Magnum Force (1973)


In San Francisco, California, someone is playing jury and executioner, murdering criminals who have evaded the law. It’s up to “Dirty Harry” Callahan (Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven) to find the killer/killers and bring him/them to justice.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“A man’s got to know his limitations.”

The second “Dirty Harry” Callahan movie isn’t your typical run-of-the-mill sequel. Magnum Force is similar to Dirty Harry but not quite the same. In fact, Magnum Force is one of the most intriguing (and oddest) movie sequels ever made.

Ever since it was released, back in 1971, Dirty Harry has been surrounded by controversy. Clint Eastwood’s cop Callahan was perceived by many viewers as a vigilante with a badge who had no qualms about ignoring people’s rights. Eastwood listened to the complaints and went out of his way to clarify his position on the character.

Eastwood explained: “The secret of the man I play is that he is a superhero, a dream character for most men. A guy sits in the audience. He’s scared stiff about his life. He wants to be that self sufficient legend he sees up on the screen in my pictures. A super human character who has all the answers, is doubly cool, exists without society, without anyone’s help. Of course, it will never happen that way.”

Having said his piece on Dirty Harry, Eastwood moved on. But after Warner Bros. convinced him to make a sequel to the 1971 blockbuster, Eastwood decided that the next film in the series would be used to vindicate Callahan. Magnum Force is fascinatingly self-conscious and super-meta — this is a movie whose main purpose is to put us at ease and make us feel comfortable with the controversial cop.

“I’m afraid you’ve misjudged me,” Callahan says. The scene almost breaks the fourth wall. Eastwood is clearly talking to the audience, something he continues to do throughout the entire film. In addition, Eastwood tries to humanize Callahan. We see him in his apartment relaxing after a tough day at work. We also see Callahan interact with lifelong friends. We even see him having a brief sexual encounter. All these scenes are designed to make Callahan more human, more likable.

Dirty Harry was also accused of racism, and Eastwood had a solution to that too — Callahan now has an African-American partner. Most interesting is how Eastwood addresses Callahan’s anti-establishment streak. In one pivotal moment, Callahan says, “I hate the goddamn system. But until someone has some changes that make sense, I’ll stick with it.” A curious statement from a man who refuses to follow orders.

The cynic in me thinks that this rebooting is nothing but a disingenuous attempt at damage control. I personally think that Eastwood is trying to have it both ways and this is exactly why I think Magnum Force is a bit of a head-scratcher. But Eastwood’s back-pedaling is genuinely interesting to watch (Eastwood being politically correct? Get out of here!), and by the end of Magnum Force, it all comes together — while it does lack the kinetic energy of its predecessor, the film is solid entertainment.

Anyhow, did I mention that the film has a great cast? Hal Holbrook (All the President’s Men) is terrific as Callahan’s boss. David Soul (TV’s Staysky and Hutch), Robert Urich (TV’s Spenser: For Hire), Tim Matheson (Up the Creek) and Kip Niven (Earthquake) appear as traffic cops. Margaret Avery (The Color Purple) plays a prostitute and Suzanne Somers (TV’s Three’s Company) has a bit part as a pool girl.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Clint Eastwood has said numerous times that Magnum Force is his favorite Dirty Harry movie. Since the film was an obviously personal project for the filmmaker, the movie is ripe for a deeper analysis on various levels. As we continue to reexamine policing in America, Magnum Force and the rest of the movies in the franchise have acquired greater relevance. I’m afraid we will continue to debate the pros/cons of “Dirty Harry” and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Color, 124 minutes, Rated R.

Followed by The Enforcer (1976)

22 responses to “Magnum Force (1973)

  1. This is a great, perceptive review. Eastwood made three films in 1971: “Dirty Harry” and “The Beguiled”, both directed by Don Siegel, and Clint’s directorial debut “Play Misty For Me!” Siegel had a small role in that film as the bartender. Interesting they used a different Director for the sequel, perhaps trying to make sure there wasn’t more of a “vision”, since Siegel was a master…I like “Magnum Force” but your review nails the uneven attempt to soften Harry!

