The controversy and cultural impact surrounding Don Siegel’s 1971 film is well documented. We all know about Pauline Kael’s quote and about the critical backlash against the film’s pro-gun, pro-vigilante point of view; however, what sometimes gets missed in all of that is the simple fact that Dirty Harry is a seminal and important film. One of the best films of the ‘70s, Dirty Harry is essentially an exploitation movie financed by a big time studio with its biggest star in the lead role. It looks like an exploitation movie, it sounds like an exploitation movie (the music is one of the most memorable things about the film), and it plays like an exploitation movie. What Siegel and Eastwood and screenwriters Harry Julian and R.M. Fink have done is not just create an iconic character that spouts memorable lines (although, Dirty Harry spawned many sequels and bad knockoffs) as he points his .44 Magnum at bad guys, they created a time capsule film that speaks to the chaos and the rapidly changing America of the ‘60s; however, what makes the film still relevant today is in the fact that the filmmakers ultimately made a film that is eerily prescient for today’s America.
Essentially taking Eastwood’s western persona and moving it to an urban setting, screenwriter Harry Julian and R.M. Fink (with un-credited help from John Milius) and director Don Siegel clearly want us to view Harry Callahan as the same kind of cool, collected vigilante he played in Leone’s westerns and later in films like High Plains Drifter. In Dirty Harry, violence and revenge is also at the forefront of the film's story while the loner, “man with no name” persona is traded in for the cynical, “justice-at-all-costs” Callahan. Callahan, investigating a rooftop sniper known as Scorpio (a creepy Andrew Robinson who is obviously supposed to resemble the Zodiac killer), grunts and smirks his way through the investigation until he has the carpet pulled out from under him because of his flippant abuse of about four different amendments when he initially captures the Scorpio killer. He isn’t an ambivalent cop; he knows where he stands on the issues and specifically in regards to how differently he goes about doing things compared to the uber-liberals in City Hall, who seemed more concerned about upholding civil liberties and rights to criminals than they do in making sure justice is meted out appropriately. Callahan is disillusioned with the whole cultural shift of the ‘60s (specifically the aforementioned civil rights to criminals), and then, by film's-end, he throws the last remaining symbol that defines him as a cop instead of vigilante into the river.
Throughout the investigation, the Scorpio killer knows just the right buttons to push when it comes to the San Francisco Police Department’s most notorious cop. He plays the bureaucrats in City Hall allowing him to not just ask for ransom money twice (the second time after he is able to walk free thanks to Callahan’s abuse of power), but to draw the spotlight on the police department for its archaic police officers refusing to evolve during the era of Miranda and Escobido. This is the most brilliant aspect of Dirty Harry: the film clearly sides -- and wants us to side -- with the idea that revenge is okay when it’s clear that the criminals are guilty; essentially they don’t deserve rights and we need more cops like Callahan that will solve the problem with a .44 Magnum instead of an impartial jury (this theme is explicated in further detail in the great sequel, Magnum Force, where Harry has to come face-to-face with the extreme of what critics had to say about his character in this film). What’s fascinating is that no matter what your belief system is -- politically or morally -- and no matter how aware you are critically that what Callahan does is wrong, you still find yourself rooting for Callahan to get the killer by any means necessary. After all, it’s a film, and it is through film that we project our deepest fears and secrets and exorcise a lot of the things we may not be so keen on letting other people know we feel, or, better, would allow ourselves to feel; in the case of Dirty Harry: violence as a means of justice.
Eastwood’s performance of Harry Callahan is one that everyone knows about. His famous quote of “do you feel lucky” never fails to induce cheers from its viewers (again, no matter where they happen to stand politically/morally on the issue of violence). He’s a character that thrives on the pain of the criminal. The even more famous quote, “go ahead, make my day,” from the fourth Dirty Harry movie, Sudden Impact (and often wrongfully assigned to the original 1971 film), gives us even more insight into the character: here’s a character, a cop mind you, that enjoys the dirtiest aspects of his job; it would make his day for you to interrupt his hot dog and allow him to shoot you should you try to shoot him first (that kind of humor wouldn't really be introduced until Sudden Impact).
I like what Gene Siskel said about the film series on a special “At the Movies” show he and Roger Ebert did when he likened the popularity of the Dirty Harry character to Archie Bunker with a gun instead of a mouth because he, “does and says what a lot of people would like to do and say these days, and we can see the dynamic way he takes care of business all by himself in the first Dirty Harry movie.” The scene Siskel is introducing is the famous scene where Harry shoots the Scorpio killer in the Kezar stadium. As the Scorpio killer pleads for his rights, Harry, like a robot, just keeps repeating, “Where’s the girl?” When the Scorpio killer says the one thing Harry can’t stand to hear (“I have the right to a lawyer! I want a lawyer!”), he knows he can’t kill him; so, instead, he digs his heel into his wound as the camera -- a wonderful crane shot -- swoops up and out of the stadium as we hear the screams of the Scorpio killer fall on deaf ears.
