Contemporary Film Talk: ‘McQ’ (1974)

Today we reminisce about

McQ (1974)


Directed by John Sturges

Starring: John Wayne, Eddie Albert, Diana Muldaur, Colleen Dewhurst, David Huddleston

* Published specifically for The Cops Blogathon hosted by Dubsism *



Detective Lieutenant Lon McHugh (John Wayne), also known as “McQ”, is a long-serving member of the Seattle Police Department. He has one of the best arrest records of any officer and is highly respected although there has been some concern at times about his unorthodox policing methods. McQ believes that rules are made to be broken in order for justice to be served and does not hesitate to pull punches or draw guns when the occasion calls for it.

It has been a trying time for McQ as of late due to the brutal shooting of his colleague and best friend, Sergeant Stan Boyle. Boyle was critically shot in the back by an unknown gunman, later dying of his wounds despite the many efforts exerted to try and keep him alive.  Given a public funeral with honours, Boyle is considered a fallen hero. What most everyone – at the time including McQ and Boyle’s wife Lois (Diana Muldaur) – does not realise, however, is that Boyle was a dirty cop involved in a drug smuggling operation with one of Seattle’s most notorious dealers, Manny Santiago. Thinking that it will avenge Boyle’s death, Santiago is caught and given a savage, bloody beating which results in McQ being demoted to desk duty by his superior, Captain Edward Kosterman (Eddie Albert). Refusing to be reprimanded in such a fashion, McQ turns in his badge and equipment, quitting the force in order to be a free agent. One way or another, McQ will get those responsible.

McQ decides to join forces with “Pinky” Farrell (David Huddleston), a private investigator who is initially unenthusiastic about his proposition due to business being extremely slow. When Pinky learns of McQ’s plans however, he is game and helps McQ file an application to become a state-approved P.I. The former detective learns that several of his past sources are hesitant to work with him now that he is no longer a cop. Nonetheless, he manages to get tips from a bartender named Myra (Colleen Dewhurst) and a pimp named Rosey (Roger E. Mosley). Things turn tricky when McQ comes to a realisation about Santiago and is faced with the fact that major corruption has taken place right under his nose at the Seattle PD, including Boyle.

Background & Thoughts

McQ is based on an original screenplay that underwent certain changes before filming began; changes apparent in author Alexander Edwards’ novelisation which was written to reflect the initial script. This earlier version gave the film the possibility of having one or more follow-up features because it had a somewhat of an open ending that allowed McQ to completely stop the criminal infiltration. The actual ending included in the final film is not exactly a closed book for a sequel but is done so that anything could happen from that point. It would have been marvellous to see John Wayne continue on as McQ because it was a very unique role for him. He would go on to play another Detective Lieutenant, this time from Chicago, the very next year in Brannigan.

When McQ was released, it received overall mixed to negative reviews. Critics had a hard time warming up to Wayne’s newfound cinematic identity and they immediately compared the film to Dirty Harry, stating that Wayne had picked the lesser of two pictures in which to star. (There are some parallels between the two films which I will talk about later.) A majority of online sources claim that he had been offered the title role in Dirty Harry but turned it down due to the film’s overly violent nature although some others note that Wayne was never offered the role due to already being considered too old for the part. Whatever the case may be, it is indeed difficult to rely on dubious rumours from nearly five decades ago. It is interesting to note that the role of Harry Callahan broke Eastwood from the buckaroo mould and opened him up to more diverse role in a career that largely mimicked Wayne’s. One can only imagine how amazing it would have been to have seen Wayne and Eastwood star in a film together, particularly in the Western genre.

I came across this short clip of Clint Eastwood talking with James Lipton in which Eastwood tells a very funny anecdote involving John Wayne:

Unfortunately neither McQ nor Brannigan seemed to have a positive impact at the box-office mostly due to people thinking that Wayne was too old to play a cop and thinking that the story did not have enough “oomph”. The film starts out with quite a bang, no pun intended, as several police officers are shot down within minutes of each other and it is revealed that a higher up in the PD is corrupt. The subsequent unravelling of the story does happen rather slowly in moments but when all is revealed in the end, you understand why the filmmakers felt it was necessary to focus on certain interactions between characters. McQ is not merely an action/crime film so it should never be considered as cheap entertainment. In fact, some modern critics consider the film to contain many elements of film noir and has been subsequently categorised as a neo-noir.

The Duke as a Cop


The star of innumerable westerns and epics, John Wayne was best known to audiences for his roles as cowboys and officers of the law in the Old West. He also appeared in a fair amount of war films that were set in and around the events of World War II. It was not until McQ, however, that Wayne got to play a legitimate police officer on the silver screen. Despite the crime genre being new to Wayne, he seemed at ease in the film and was very believable as a law enforcement agent. Being a voice of authority seemed to go hand-in-hand with his on-screen personas: that voice, that stature, that reputation. Aged 66 at the time of filming, Wayne was undeniably past his prime but he still maintained an ever-commanding presence. While it is true that McQ could have been considered as being close to retirement, Wayne still had enough physicality to successfully pull it off even in the face of his looming health problems. The moment that Wayne appears on-screen, you know that it is time to take care of business.


