Synopsis: In one of his signature roles, Clint Eastwood plays a streetwise San Francisco police detective who gets the job done. A rooftop sniper (Andy Robinson) calling himself Scorpio has killed twice. Now he’s buried a young women alive and threatens to let her suffocate unless the city pays ransom. Harry Callahan will nail the prep..one way or the other… no matter what “the system” prescribes. Filming on location, director Don Siegel made the City by the Bay a vital part of Dirty Harry, a practice continued in its four sequels. The original remains one of the best police thrillers ever made.
Dirty Harry 8.5
Inspector Harry Callahan: “I know what you’re thinking: “Did he fire six shots or only five?”. Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?”. Well, do ya, punk?”
‘Dirty Harry’ changed everything for me. Before I discovered Clint Eastwood’s Inspector Callahan, my main vision of an action hero was James Bond. Heroes were suave, sophisticated ladies’ men who were perfect and invulnerable. I wanted to be a spy someday; I wanted to be such a hero and have those adventures.
Suddenly, I realized that real life was grittier than in 007 movies, that gadgets didn’t always save the day, that heroes had flaws and could be hurt. Watching Harry Callahan fiercely hunt down Scorpio told me that heroes are people of conviction with enough tenacity to soldier through the many impediments between them and their goal.
“Dirty” Harry is such a man.
This by no means makes him a perfect individual, mind you. Just because he is the hero of our story doesn’t mean that he’s always easy to root for. His obstinance can often come off as mean-spirited, his callous ways could be viewed as needlessly harsh, his narrow views could make him appear to be bigoted.
And he may very well be all of that. But the reality is that his personality is suited for that type of work; he’s certainly not suited to be an ice-cream vendor or a dog-walker. Callahan is a hunter trying to keep San Francisco’s concrete jungle under control. And, for all his flaws, he is not corrupt, lazy or negligent – he is honestly trying his hardest to clean up when there’s a mess.
Gonzales: “No Wonder they call him “Dirty Harry”… Always gets the shit end of the stick.”
‘Dirty Harry’ has been controversial because the character’s actions are seen as police brutality, and the film has been denounced for taking a fascist moral position. In an age where our heroes are practically villains, it’s kind of hard to see that point anymore; nowadays, Callahan would likely be one of the cleanest of the bunch. Still, there is merited concern in praising a character who trips over the line in his one-track-minded approach to law-enforcement.
But, if anything, the controversy that a film such as this kicks up like so much dust is essential for fuelling discussions about how we want to shape our society. Even though it may not have been a conscious effort on the filmmakers’ part, they managed to spawn a debate about victims’ rights vs. basic human rights. Which trumps which? Does our thirst for vengeance supersede other rights? It is clear that some people believe that the law sometimes gets in the way of justice whereas others believe that protecting all human rights at all costs is essential.
This is something that would be addressed in the first sequel, ‘Magnum Force’, but, for now, ‘Dirty Harry’ remains a controversial figure from an era that was only just out of the throes of a peace and love movement that changed the lens by which everything was viewed. Ironically, for all the criticism, his success eventually spawned imitators, which invariably led to the obscene caricatures of heroism that we see today. And, of course, it led to the ’80s new age of action hero, exemplified in ‘Lethal Weapon’ and ‘Die Hard’.
The film was a massive success, making its money back multiple times over and eventually spawning four follow-ups – thereby turning “Dirty” Harry into a pop icon of sorts. What makes it so appealing to some of us is the same thing that makes superhero films popular: being empowered enough to right wrongs. And in a society that has a flawed justice system, one where the more money you have the more “justice” you can buy, it’s no wonder that the masses daydream of being able to take the law into their own hands, to defy all the forces that typically prevent mere mortals.
“Dirty” Harry fits right into that model.
Even though he is just a fantasy, Callahan feels real enough that he is made relatable to the average viewer. What makes Callahan so great is that he’s just a man, and is therefore vulnerable just like all of us – and unlike today’s virtually invincible action heroes, who can take severe damage and keep on trucking. Thus, when “Dirty” Harry is exposed to danger, the risk feels very real. And yet he’s awesome because his personality and attitude are larger than life, more in line with how many would like to be if they weren’t so timid. In our minds, these personal attributes of his make him practically bulletproof.
Doctor: “Sure, Harry. We can save the leg.”
(takes out some scissors)
Harry Callahan: “What are you going to do with those?”
Doctor: “Going to cut your pants off.”
Harry Callahan: “No. I’ll take them off.”
Doctor: “It’ll hurt.”
Harry Callahan: “$29.50, let it hurt.”