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    • Don and Eastwood worked together on Alcatraz. Apparently that wasn’t as smooth as previous efforts because by then Eastwood was a director in his own right. Don’t know why they didn’t do Dirty Harry 2 together.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Funny that you mentioned Siegel having problems with Eastwood. I’ve read that Ted Post (he directed Hang ‘Em High) had a falling out with Eastwood during the shooting of Magnum Force. Post insisted that success changed Eastwood.

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        • I think it certainly became more difficult to direct Eastwood once he became a director in his own right. I think Don was a mentor and he never forgot that but it can become difficult to work together. Michael Cimino gets by unscathed in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). Old crew direct him in Pink Cadillac (1990) and Trouble With the Curve (2013?). Wolfgang Petersen is the last star director who directs him with I humbly submit fantastic results in 1993 with In The Line of Fire. Philip Kaufman leaves The Outlaw Josey Wales in 1976. He’s directed by others for The Enforcer in 1976 and The Dead Pool in 1988. So I don’t know but it does seem to happen less and after Josey. Its funny he’s often said he got into directing because he figured he couldn’t be a star much longer but it seems he had to keep directing his star vehicles.

          Liked by 2 people

          • You are right about Petersen and In The Line of Fire, one of Eastwood’s finest performances. It’s too bad that he kinda stopped acting for other directors. For example, I would have loved to see him in a Scorsese or Mann movie.

            Liked by 1 person

    • “…perhaps trying to make sure there wasn’t more of a vision, since Siegel was a master…” Hmm… I didn’t think about that. Maybe Eastwood wanted a director he could easily dominate. Warren Beatty is like that. After he became famous, Beatty often hired talented but generic directors… 😉


  2. Two words for this movie – master piece.
    Probably my 2nd favorite movie of all time after DIRTY HARRY (1971). Hal Holbrook’s performance as the corrupt head detective was whole kingdoms of great. And hearing the line “I’m afraid you’ve misjudged me” in the eerie confines of the underground carpark where the motorcycle cops have gathered to confront Harry sends shivers up my everything every time I hear it.

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  3. I don’t know if it was Clint trying to soften the character so much as add variations. Remember Clint did High Plains Drifter around the same time and that was pretty bleak. I think Clint liked the idea of testing the character and the fan base by having him go up against people who have gone too far. He did it again with Sudden Impact with a victim of a terrible crime becoming a vigilante. I think it speaks to his ambitions to not just do more of the s a me in a sequel. But you’re right, it’s definitely meta.

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    • The film does flesh out the character of Callahan, who comes across as a comic book hero in the first movie. However, I found curious that Magnum Force conveniently ignores the last scene in Dirty Harry with Callahan tossing away his badge (a clear nod to High Noon). Callahan has no business lecturing people about vigilantism, something that I think he realizes at the end of Sudden Impact.

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      • That’s Hollywood for you Eric, he threw his badge at the end. Its a statement about the broken system, about how he can’t be a cop no more. Studio: For 100 million dollars he can go back and pick that badge up! I always liked Callahan, I got the fantasy aspect of it, I didn’t think it meant he was a fascist. He’s an individual and a fantasy. Having that further naunced for me in Magnum Force made sense. Although I will agree we got to see the character in a new way and in a different light. I’d argue Magnum Force is the best of the sequels although I like the ambition of Sudden Impact and the silliness of The Dead Pool. Its an uneven series that never matches up to the original but I would also say that each sequel is a variation, a fresh approach to the character and I appreciate they tried that. Will be interesting to hear your thoughts about The Enforcer.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. My second-favorite Dirty Harry film, with ever-growing close competition from The Enforcer. Some good stuff in this, but I never considered some the angles you look at it from, so thanks for the new perspective. I’ll keep those in mind when I watch it next.

    Liked by 2 people

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