Should I Watch..? Dirty Harry
What's the big deal?
Dirty Harry is an action thriller film released in 1971 and marked the debut of Clint Eastwood's iconic movie character, 'Dirty' Harry Callahan. The film is the first in the Dirty Harry series and sees Callahan pursue a crazed killer calling himself Scorpio holding the city of San Francisco hostage. From the very beginning, Callahan became the model for a new type of cop not seen in the movies before - a ruthless antihero who had no objection to crossing ethical or moral boundaries in order to see justice done instead of merely upholding the law. The film was a critical and commercial success although it did prove controversial on its release, sparking debates about police brutality and the nature of law enforcement.
What's it about?
In San Francisco, a young woman is shot dead in a rooftop swimming pool by a crazed sniper. The killer, calling himself Scorpio, leaves a ransom demand stating that unless the city pays him $100'000, he will kill a random person every day until it complies. The chief of police and the city's mayor assign Harry Callahan to the case, despite the officer's reputation for brutality. Against his wishes, Harry is paired up with a rookie - Chico Gonzales - to help him bring Scorpio in.
After an attempt to pay the ransom is bungled, Scorpio increases his ransom amount and admits to kidnapping a young girl who will die unless the ransom is paid. As the city's officials seek to placate the killer, Harry's patience is running thin and he soon decides to go after him in his own unique fashion...
Inspector Harry Callahan
Lieutenant Al Bressler
Inspector Chico Gonzales
Mayor of San Francisco
Inspector Frank "Fatso" DiGiorgio
Harry J. Fink, Rita M. Fink & Dean Riesner *
Release Date (UK)
7th April, 1972
Action, Crime, Thriller
What's to like?
Given the film's age, it's staggering how popular and recognisable the character of Harry Callahan still is and more so considering the last time he appearing on screen was in 1988's The Dead Pool. Dirty Harry remains the blueprint for all loose-cannon cops in movie history although none are quite as dark as this. The film is relentlessly brutal - the action is visceral and hard-hitting, the dialogue is coarse and bleak and the film's tone is very downbeat. But thanks to Eastwood's no-nonsense performance, Callahan is a character we kinda respect even if we don't agree with his style. The character mellows in later films but here, he is almost a bad guy in his own way. I imagine him plotting similar crimes to Scorpio just for fun if he wasn't being paid to stop them.
These days, rogue cop films aren't exactly rare beasts but Dirty Harry feels different. It's the cop movie equivalent of the Sex Pistols, blasting a previously clean-cut world apart with questionable morals and savage brutality. The action is also of a decent standard given the film's age, with Eastwood performing several impressive stunt sequences. And then there's the bank robbery which ends in Eastwood's classic "Do I feel lucky?" monologue. You still get a shiver running up your spine when he delivers it and the ending to the scene, when Callahan pulls the trigger for the final time, underscores just how dark and disturbed this 'hero' really is.
- The film's story closely parallels that of the real-life Zodiac killer who often left notes to taunt the police and media about his crimes including his plan to hijack a school bus. Callahan was modelled on real-life detective David Toschi who worked on the Zodiac case.
- Albert Popwell appears in every Dirty Harry film apart from The Dead Pool and he plays a different character every time.
- Not only did the film popularize the .44 Magnum to such an extent that sales went up after the films release but Eastwood and director Siegel were invited to address police conferences. A copy of the film was even used as a training tool by one police force in the Philippines.
What's not to like?
A lot of this will depend on perspective. From my point of view, the film's apparent endorsement of Callahan's methods are slightly worrying. I find it difficult to accept that his superiors would simply dismiss Callahan's findings because of his method of extraction (what did they expect - they put him on the case!) or that they would impede Callahan in the way they do. I suspect that the popularity of the character rests in the fact that he is a throwback to the days of the wild west when a sheriff could keep the peace simply by shooting the bad guys and asking questions later. These days, such a character appears not just old-fashioned but down-right dangerous.
The film also seems to shoot a good number of its action scenes at night, meaning that a lot of what is happening is obscured in darkness. I had no idea what was happening during the scene at Mount Davidson and I found it frustrating that such a key scene was blighted in this way. There are also several uses of language that are extremely un-PC these days which made me feel uncomfortable. Of course, I realise that these are products of their time but combined with the film's near-fetish for excessive violence and Eastwood's morally repugnant character, I found Dirty Harry to be rather a grim and unpleasant experience.
Should I watch it?
The film is an effective thriller which introduces a character for the ages in Callahan and several themes and motifs that become cliché in later films. But the film also has an extremely black streak running through the picture, an oily tar that suggests that the line between cop and criminal is very thin indeed. Dirty Harry is an important film - no question - but it's really only for those with a strong stomach.
Great For: action fans, film historians, jaded police officers
Not So Great For: family viewing, sensitive viewers, children of the Eighties or later
What else should I watch?
Personally, I preferred the follow-up - Magnum Force - because not only does it soften the uncompromising image of Callahan into a more likable hero but it also appears to deliberately redress the balance in terms of story. It also feels like an acknowledgement that this first film went too far as Callahan is thrown up against a team of fellow officers who conduct vigilante killings. As for the other films in the series (The Enforcer, Sudden Impact and The Dead Pool), none of them matched this or Magnum Force in terms of impact but fans will probably enjoy them more than most.
For me, Eastwood was always more at home riding a horse and wearing a poncho, usually playing his nameless wanderer. His appearances in classic westerns like A Fistful Of Dollars, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and the Oscar-winning Unforgiven cement Eastwood's place in Hollywood royalty even before he started directing critically acclaimed films like Gran Torino and Million Dollar Baby.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox