‘McQ’ (1974)

Wayne on wheels!

By Mark Voger, author, “Monster Mash: The Creepy, Kooky Monster Craze in America 1957-1972″

Picture an old John Wayne — this was his fourth-to-last picture — playing Dirty Harry in a girdle and toupee, and you’ve got “McQ.”

Admittedly, there’s a huge camp factor to this 1974 film, which is a transparent, and rocky, attempt to plop Wayne’s old-school style of hero into the then-hot cop-thriller milieu. Still, Wayne’s fish-out-of-water act is good, and John Sturges’s gritty, action-packed “McQ” has a lot going for it.

"McQ" lobby cards
“McQ” lobby cards show Diana Muldaur, who played Lois Boyle, widow of McQ’s slain partner.

For one thing, it has a first-rate cast, especially with Al Lettieri — Sollozzo himself in “The Godfather” — as drug czar Manuel Santiago. There are two epic car chases worthy of “Bullitt.” There is in-the-know Seattle location shooting and a cool, punchy score (by Elmer Bernstein, no less) that is of-its-time in a good way. And “McQ” — despite the age (a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking 66) and out-of-touch-ness of its star — works as a gritty 1970s cop thriller.

Lon Mc Q (I’ve never discerned his full surname) is a no-nonsense cop with a big gun and a fast car who lives alone on a boat, says things like “Oh, nuts” and can identify heroin by taste. He suspects Santiago of a string of drug heists. (Well, someone has been stealing dope confiscated by police. Someone with inside information.) When three cops are gunned down, execution style — McQ’s partner, Stan Boyle (William Bryant), being one of them — Santiago again tops McQ’s short list of suspects.

Don't mess with McQ! Roughing up Santiago (Al Lettieri) and letting the ingram 9mm do the talking.
Don’t mess with McQ! Roughing up Al Lettieri and letting his ingram 9mm do the talking.

But McQ’s boss, Capt. Kosterman (Edward Albert, still looking like Oliver Wendell Douglas in “Green Acres”), believes Boyle was killed by “radicals.” After McQ assaults a hippie for calling him a pig, and beats up Santiago in the men’s room of a bar, Kosterman yanks him off the case. McQ tosses his badge and gun on the table — the “thunk” of gun-against-table is a recurring sound — and ambles out.

Now free from the force but in need of a gun permit, McQ gets himself “hired” by a fat, sweaty private eye named Pinky (David Huddleston) who swigs Jim Beam for breakfast. Later, an old McQ cohort — one who develops weapons — shows McQ an “experimental little equalizer” called the Ingram 9mm. It’s 6.25 pounds, the silencer makes a nice handle, and 32-slugs burst out in 1.5 second. McQ falls immediately in love and packs it into his bag. “But, Lon,” says the cohort, “it’s not licensed.” “Neither am I,” says McQ as he … ambles out.

Rolling a $100 bill for a hooker to snort cocaine through, left, and putting the squeeze on Roger E. Mosley in a (mostly) black disco.
Rolling a $100 bill for cocaine-snortin’, left, and at the bar with Roger E. Mosley in a (mostly) black disco.

McQ supplies an aging hooker named Myra (Colleen Dewhurst, in her second aging-hooker role in a John Wayne movie) with cocaine in exchange for information, even going so far as to roll up a $100 bill for her to snort it with. The sight of John Wayne rolling up a C-note is culture shock itself. Then, he sleeps with her for more information! Ah, but gentlemanly Duke makes her coffee in the morning.

He later visits a (mostly) black disco where he orders coffee and puts the squeeze on a pimp named Rosie (Roger E. Mosley, “The Mack”). Again, picture Wayne walking across the dance floor while the wah-wahs go chukka-chukka and the strobe lights spin. Ol’ Duke is a long way from Monument Valley.

Scenes from a pulse-quickening chase along the Pacific Ocean
Blood and sand: Scenes from a pulse-quickening chase along the Pacific Ocean

There’s a climactic shootout that will remind you of Wayne’s westerns. After the smoke clears and the ambulances cart the bodies away, Wayne speaks the memorable closing line of the film: “There’s a bar over there. Let’s get a drink.”

“McQ” is unfairly derided. Scott Eyman, in his excellent 2014 biography “John Wayne: The Life and Legend,” writes: “Even if Wayne hadn’t looked every week of his 66 years and been far too old for the part he was playing, ‘McQ’ would have been an ordinary picure.”

(Sigh) That’s the consensus.

But please watch “McQ” with an open mind — and then, yes, laugh when the Duke says, “I’m up to my butt in gas!”

‘McQ’ cast member Julie Adams on Wayne: ‘A charming man’

Julie Adams — remembered as the damsel in “Creature From the Black Lagoon” (1954) — played John Wayne’s ex-wife Elaine in “McQ.” Hers is a brief sequence, but it speaks to the filmmakers’ ambition that not every scene exist solely for the purpose of exposition.

Julie Adams as McQ's ex-wife in a subtext-packed scene. (Around this time, Wayne separated from his third and final wife, Pilar.)
Julie Adams as McQ’s ex-wife in a subtext-packed scene. (Around this time, Wayne separated from his third and final wife, Pilar.)

Without the resources of the police department behind him, McQ needs money to fund his “private investigation.” He turns to Elaine, who has remarried well. This is a very embarrassing situation for McQ, but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. To add to McQ’s humiliation, on the afternoon he shows up, unexpectedly, to ask for the loan, there happens to be a formal fundraiser taking place at the dazzling waterfront home of Elaine and her second husband.

When I met Adams in 2003, I commented that much unspoken subtext is packed into the sequence, adding a human element to what is essentially a genre thriller.

“I loved working on that film,” Adams told me.

“Of course, the first thing you have to do is to erase this icon of John Wayne and say, ‘Okay, this is just this cop I used to be married to.’

“I, too, felt the scene had many different levels and colors just for a brief scene — to play that back relationship and the awkwardness and so on.

“So I enjoyed working with him very much. He was a charming man.”

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