was young. But, I cannot agree that all criticism will make you "hate film". No. It depends upon the critic. What's tedious is the bullshit...the 'customizers'. Not content with the car as it is, they have to paint it candy apple green and add pink upholstery and hang those fuzzy dice from the rear view mirror. Yes, I'm speaking of the agendas or fantasies or tortured theories that are forced on great films because they do NOT cry out to be 'explained'. This is an irresistible temptation to do so. It's like a reversal of the the Cinderella story, where Cinderella's foot, rather than the ugly stepsisters', is crammed and jammed into the ill-fitting shoe to suit the hothouse thesis of a frustrated writer. Thus does a totally unpretentious, exhilarating piece of wild and woolly entertainment like "King Kong" become a story about the oppression of the black race, one of the jaw-droppers that was popular when all this silliness was still relatively new. I think it not only splatters mud on a great movie, but it also demeans a very serious subject---the one the theorist is attempting to convince anyone gullible to believe, but that "King Kong" is NOT in fact about. It was about a great producer thinking of something so far-fetched it was bound to pull in a worldwide audience, to thrill and entertain them. Which it did. It was a constant source of bemusement to some of the first wave of accomplished sound film directors, almost exclusively directors by the way as that was the annointed profession (also bloody ridiculous), when they were constantly asked by first foreign and later domestic students and would-be critics, "What did you mean by...?" The answer would often come back, "Well, you tell me!" I mean, they were going to, anyway...right?

I take your point, John, but I CAN watch "The Searchers" or "Vertigo" or some of the others which have been 'honored' by the High Priests of Delirium, by simply...and I mean that just as I say, "SIMPLE"...tuning all the white noise out. How can I do this at this point? VERY EASILY! These are MY movies, you see. That's the beauty of great art. They're MINE! And, they're yours. Enjoy them!

4:42 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig, to your mention of Elmer Bernstein ... yes, his score is another VERY good thing about "McQ," being jazzy but also dynamic in ways unique to this composer, who, as you say, had a very fruitful association with John Wayne during the 60/70's. In fact, I sort of look at Wayne/Bernstein as variation on Hitchcock/Herrmann, partnerships for the benefit of action/suspense that were specialties of their respective pairings.

And I really like your calling out the "High Priests of Delirium" and their near-ruination of "The Searchers," "Vertigo" and so many others once enjoyed on their own considerable merits and not those imposed upon them. And your point that "These are MY movies" is especially well taken. A lot of us came upon these up years before vultures began circling, and so have, as you indicate, a very personal idea as to what they represent, at least for us.

4:56 AM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

One of the films featured in the only film class I ever took was Cukor's 1954 remake of A Star Is Born. We watched all the featured films in 50 minute class-period chunks, which is an insane way to look at movies.

When the test came, it included this gem; Cukor uses sunrises twice in the film to symbolize new beginnings for Esther. Where are they?

The answer he was looking for was the sunrise in the background as Esther is leaving Tom Noonan's hotel room, having told him she was quitting the band to chase movie stardom with Norman, and the second one was the "sunrise" over the ocean in Malibu as Norman walks into the sea. He was gobsmacked when I pointed out that unless the sun was rising in the west in 1954, Cukor was showing us an entirely appropriate sunSET for Norman's exit.

The course didn't ruin movies for me, but I never took another.

11:44 AM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

@MDG14450: I'm in complete agreement.

3:07 PM  

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