Movie review: “Dirty Harry” (1971)

“Have you been following that man?”

“Yeah, I’ve been following him on my own time. And anybody can tell I didn’t do that to him.”


“Because he looks too damned good, that’s how!”

One measure of privilege that sticks – one definition, since so many are being bandied about and test driven during the hopefully transformative turbulence we as a nation are currently experiencing – might just be this. Be it white or class privilege, you learned most everything you know about the police and policing from the movies. I came to my own realization abruptly, landing with a crash. The journey was not a pleasant one. Released in 1971, as the interminable, fiercely divisive Vietnam War lurched on toward its ignominious end and the hippie movement had given way to a vociferous protest arm locked in combat both tangible and symbolic with Nixon’s fabled “Silent Majority”, Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry is a crucial pivot point in how stories about the relationship between the American people and the law enforcement professionals charged with protecting them would be told, and tinted, for decades going forward. As such, it, as much as any film in the second half of the Twentieth Century, has much to answer for, but also a good bit to teach us. A rough beast not terribly unlike its blunt protagonist on the surface, Dirty Harry is surprisingly ambitious beneath the skin. Its simultaneous aims were to function as supercharged social propaganda and a popcorn-pushing crowd pleaser while also folding into the prevailing, evolving Hollywood winds that increasingly demanded boundary-expanding realism in tone and complexity in character. Siegel’s success on the first count is fairly staggering and on the last merely impressive. His ride from point A to B was almost as bumpy as mine.

The quintessential lone wolf cop, gruff and grim, operating with zero niceties, a shredded rule book, and a tarnished, if still technically presentable badge, in strict adherence to his personal code and no other, Inspector Harry Callahan is an indisputable icon – some would persuasively argue relic – of Twentieth Century cinema. To say he hasn’t aged well would be a considerable understatement, though his extended moment lasted for at least seventeen years, several of which I personally witnessed as a budding moviegoer, aglow with youthful curiosity and growing fascination. The ripples left in his wake continue to cascade outward, decades on from his apparent obsolescence. An early product of the same sort of “lawless urban hellscape” mindset that would later produce and similarly deify aggrieved Death Wish vigilante Paul Kersey, Callahan is presented as a shoot-first, no questions necessary arbiter and expeditor of righteous, necessarily prejudicial, almost inevitably violent, justice. It should be said that prejudice does not seem to unduly extend toward any particular race, description, or persuasion – we are assured in an uncomfortable, mildly humorous introductory aside that Harry “hates everyone equally” – but, rather, against capital-P Predators, and the due process laws and pesky technicalities that all too often conspire, however inadvertently, to aid their evil pursuits. The San Francisco Harry patrols is likewise presented in two prevailing lights, by night a cesspool of brightly lit iniquity and dimly lit terror, and by day the stately, ineffectual civic machinery failing to protect its citizenry from being swallowed up. Harry’s job is to plug in the gaps, gritting his teeth rather than holding his nose.

This conceit – the renegade lawman who will entertain any extreme to get the job done – was not necessarily new in 1971, but nor was it shopworn. Dirty Harry injects it to bursting with more juice than was probably advisable, or possibly even intended, resulting in not just an updated archetype but a conclusive paradigm shift that would risk bleeding off the screen and into the popular consciousness at a fraught national moment. Though the script is itself powerful, and would likely have been memorable in lesser hands, Dirty Harry’s synergistic breakthrough success is almost wholly attributable to the presence and innate charisma of Clint Eastwood in the title role, one of the two monolithic men of action with whom he would become inextricably identified over the course of a far-ranging career of almost seven decades. Tall, tan, and taut, with his gut-punch one-liners, laconic but confident stride, and towering, almost accusatory hair, Eastwood, a genuine Hollywood megastar if still underrated actor under it all, seems to wear Harry’s brown blazer and phallic .44 Magnum handgun like Bruce Wayne donning his Batman suit. That’s his secret, both to approaching the character and maintaining his own equilibrium, and in the years to come Eastwood would hold his most famous face at arm’s length even when not trying to actively disavow his popular potency or defuse his complicated legacy. Dirty Harry, here at the beginning, with neither want nor need of adornment, neither space nor patience for critical assessment – Eastwood’s included – cuts a potent figure indeed. He is Batman without the bankroll, but he is not without baggage. 

In its early moments, as a beautiful swimmer lies dead by the bullet of an attention and money-hungry sniper, Callahan walks a neighboring rooftop engaged in a novelty Dirty Harry will almost immediately shelve for its remaining runtime: conventional police work. Soon enough, Harry is foiling bank robberies single-handed, transforming crowded downtown corners into impromptu war zones while still absently chewing his bite of hot dog, and confronting the impotent mayor (the great John Vernon, perhaps already mulling a fortuitous lateral career move to Faber College dean) over apparent plans to appease the sniper and, famously, his own lethal “policy” toward proactive rape prevention. The movie’s first half hour is essentially a series of vignettes meant to establish the character’s contours (and anti-crime bona fides) one at a time without dwelling on any of them or coloring beyond the margins. Harry would rather punch out a potential jumper than talk him down; he has no compunction about peeking into an open window when following up a lead, or in lingering there once that lead has dried up if the situation behind closed doors has grown appreciably spicier. Not only does Harry consider the perps he hunts so many “punks” (in another, even more memorable speech*), but summarily sees his police and government peers – timid, well-intentioned, and largely useless – as bloviating obstacles to the kind of police work no one else will candidly admit is necessary to keep San Francisco safe. It’s easy enough to see why and how this kind of sentiment might take seed in the mind of any viewer, no matter their background, station, or ethnicity. 

