Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Vigilante Justice and Magnum Force

Dirty Harry returns to the fray with Ted Post’s controversial vigilante sequel

The 1971 action thriller Dirty Harry hit audiences like a .44 Magnum. The film struck a nerve with a public that had grown tired of a failed criminal justice system that seemed to coddle criminals and leave citizens to fend for themselves. San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan was the modern version of the celebrated western archetype, the lone gunfighter who happened to be the only man brave enough to face down the bad guys. Harry had no time for bureaucratic foolishness or the politicians and fellow police officers who were content to remain thoughtless cogs in a machine that had broken down.

Dirty Harry was a smash at the box office, and it turned Clint Eastwood into a superstar. It also stirred a controversial shit storm. For every person who celebrated Eastwood’s everyman hero there was someone else who was offended by his actions. Insults like Neanderthal, thug, bully, and so forth were heaped on the film’s main character. The well-known film critic Pauline Kael, who claimed to love movies but didn’t seem to have much tolerance for many films embraced by the common audience, savaged the movie, its creators, and its star. According to Kael, Dirty Harry did not advance any respectable argument, and its violence was more a symptom of America’s crime problem than its solution. Whatever.

With everything that Dirty Harry accomplished, a sequel was not only anticipated, it was practically required. John Milius, who had done some uncredited screenplay work on the original film, was hired to come up with a script. A young Michael Cimino, who would go on to direct the Vietnam epic The Deer Hunter, was later brought on to do some rewrites. Ted Post, who had directed Eastwood in several episodes of the early 1960s television series “Rawhide” and the feature film Hang ‘Em High, directed. The sequel, originally called Vigilance but later changed to Magnum Force, was more than just another Dirty Harry adventure with Callahan running around the streets of San Francisco after a cunning new villain. Instead, this film would take on some of the questions posed in the first film about the virtues of law and order and how to achieve it, the differences between right and wrong, and how a police officer has to judge between the two.

The film opens with mob boss, Carmine Ricca, leaving court to be greeted by a media circus and an angry mob. Ricca, on trial for the murder of a popular labor leader and his family, has gotten off on a technicality. We then cut to the crappy little apartment of a motorcycle cop gearing up for work. He is watching Ricca on his crappy little TV. He puts on his sunglasses and leaves. Within a few minutes, he catches up with Ricca, his lawyer and bodyguards on the freeway and orders them to pull over. There’s a little back forth of the “do you know who this is” variety, then quick as a flash, the cop pulls his revolver and executes all four men in the car. He then gets back on his bike and calmly rides off.

When police start becoming their own executioners, where’s it gonna end? Pretty soon you start executing people for jaywalking, then executing people for traffic violations. Then you end up executing your neighbor ‘cause his dog pisses on your lawn.


Harry shows up to the scene with his partner, Early Smith (Felton Perry, the obsequious OCP executive Johnson from the Robocop films) to investigate. Whoever committed the crime knew how to wield a weapon. Lt. Briggs (the instantly recognizable Hal Holbrook) shows up and snarls at Harry for not being on some bullshit stakeout that Briggs saddled him with to keep him off the streets. Briggs doesn’t want him working this case, and he clearly has it in for Harry because of his methods. Harry’s not too rattled. He’s encountered men like Briggs before, figuring the lieutenant for just another in a long line of SFPD bureaucrats who do little more than clog up the justice system. Some of the other cops gathered ask Smith if he wants in on the pool running in the police department that is laying odds on how long he will stay alive as Harry’s partner. As we learned in the first film, Harry’s partners don’t generally last that long, and the viewer is left to wonder along with the cops just how long it will be before Early bites it.

Later that night at headquarters, Harry sees an old friend, Charlie McCoy (prolific character actor Mitchell Ryan). McCoy is an on-the-edge motorcycle cop who is wound up like ferret on a double espresso. On the downside of his third marriage, he is angry at the criminals, angry at the system, and angry with himself. Harry suggests that maybe McCoy should retire, but the cop vows to go out fighting. After that little bit of unpleasantness, Harry goes to the shooting range and finds four young motorcycle cops putting in some late-night target time. Davis (David Soul), Sweet (Tim Matheson), Astrachan (Kip Niven), and Grimes (Robert Urich) are in awe of Harry, who is a legend to the rookie crew. He gives Sweet a chance to handle his .44, and the cop puts a solid grouping of slugs into the target. Harry, impressed by the performance, tells the rookies to come see him at homicide. He could use some good young guys on the team.

