R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Dirty Harry

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 a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?

When Clint Eastwood released Unforgiven to theaters in 1992, it was catharsis for his career in a way. Since the Man with No Name first shot those three outlaws in the middle of the street at the beginning of A Fistful of Dollars, Eastwood’s career had been built upon that character. Eastwood had tried to examine the character before, making him a specter of vengeance in High Plains Drifter, a war veteran trying to set things right in The Outlaw Josey Whales, and finally an angel of death in Pale Rider. Each of these tried to have the Man with No Name ride off into the sunset, but Unforgiven finally gave him a proper ending to his legend and to Clint’s legend as well, but the actor/director was not done.

Eastwood kept acting and directing, making great films like In the Line of Fire and A Perfect World, but nothing up to the level of his Oscar Winner. Most of his films in this period were unremarkable as Clint sleepwalked through roles in True Crime and Absolute Power. Eastwood was able to coast along to make these films entertaining using his screen presence, but to keep making films like these would tarnish his legacy. A fun performance in Space Cowboys was serviceable, but still not what the actor/director was capable of. Was Unforgiven a flash in the pan? Did Eastwood pull what Kevin Costner did with Dances with Wolves and peak with a Best Picture winner then fade into obscurity? In 2003, audiences got their answer.

When Mystic River was released at the Cannes Film Festival it was a breath of fresh air. The festival that year was notably the worst in its history, and Clint was looked upon as if he were a superhero, coming in to save audiences from the throes of mediocrity. Mystic River lost out to the vastly overrated Elephant, but Oscar buzz had already started. While the picture wasn’t able to beat out the tidal wave of awards handed out to Return of the King that year, it was another masterpiece for the director.

What Clint was able to do with Mystic River was to take the same formula he had used to make Unforgiven a success, and use it on another iconic character from his filmography. At its core Mystic River is about vigilantism. It is about people taking the law out their hands and robbing victims of due process. In the 1970’s, Clint had reinvigorated his career by playing a vigilante, but this one had a badge. He is Clint’s second most iconic character.

Dirty Harry Starring Clint Eastwood and Andrew Robinson. Directed by Don Siegel

There’s a rooftop pool with a girl in a yellow bathing suit. She’s enjoying the morning air. Across the way on another rooftop a man emerges with a gun. He’s got a rifle and the girl doesn’t see her. A shot though the scope of the rifle lets you know he’s looking right at her. A moment later she’s dead. Just a moment later, the rhythms of a Lalo Schifrin score sue the big yellow letters DIRTY HARRY and suddenly Clint Eastwood turns a corner and is there. The rest would be the legacy of one of the most popular characters to come out of 1970’s cinema.

Along with 1968’s Bullitt and 1971’s The French Connection, Dirty Harry was the primary film responsible for the creation of the “Cop on the Edge” sub genre of films. Its legacy is a string of some of the greatest Action films of all time from Lethal Weapon to Die Hard, and again from Hard Boiled to Narc. The film solidified Eastwood as one of cinema’s best Action stars and made Harry Callahan one of 1970’s most iconic bad asses. Harry was put on a shortlist of tough guys, sharing space with other hard nosed characters such as Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle from The French Connection, Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey in Death Wish, Richard Roundtree’s original Shaft and Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon. Harry may just outclass them all.

From the moment he’s on screen, Harry is the coolest of the cool. He turns the corner in his opening shot and he’s got ridiculous sunglasses on (those would get worse and worse as the series went on). He inspects the crime scene finds the note left by Scorpio (Andrew Robinson). Immediately, the shot goes to a close-up of Scorpio’s letter to the city of San Francisco, threatening to kill a priest or African-American if he does not receive a ransom. Harry’s not in the room with the officials looking at the letter, but when he’s called in, you figure out what he’s all about.

Callahan almost instantaneously becomes confrontational with the city’s Mayor as when he is asked about what he’s done he responds, “Well, for the past three quarters of an hour I’ve been sitting on my ass in your outer office waiting on you!” Eastwood’s Callahan is the quintessential rogue cop. His mannerisms and speech patterns have been copied over and over until he has become a cliche, but when Eastwood first played Harry he was breaking a lot of new ground. Harry was almost a combination of Steve McQueen’s soft spoken Bullitt and the “take no prisoners” wild man that Hackman made Popeye. Harry had Hackman’s fury, but kept it contained most of the time. Eastwood had Harry build his inner tension over and over until it came bursting out of him in a storm of violence. Harry was belligerent toward authority and worried about protecting the public by any means necessary.