*And AFI-worthy…If you’re over twenty, you’ve probably heard it. Eventual calling card, “Go ahead, make my day” is shockingly not present here, though nor is it particularly needed. 

What we’re reckoning with in our current national referendum is, in part, what those and similar seeds might have grown into, and our part in helping nourish them. All I learned about cops, remember, I pretty much learned from the movies. As a movie, Dirty Harry not only put a spotlight on the cop as indispensable universal action hero but almost single-handedly mass popularized the notion that a police officer who operates from his or her gut is invariably more effective than one who operates “by the book”. From a dramatic standpoint, you almost couldn’t imagine a more intrinsically interesting cop**. Observed over the course of decades, you see this idea moving well beyond any formative pop culture variant and into something far deeper, something that has long since been absorbed into the collective national psyche to the point where it is now almost imperceptible. Kids grow up playing “cops and robbers” because it’s fun. Imagine some of the kids who came of age when Dirty Harry was at its popular zenith. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a Jedi knight, because that’s what I saw in the movies. I wasn’t exposed to Harry specifically until 1988’s The Dead Pool hit video, and by then I was already well acquainted with John McClane, Axel Foley, Martin Riggs, and others. Heroic cops all, but not in any strictly traditional or prototypical way. They were cool not just because they saved the day but how. And they saved the day by being rule-breakers. Now, breaking the rules in the general sense isn’t in any way equivalent to being brutal or subjugating others because you feel you have the power to do so. But I imagine both can feel like a rush. And distorted through our personal powers of perception, either might possibly even look like fun, however fleeting. 

**For example, without “Dirty Harry”, Vic Mackey on “The Shield” almost certainly wouldn’t exist, or Jack Bauer on “24”. Bauer is a blinkered hard-ass who regularly flouts regulations, and prisoner rights, and chain of command, to get things done. Mackey is a corrupt cop only out to enrich himself, preserve his family, and protect his own neck. Harry, however much of a line-crosser in his own right, doesn’t have a traditionally corrupt bone in his body. They are nevertheless points of interest along the same pop culture continuum…or might it be more accurate to say slippery slope?

These hypotheticals all swirled in my head as I watched Dirty Harry for the first time in over ten years today. A lot can happen in ten years, of course, and lately the exchange rate seems to be especially skewed in terms of years’ worth of notable happenings occurring over the course of a single day. The movie tries its best to be worthy of the reactionary-cum-revolutionary character at its core, and largely succeeds. Over the years, it has of course been widely criticized for its perceived role in glamorizing violence on screen, but, no matter how much water that holds in the abstract, the truth is that nary a frame of Dirty Harry looks or feels or even particularly acts glamorous in the way they’re imagining. That’s due to Siegel, who imparts a sober tone on his grimy agitprop, and because Eastwood, having already constructed a full-bodied, hot-blooded if recognizably human cinematic superhero at a time when Marvel and DC were only doing so on the comic book page, understands nuance in a way that neither his critics nor adherents ever fully did. For all his affect and bluster, Harry has his doubts. He really does want to save lives, or at least punish the guilty (preferably both). After that fractured but highly quotable initial half-hour, Dirty Harry settles down into a tense, involving, street level police procedural, as Harry duels the increasingly unhinged “Scorpio” killer to a series of object lessons as frustrating draws, each followed by an immediate and terrifying resumption/escalation of hostilities. Andy Robinson does such a good job actualizing the loathsome Scorpio, and Eastwood of betraying the dogged determination seething beneath Harry’s coif, sidearm cannon, and polyester armor that we, despite our better instincts, are utterly enthralled when the latter finally does snap and blatantly violates the captured Scorpio’s rights – in part because time is of the essence, but also because, after so many close calls and damage done, he really just wants to hear the sniveling weasel squeal. 

It remains a fairly genius moment – dynamic, disturbing, and dangerously revealing of a mood and mindset that has transcended and perhaps even infected subsequent generations. In more ways than we might’ve once imagined. Pulling directly back from the football field where Harry assaults his prey, up and out of the stadium and into a fog bank as if retreating from the very act’s implications, it is possibly Siegel’s crowning achievement as a filmmaker, and, with Scorpio’s release on an outrageous but plausible technicality and various erratic depravities as he approaches a truly reckless endgame, the movie isn’t even near over yet. In a way, it never really ended. Dirty Harry is a pretty darned good movie without ever being an easy one. I can only hope that, far removed from the audience that once heartily embraced it as both, we have learned some perspective in the intervening years. Immersed in an ongoing, free-flowing, inevitably painful nationwide conversation on police brutality and the implications of systemic racism on all aspects of society, we may now want to instinctively thrust Harry Callahan – the iconic rule breaker who “hated everyone equally” – back into the closet where he has moldered for decades – out of sight and theoretically out of mind – right next to where Eastwood essentially consigned him by making Unforgiven as an Oscar-sanctioned anti-violence statement in 1992, but we cannot. He lingers for a reason, in the popular consciousness as well as our own. It would never be his style to go quietly, and we mustn’t risk abetting him in such an attempt. There’s still too much to talk about. Too much to account for. Too much to reckon with.

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