A motorcycle cop up in the hills outside the city wastes an entire pool party of mob guys and their skinny-dipping girlfriends with a machine gun, but like with the Ricca killing, we don’t get a clear view of who it is. Since we have been introduced to five potential suspects in the previous sequence, it’s hard to know who the culprit is, though odds are leaning toward the off-his-hinges Charlie McCoy. Harry visits Carol, Charlie’s estranged wife and her kids. She reveals to Harry that the last time Charlie came by to see the kids, he ended up playing Russian Roulette. She wants to move on from her disastrous marriage, and she’s more than happy to have a handsome man like Harry in her house. She makes a pass at him, but is interrupted by her raucous kids. So much for love.

The motorcycle vigilante strikes again, this time shooting a pimp played by Albert Popwell (a Dirty Harry franchise regular who plays a different role in four of the five films) who recently snuffed out one of his working girls for holding out money on him. As before, under the guise of a routine traffic stop, Popwell is, well, popped, behind the wheel of his purple Cadillac pimp mobile. Another murder, and we are still no closer to confirming the mystery motorcycle killer.

In the meantime, Harry gets another shot at love. Unlike in the first film, where he is nothing more than a loner widower with no prospects, Harry now has girls hitting on him left and right. A pretty young Asian neighbor in his building makes it quite clear that she wants to go to bed with Harry. She comes up to his crappy little apartment (yes, many cops in movies live in crappy little apartments). Unfortunately Harry’s life is too complicated for love, so while he and Sunny are getting to know each other, he gets a call from Briggs. Harry reports to the morgue where Briggs confesses that they have a rash of crooks meeting untimely demises. This, of course, is not necessarily bad news to Harry, but Briggs wants the case to take priority. Ballistics on the Ricca killing didn’t turn up conclusive evidence as the slugs were in too poor shape to investigate. But the pimp’s killer definitely used a .357 Magnum up close. And the fact that the pimp’s driver’s license and a $100 bill were lying on the floor of his car indicates that the killing took place during a traffic stop. Harry has a sinking feeling that maybe Charlie McCoy is behind the killings, but says nothing. Briggs assigns the homicide detectives to start following the usual suspects like mob hitmen and known thieves. Harry is assigned to mob boss Frank Palancio, but he argues against the idea. This type of killings doesn’t strike Harry as being Palancio’s style, and he figures that Palancio is more likely to be the next victim than the killer.

Harry’s old cop buddy Frank DiGirogio, another franchise mainstay, is assigned to stake out drug kingpin Lou Guzman. He sees a minor accident on the street below. Charlie McCoy takes a spill on his motorcycle, then pulls into the parking garage of the building where Guzman is holed up. He heads up a stairway to the roof of the building. Or at least we assume it’s Charlie. We don’t see his face. He cuts across the roof, then goes down to Guzman’s apartment and kills everyone inside. He runs back down the stairs to the parking garage where he comes across… Charlie McCoy! McCoy smiles at the other motorcycle cop, who promptly kills McCoy and goes on his way. A few minutes later, DiGiorgio arrives at the scene, having seen the killings from his stake out position across the street. He finds Officer Davis herding bystanders away from the scene. Davis is disheveled and out of breath, as anyone would be who just ran to the top of building, shot a bunch of people and ran back down to the ground floor. Harry learns about McCoy’s death, but he still thinks the killer is a motorcycle cop. The fact that Davis appeared out of nowhere and discovered McCoy’s body is even more unsettling.

San Francisco’s finest gather for the annual police sharp shooter tournament, an event that Harry has dominated for several years. He and Davis square off in the finals, which is a combat range complete with moving pop-up criminal, cop, and civilian targets. Davis shoots a perfect score, but Harry accidentally shoots a cop target and loses. He asks Davis if he can take a turn with his .357. One of his shots goes wide and hits a piece of wood, and he chalks it up to handling an unfamiliar weapon. Harry returns to the range that night and retrieves the errant slug he fired from Davis’s gun and runs a ballistics check on it. He learns the terrible truth that it was Davis’s gun that killed the pimp, and probably the others as well.

All our heroes are dead. We’re the first generation that’s learned to fight. We’re simply ridding society of killers that would be caught and sentenced anyway if our courts worked properly. We began with the criminals that the people know so that our actions would be understood. It’s not a question of whether to use violence. There simply is no other way, Inspector. You of all people should understand that.