Amazingly enough Director Don Siegel cooks up a great opponent for Eastwood’s mountain of a hard-hitting cop. Andrew Robinson’s Scorpio is the sleaziest of villains. He is a racist serial killer, and always one step ahead of Harry. Scorpio is a meek man and his psychology is never really gone into much, but his unpredictability is a threat. He chooses to bait the Inspector. He kidnaps a girl, and states that he wants to ransom delivered by Callahan personally. He knows how to get under Harry’s skin and also how to manipulate the system. Callahan actually catches up to the killer after delivering the ransom, but Scorpio has Harry go too far when he arrests him. He tells him he’s going to kill the girl anyway, which has Harry unleash all of his fury. The authorities have to let the killer go because they say Harry has violated his rights.

The two have a sparring match of sorts. Both work outside the law, but Harry is doing it for what he believes to be good. As the District Attorney grills Harry, he yell at the Inspector, “Where the hell does it say that you’ve got a right to kick down doors, torture suspects, deny medical attention and legal counsel? Where have you been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? I mean, you must have heard of the Fourth Amendment. What I’m saying is that man had rights.” Harry’s only response is “Well, I’m all broken up over that man’s rights!” As the police find the girl’s body Callahan knows he’s doing the right thing, even if it costs him his badge.

Harry is relentless. He follows Scorpio on his time off. He gets into trouble with his superiors, but doesn’t care. Even when Scorpio trumps up charges of Police brutality, Harry keeps going. When the killer kidnaps a bus full of students and demands another ransom, Harry refuses to play along. The final confrontation is a breathtaking as Harry’s ferocity is unleashed. Scorpio appears as if he’s almost a scared animal that’s been cornered, not ready to be overwhelmed by the cop’s rage.

So why does Dirty Harry have such an avid following? Harry is in some ways no worse than the criminals he tracks down. He takes the law into his own hands and deals out justice as he sees fit. Why would this fascist ideology become so popular in this country that prides itself on preserving natural right?

At the time the film premiered, crime was rampant in the United States. City streets were unsafe and criminals had their way. Scorpio is even a based on “The Zodiac Killer” case from the 1960’s, who threatened San Francisco and claimed to have killed 37 people. Here is a film where a cop has enough of these types of killings and takes the criminal down because the system has failed.

Another reason for the film’s success is that Dirty Harry is just a great Action Thriller. Don Siegel winds a top notch thriller with a wicked pace. The editing and camerawork here are all gold. The gun fights are immediate and hard-hitting. There aren’t any prolonged shootouts or heroes dodging bullets as they run down the street. It’s almost Japanese style as Harry takes down his target with complete accuracy. This is countered with the chaotic nature of the sequences where Callahan has to chase Scorpio on foot. As the Inspector is ambushed by Scorpio at one point and beaten senseless, you can almost feel yourself getting kicked in the back of the head.

The script here is everything it should be. Even aside from having the line that the American Film Institute ranked 51st out of the greatest movies quotes of all time (Do I feel lucky?) the film is full of great lines and one liners for Eastwood. When Harry’s methods are questioned b the Mayor,

Harry Callahan: Well, when an adult male is chasing a female with intent to commit rape, I shoot the bastard. That’s my policy.

The Mayor: Intent? How did you establish that?

Harry Callahan: When a naked man is chasing a woman through an alley with a butcher’s knife and a hard-on, I figure he isn’t out collecting for the Red Cross!

The Mayor: He’s got a point.

One of my favorite moments from The Naked Gun is when Leslie Nielson’s Lt. Drebin defends his actions with nearly, the same speech. “Well, when I see five weirdos dressed in togas, stabbing a man in the middle of the park in front of a full view of 100 people, I shoot the bastards, that’s my policy,” he retorts to the Mayor of L.A. Its hilarious when we find out he killed the cast of Julius Caesar.

Needless to say Harry has almost as many one liners as 007, and had a new catchphrase for every subsequent sequel, peaking with “Go ahead. Make my day.” When a line from your movie is quoted by the President, you know you’ve made it.

Dirty Harry cemented Eastwood as THE action star for an entire generation of moviegoers. Not only did the picture end up with four sequels, countless knockoffs, and hilarious lampoons, Harry became a part of the culture. He became synonymous with the cop vigilante and made the .44 Magnum the most popular gun in screen history. Looking back on it as a film, it is a tremendous Police thriller and might be the best of its kind. Harry had to do every dirty job given to him, but he’s still on top.

Picture Credits: allposters.com, norcalmovies.com