The scene is effective because we trust the law -- especially cops -- to do the right thing, always; however, situations like serial killers or terrorists bring out the bloodthirsty in even the staunchest liberal. There are numerous scenes that in Dirty Harry that elicit the gut reaction of its viewers, and even though we may not like what we find is hidden there and how we respond to such visceral representations of law versus justice, we can’t blame the movie for being an accurate reflection of its audiences most bloodthirsty reactions: we know this is a film about someone who has done something wrong, so we’re okay with this cop acting on revenge instead of his duty to play by the rules. I’ve seen the film numerous times, and my heart still gets going during that scene. We’re frustrated by the fact that Scorpio isn’t scared enough to tell Harry where the body of the missing girl is, and we’re equally pissed because we know that once he utters the words, “I have a right to a lawyer” the guy is getting away because of the rogue nature of Callahan’s tactics.
In other words, the filmmakers are being sneaky here in getting the audience to be explicitly behind Harry not just because we think that what he does is acceptable but because we think it to be desirable. It’s that deep-down, pit-of-your-stomach desire to see Scorpio killed that the filmmakers seem interested in exploring (kind of like how people were celebrating the death of Osama Bin Laden; I’m not saying it’s wrong…just interesting). Whether it’s with a Right-wing slant or not matters not; the film still elicits a multitude of emotions.
It’s a catch-22: we want Callahan to do what he does to people like Scorpio, indeed we can even justify it, but we also want the court system to reprimand cops for disregarding the cases of Miranda and Escobido. The film is wise to drop those names in the scene that follows the one from the football field where, once again, gets the audience firmly behind the anti-hero Callahan as he vents his frustrations at the bureaucratic ridiculousness of City Hall as the mayor claims that Scorpio, once out of the hospital, will walk a free man because his rights were taken from him. Callahan, through clenched teeth (of course), asks the mayor about the kidnapped girl’s rights. It ultimately culminates in the mayor letting Harry know that the gun used as the murder weapon in all of the rooftop sniper killings is inadmissible as evidence because, “it’s the law.” Harry response of, “Well then the law’s crazy!” is a scene that no doubt elicited a lot of head-nodding and “amens” from everyone who watched it in 1971, a time of great tension and tumultuousness (and would probably get the same reaction were it shown in theaters today); yet, the individual that critically thinks about the situation clearly understands that Harry was in the wrong even though Scorpio is the bad guy. I think what makes Dirty Harry so effective and popular even today is the way the mood of politically correct America in the 2000s can still be applied to a film that was made in 1971 and was about the mood of America in the ‘60s.
Andrew Robinson -- one of the most memorable villains in film history -- may be the most important part of the film. His performance as the Scorpio killer is just the right amount of insane and cunning. His plan to indict Callahan is what fuels the second half of the film (what is essentially the same narrative as the first half of the film, only this time we understand that Callahan has been told not to follow Scorpio around), and it’s a brilliantly executed scene as Robinson plays it so well that we aren’t sure if he’s a masochist and enjoys the beating, or if he just enjoys what’s going to happen to Callahan once his plan goes into full effect. I mean is there anything creepier than when Robinson utters the line, “I changed my mind. I think I’m going to let her die.” He’s just the perfect villain. Apparently Robinson was a pacifist and had real trouble shooting (and even holding) a gun. It must have been hell for Robinson to do the final scene; the memorable moment where Scorpio takes a school bus of children hostage on his way to the airport. It’s such a creepy, maniacal performance as he forces the kids to sing “Row Your Boat” over and over until he finally snaps when he sees Callahan waiting for him on a bridge as the bus drives by. It’s one of the most iconic shots of the film. Robinson, shockingly, didn't make many more movies immediately following the success of Dirty Harry. Perhaps he suffered from Anthony Perkins complex in that playing a villain so well and so convincingly, he was doomed to typecasting. He found a niche on television doing one-off roles (with the exception of "Ryan's Hope") until 1986 when he starred in the Sylvester Stallone action vehicle Cobra. A year later, he was once again a memorable movie villain (for about 20 minutes) in Clive Barker's Hellraiser. It's too bad he hasn't done much since (a lot of TV movies) because he gives what is arguably the most memorable performance in Dirty Harry.