The stage is set to raid Palancio’s hideout, Harry asks Davis and Sweet to join his team. A phone call tips off Palancio that he is about to be attacked by a rival gang dressed up as cops. When Sweet arrives to serve the warrant, Palancio’s men kill him and all hell breaks loose. Palancio and his men are taken out in the ensuing gun fight, and Briggs is infuriated that Harry’s raid got botched. Harry is convinced the whole thing stinks, and confesses to Early his theory that a rogue element of cops in the police department are operating as a death squad. Harry returns to his apartment and is confronted by Davis, Grimes, and Astrachan, who are waiting for him on their bikes in the parking garage.

They offer Harry an ultimatum to join the team, but he won’t go along. Davis is deeply disappointed, and they take off. Harry goes into his apartment and discovers a bomb in his mailbox. We have to assume that had he taken up their offer, they would have told him not to check his mail. Harry diffuses the bomb, and tries to warn Early with a phone call, but he is too late, and Kaboom! goes Early. No word is given on who won the pool. Callahan calls Briggs who comes by his apartment to look at the bomb. They drive off, presumably to police headquarters, but Briggs draws his gun on Harry and reveals that he is the head of the death squad. What follows is a brief, but telling dialogue between the two men that lays out the arguments for and against vigilante justice. Briggs argues that the system sucks and a little old fashioned frontier justice is just what San Francisco needs. Like the motorcycle cops, Briggs figured that Harry would join the team. Harry admits that he hates the system, but until somebody comes along with changes that make sense he will stick with it.

Harry manages to subdue Briggs and then takes on the motorcycle cops. They end up playing cat and mouse aboard an abandoned aircraft carrier at the shipyards. Harry kills Grimes with his car, Astrachan with his bare hands, and Davis with a bit of slick motorcycle riding that sends the young cop into San Francisco Bay. Briggs comes to and promises to nail Harry for the killings, the death of the officers, the whole affair. “With your record, I can make anything stick,” he snarls as he drives away. Little does he know, Harry has reset the diffused bomb from his mailbox and left it in the back seat of the car. And Kaboom! goes Briggs.

Released during the Christmas holiday in 1973, Magnum Force made even more money at the box office than the first film in the series, and it proved a worthy successor. Part of what makes the story so compelling is that it flips the argument of the first film on its head. Harry, who was repeatedly accused onscreen and off of being a fascist, is now up against real fascists. It shouldn’t be hard to differentiate between the two sides. If you think he’s taking the law into his own hands, then what are these guys doing? Say what you want about Inspector Callahan, but there is a strong moral code that guides his actions. Unlike a bunch of cops who have taken it upon themselves to dispense justice, Harry still operates within the system despite his lack of faith in it. It is this dedication that makes Harry Callahan a respected and memorable film hero, and one that audiences would happily return to again.

Director: Ted Post
Screenplay: John Milius &
Michael Cimino
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Cinematography: Frank Stanley
Editing: Ferris Webster


  1. Brilliant piece,well researched and written. Hope the winning streak continues with the next three movies in the franchise you’re writing about. I love this one and the original Dirty Harry one. It’s great to see a decent writer create great pieces like yours about the Dirty Harry movies. Keep it up!


  2. Charlie McCoy was a burnout cop. It buzzles me that Harry as a sharp investigator, actually believed that his old buddy was capable to do all those killings wich took a cold blooded professional killer. At the first murder scene Harry looked at the bodies and said “Who ever did this, is very good at it” Charlie was 40 plus year old traffic cop, spended his free time with bottle and was totally unstable. Not suitable for assassin missions with high risks.
    Davis, Astrachan, Sweet and Grimes had a history as an army special forces men who most likely had experince of search and destroy missions. They were higly trained killing machines in uniforms.
    Another problem was the pool party massacre scene. What was that all about? Why all hose peolpe wer gunned down, who were they? That never came up in the movie. Also, Red Astrachan shot them with an M76 sub machinegun and finished the job with a bomb. Yet, there were no wrecked bodies, massive amount of blood, body parts and internal organs every where. It looked like every body in the pool was just drouned.
    Ricca and his lawyer, bodyquard and the driver were all shot by Grimes middle of the day, middle of the traffick, and yet nobody saw and heard anything?
    Davis just Walked in the drug kingpin Guzmans appartment through the unlocked door, and met only one bodyquard. Maybe i’m wrong, but one could imagine that high profile mobster like that would have been prepaired better for just in case some one might try to kill him, and arranged heavier security. After all, there were some tensions in the under world at that point. Mobsters were gunned down lately and police suspected it was all about gang war.


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