Wayne’s McQ is sharp and observant which allows him to save his own hide on more than one occasion. Most of the time, he follows his hunch even if it is not the most popular and/or convincing way to handle the case, leading him to uncover the truth. He will also do what he feels is right and just whether or not he has the approval of his superiors, very much like San Francisco Detective Harry Callahan. In fact, both men turn in their badges out of frustration yet continue on investigating their respective cases because they feel a certain responsibility for finding the guilty parties. They are also both prone to losing their tempers and using tactics to psych out suspects. While McQ does not hesitate to physically beat them up and lie about doing so, Callahan seems to find pleasure in making them wonder whether he still has remaining bullets in his gun that could be deadly. I personally do not get the feeling that either film condones this kind of police brutality but that they included these behaviours to fully focus on the characters’ less flattering attributes. Somehow they are great, admirable men and in other ways they are stubborn, noxious know-it-all’s who represent the antithesis of courage and virtue.


That is Roger E. Mosley but this is not from a John Wayne guest starring appearance on “Magnum, P.I.”!

McQ’s personal feelings about Stan are not an oversight of judgement but rather a reflection of the brotherly love he held for this man. He had no reason to suspect that Stan was committing any wrongdoing especially since they both took a solemn vow as officers of the law. When he finds out the truth about his friend, he does fight against it although it is clear that he is heartbroken about being letdown more than having been manipulated for so long. The motivations that prompt McQ to seek retribution are similar to those of Detroit Detective Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop. Axel’s criminally-inclined friend Michael comes for a surprise visit only to be killed hours later by hitmen who recover the millions of dollars of stolen German bonds he had stolen from his employer. Even though Michael had a chequered past, Axel had known him since childhood and was set on retaliating against his assassins. In both cases, McQ and Axel ended up fighting for a greater good as there were bigger operations looming behind Stan and Michael’s deaths.


Most films are far from perfect but contain elements that make the overall features sometimes seem as though they were flawless. I have rarely come across a film that did not have some sort of merit to it and it seems in my nature to focus more on these positive aspects. When I watch classic and contemporary films, I am grateful for what is being presented in front of me because they take me into another universe like a time machine would, bringing me a great deal of joy and satisfaction. McQ is no exception to this experience and is a praise-worthy film that is most definitely worth your time and attention. You are transported back into the early 1970’s when fashion of the late 1960’s still lingered and the days of disco were just starting to settle. The cars are beauties and the subsequent chase scenes are also really entertaining. McQ’s limited edition Pontiac Firebird painted in Brewster Green nearly steals all the scenes in which it is featured. That certainly helps Wayne get further cemented into the role of a cop.

A 1973 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am (left) aka “Green Hornet” as pictured in the film during an action scene (right).

The accompanying soundtrack* composed by Elmer Bernstein is an awesome mix of musical styles that compliment the action of the story, making you want to jam along the way. Some of the sounds in the title “Lies” remind me of the music in the 1965 Bond film Thunderball composed by John Barry.

“As Wayne traded in his cowboy outfit and horse for gray flannels and a sports car, so did Bernstein graft ’70s, Shaft-like effects onto his distinctive, symphonic “John Wayne swagger,” updating his style of compositional big band jazz from the 1950s for the new film’s car chases.”*



6 thoughts on “Contemporary Film Talk: ‘McQ’ (1974)

  1. Very interesting insights into this movie. I saw it for the first time during the past year and enjoyed it more than I anticipated. It has a most intriguing cast and I believe I’m getting old enough to view the 1970s with a tinge (just a tinge) of nostalgia.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Paddy! 😊
      I’m glad you enjoyed it and that ‘McQ’ was a good surprise for you. I happened upon it the first time by mere chance, also leaving me in awe of the cast not to mention the retro factor. This film came out a few years before my time but it seemed like a very interesting period in history. I have started regarding the 90’s in the same nostalgic fashion. ☺


  2. A fascinating look at a film I’ve heard about but never seen. You piqued my interest when you made the link to Dirty Harry and the penny dropped. It’s an interesting parallel between Eastwood and Wayne, considering both are often touted as right-wing icons from two different eras – and of course both icons of the Western as well.

    I love the observation you make about both McQ and Callahan ‘wearing the badge out of frustration’ and I WISH I had thought of that for my own piece on Dirty Harry.

    A great, detailed review and a film that I really now need to see!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much as always, Paul! 😀
      I sure hope that you get a chance to see ‘McQ’ because it’s a great cop flick though certainly less action-y than ‘Dirty Harry’. It’s funny that Duke and Clint never collaborated with one another, even behind the scenes, because they would have made a terrific team and even a potential father-son duo. T
      Your piece on ‘Dirty Harry’ was inspiring and I so enjoyed reading it especially since we crossed paths with our ideas. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s