The other performances are well documented: the character actors are all good here (I especially like John Vernon as "The Mayor;" a title that seems at home on a TV cop show), Reni Santoni as Harry's eager partner (one he doesn't want), and of course there's Eastwood himself. Eastwood was probably the most famous male movie actor at the time, and it was a big deal when he took on the role of "Dirty" Harry Callahan (he made sure he brought Siegel with him). All of the iconic angry, gritted-teeth dialogue and squints and smirks -- all things that have been parodied countless times by now -- are on full display here. Some would argue that Callahan is caricature (and some would say he turns into a cartoon character by the time Sudden Impact is released); a one-note killing machine that lacks any kind of fleshing out. His characters dating back to The Man with No Name have just been old John Wayne archetypes: terse, violent men that let their guns do the talking for them. Eastwood's performance -- and him as a performer in general -- is perfectly suited for such a role and the exploitation bent the filmmakers wanted to give the film. Eastwood's enough of a star so that we're in awe of him and get behind him as the clear (anti)hero, but he's also so single-minded in his approach to justice that we can, if we choose, find him fallible. And Eastwood is an actor that can portray both grizzled and vulnerable. The audience never questioned John Wayne, and, for the most part, they probably didn't question Clint Eastwood, but for the viewer that did want to question Harry Callahan, Eastwood was the kind of actor that played it so perfectly that it didn't seem ridiculous to chastise the film's (anti)hero.
The film’s location of San Francisco is important to the tone of the film. Yes, the Scorpio killer is indeed The Zodiac killer; a serial killer who preyed on the chaos and fear of an entire city. Also, San Francisco in 1971 represents the epicenter of these cultural shifts that we read about in history books today. The hippies touched a cultural and moral nerve and pissed off a lot of people in the process, and with Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel gave the extreme Right a heroic character to cheer for; someone that represents all that is good and just about the 2nd Amendment. The film’s setting also lends itself to its seedy aesthetic that makes it the most successful and iconic studio-produced exploitation film. The on-location cinematography is appropriately grainy and has just the right amount of hand-held camera shots. The music by Lalo Shifrin -- creator of one of the most famous TV themes for “Mission: Impossible -- is an appropriately funky, acid-jazz score that gives the film the feeling of a film that would be at home on 42nd Street in New York. And make no mistake, the film is exploitation through and through. From the opening where we see a woman swimming on her rooftop gunned down from the point of view of the killer, to the jazzy riff that plays over the film's opening credits (the only thing, aside from the fashion, that truly dates this movie), to the way Harry proudly tells his partner the reason why they call him “Dirty” Harry, to the way they shoot San Francisco at night (especially the park scene and that nose-against-the-cross shot when Harry looks up at the park landmark), to the way the film revels in its subject matter and violence.
The most famous scenes have been played and talked about ad nausea; I’ve always been struck more by the chase from payphone to payphone more than the bank robbery scene where Harry spouts his famous line. It’s an incredibly well paced scene that doesn’t get much attention when people talk about the film. I love that Siegel decided to not accompany the scene with any music, but to just let Harry’s panting be the only thing we hear. Also, the sound of a telephone ringing becomes ominous when we understand the stakes that Scorpio states from the onset (Harry is not to let the phone ring less than three times, and no one is supposed to answer it but him). When Harry is a little late to a phone after running all over the city, and an old man picks up, it seems like nothing on paper, but the way Eastwood plays the scene and the way Siegel directs it makes it one of the most intense moments in the film.
I’m not a gun guy, and I do think everyone should have their rights, criminal or not; I’m pretty liberal when it comes to my politics, but the amazing thing about the Dirty Harry is that it gets me completely behind a character that goes against what I believe. When that school bus pulls around the corner and I see Callahan on top of the bridge waiting for it, I pump my fist, smile, and cheer because I know he’s going to do mete out the appropriate justice; that he has what it takes to kill the bad guy City Hall be damned.
Roger Ebert wonderfully said in his 1971 review that movies often, “hold a mirror to our society.” He’s essentially saying that we can’t be upset at Dirty Harry -- call it a “fascist” film as Pauline Kael did in her review -- just because we don’t like what we see.; just because it calls us out for saying one thing aloud (rights for everyone including criminals), but inside thinking something completely different (“I want revenge!”). Dirty Harry is a brusque film -- both in how it talks about violence and how it portrays violence -- that says little in its thesis other than justice and the law aren’t always one in the same; however, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a well-made genre film. Yes, there’s something more to the film when understood in its historical context (We can even attribute it today to the tragic events that have been all over the news the past few weeks, or even as we look at ourselves as a country celebrating death as CNN and other news affiliates covered the death of Bin Laden interviewing jubilant Americans in the street like their favorite sports team had just won a championship), but the film continues to challenge us today; it continues to act not just as a perfectly executed exploitation film, but as a signpost that seems applicable across a multitude of decades. The subsequent sequels were an example of the extreme nature of the exploitation (with the exception of The Dead Pool which is more of a rib than anything) genre while keeping both the humor and topicality of the original intact. The one lasting thing about Dirty Harry (but not necessarily the films it spawned whether it’s the sequels in this series, Eastwood’s other cop films like The Rookie or Tightrope, or countless genre imitators) is that you can read it any way you like; it’s a film of extremes, and I think the filmmakers get a kick out of the varying degrees in which people are either disgusted or exhilarated by it.