I was so impressed with Clint Eastwood’s take on the character that I soon thereafter began to explore his filmography. Thankfully, one of the next things I stumbled upon was ‘For a few Dollars More’, which settled the deal (had I the misfortune of seeing ‘Every Which Way But Loose’ or ‘Paint Your Wagon’, the magic would have been completely dissipated ). I discovered an actor with somewhat limited range but with such a rich career, both as actor and director, that it made it fun to explore as many of his films as I possibly could.
To think that all of this could have been tossed out the window – not just if I had followed-up ‘Dirty Harry’ with one of his more lacklustre efforts, but if John Wayne had gotten the part. Because, yes, this was originally written with The Duke in mind. He didn’t want it, so Sinatra was eventually signed up for it. Even Robert Mitchum, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman were approached for the part Amazingly enough, the role that most people associate with Clint Eastwood was never intended for him and came close to being taken by someone else!
Personally, I wasn’t immediately pulled in by ‘Dirty Harry’. The movie seems sort of dull at first, what with the slow Siegel/Eastwood method of setting things up, of watching Callahan inspecting the crime scene. But, as soon as he utters his infamous speech/soliloquy during the robbery sequence (which was amazing to watch in that he played it so cool throughout, walking slowly towards the bank despite all the chaos around him), he could do no wrong. I was a convert.
By then, we had seen him in action with his supervisors, including the Mayor of San Francisco. The moment that Callahan speaks for the first time, I knew ‘Dirty Harry’ was going to be something special: this man cut through BS without fail and didn’t wilt in the face of authority:
The Mayor: “Well let’s have it.”
Harry Callahan: “Have what?”
The Mayor: “A report! What have you been doing?”
Harry Callahan: “Well, for the past three quarters of an hour I’ve been sitting on my ass in your outer office waiting on you!”
As a teenager, this completely tapped into my rebellious nature. I was really digging this dude. Granted, he was not a nice guy, but he was not a total @$$hole either. Even though the callousness that he displays towards the robber at the beginning of the film, pretending to shoot the final round of his gun at him, seems totally out of place to me now, at the time he was the coolest cat around.
And I wanted more. I watched this many times over, and sought out its three (at the time!) sequels.
Of course, “Dirty” Harry would be nothing if not for his counterpart, the villain. In ‘Dirty Harry’, our main bad guy (there are a few minor players along the way!) is Scorpio, a psychotic sniper who is blackmailing the city of San Francisco for 100K, a massive sum of money at the time, without which he would murder random people on the streets. Being unknown to law enforcement agencies, this man can walk the streets undeterred; he could be anyone and be anywhere. And Inspector Callahan must track him down.
Scorpio: “Row, row, row your boat/gently down the stream/merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily…”
Andy Robinson’s Scorpio has always creeped me out; while he’s also just a regular guy, he’s so far off his rocker, and yet so completely focused and composed that it’s unnerving. Seeing him contort his face sickly with a crazed look in his eyes when things get heated, always reminded me that something was terribly amiss with him, even if he usually concealed it well. For me, Scorpio remains one of the most unforgettable villains in cinematic history – along with the one in ‘Spoorloos’.
One of the most enjoyable things about ‘Dirty Harry’ is its slightly episodic nature: Callahan is constantly working his way through the Scorpio case – but, being a police officer, he’s often side-tracked by other incidents. This is typical of the series as a whole, and it’s one of its strength because it helps to define the character of “Dirty” Harry; by seeing him in various situations we eventually understand his modus operandi better. Further to that, it makes the picture zip by, giving us a series of smaller exploits instead of just one long, uninterrupted investigation.
Another terrific element of the film is its awesome score by Lalo Schiffrin. Filled with jazz, deep funk as well as more traditional orchestral arrangements, it gives ‘Dirty Harry’ a sound that is distinct, one that is quite different from other films of the genre. There’s even this eerie female vocal track that is used when evoking Scorpio that infuses those sequences with a totally chilling vibe. While he’s not as recognized as his contemporaries, the skill and freshness that he brought to ‘Dirty Harry’ set the tone in an impressive way; the film wouldn’t be the same without his score. Thankfully, he would return for three of the sequels.
As far as I’m concerned (and I know I’m not alone), ‘Dirty Harry’ remains a stand-out police/action film and its influence cannot be overstated. If only to understand the model by which modern action heroes have been designed, this picture should be required viewing for any fan of cinema. “Dirty” Harry is not only iconic, but ‘Dirty Harry’ is a modern classic – controversial or not.
Post scriptum: I dread the day that a remake will be green-lighted (unfortunately, it seems inevitable in an industry that is always rehashing old ideas ). It won’t translate very well: ‘Dirty Harry’ is a product of its time, and it rests heavily on Eastwood’s on-screen persona. Oh, it won’t stop them from trying – there’s too much money at stake. But I sure wish that I could.