Whenever I watch McQ, two things always stand out to me. First, John Wayne always gets criticized for copying Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry with both of his "cop" films, McQ and Brannigan. And it's always commonly said that the Duke was "too old" to play a cop. But, I've always disagreed with that line of thinking. Remember, Dean Martin had his Matt Helm series going on at Columbia in the late 60's, and Frank Sinatra had his Tony Rome series over at Fox at the same time. Later on, Robert Mitchum would play Chandler's Philip Marlowe in two films. All those guys were definitely in the Duke's age bracket, and I think they were what Duke had on his mind when he decided to make a detective movie, not Eastwood.
The second thing I've always noticed is what no one has mentioned here so far (and I'm a bit surprised nobody has mentioned it), that even if you count films like The Long Voyage Home and The Cowboys, McQ may very well be the most depressing movie John Wayne ever made. Think about it; at the end of the film Lon McQ's best friend and partner (William Bryant) is revealed to be a drug dealer in league with many other crooked city officials, the friend's wife (Diana Muldaur) is revealed to have been in the scheme with him, McQ's wife (Julie Adams) has gone on the "women's lib" movement and divorced him and married another man, his daughter (Kim Sanford) would rather hang out with her friends then spend time with her father, McQ's so-called "friends" Kosterman (Eddie Albert) and J.C. (Jim Watkins) have been using their personal friendship to spy on him with the intent of arresting him for the drug ring's crimes.
In other words, everyone and everything in this film is a complete and total S.O.B. - except for Lon McQ. He stands alone against the corruption and moral relevancy in his colleagues and friends all around him. The straight and narrow way is usually hard, and Lon McQ certainly has his share of troubles, both professional and personal, throughout the film.
The two scenes in this film that really stand out to me are, first and foremost, the Duke's encounter with druggie lowlife Colleen Dewhurst, who he is trying to get some information from. The Duke is his usual professional self, but Colleen Dewhurst really shines here. Had this been anything but a Batjac film, she would probably have gotten a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her performance here, she's really great. And once again, Duke proves what a generous actor he was. John Ford taught him on the set of Stagecoach that good supporting performances make the star look even better, and it was a lesson he took to heart. All of his costars throughout his long career always said that he never once "counted minutes" or worried about being upstaged by his co-stars. Maureen O'Hara said in her autobiography that his view was always that if you wanted steal a scene from him, go ahead and try to do it; and if you succeeded, more power to you. Here, he underplays his scenes with Dewhurst magnificently, allowing her to deliver the acting goods.
The second scene occurs when Wayne confronts Diana Muldaur in her car as she is about to drive out of town to meet her lover (Clu Gulager) and skip town. Muldaur is driving the car and Wayne is sitting in the passenger's seat. When he confronts her about her and her husband's involvement in the drug ring, and finds the drugs hidden in a suitcase in the back seat of her car, she becomes angry, and goes into a completely post-modern, morally relativistic speech, trying to justify her actions. The Duke's facial expressions during her angry diatribe are worth millions. The hurt, pain, frustration, disappointment, and anguish in that close-up are the stuff aspiring actors would kill to have. Just for comparison (as people seem to love to compare the Duke's cop movies to Eastwood's, though as I said, I don't know why), there is no way in the world Eastwood at that point in his career could have played that scene anywhere nearly as effectively as Duke. Once again, the folks who say the Duke couldn't act are proved wrong by a country mile.
As I said before, I think that this is probably the most depressing movie in the Duke's filmography. I remember the first time I watched this, and I don't ever remember feeling so down after watching a Duke movie. Interestingly enough, I mentioned Frank Sinatra earlier in this review, he also ran into a similar problem earlier in his career. In 1967 he made Tony Rome, a lighthearted Rat Pack detective romp that was a hit for him. He followed it up the next year with The Detective, a serious drama dealing with political corruption in the New York City Police Department. Like the Duke's film here, the serious film flopped, so Sinatra went back to playing Tony Rome again in Lady in Cement. Well, the Duke must have taken his cue from Sinatra, because the very next year, he starred in Brannigan, another detective movie with a much more lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek tone.
Once again, I have to give credit to the Duke for trying something this different this late in his career, he really hadn't done anything like this since Big Jim McLain in 1952. Unfortunately, I think the story was just too much of a downer for his fans to accept. Thankfully, he learned his lesson here and next year come out with Brannigan, which took itself far less seriously then McQ.