Dirty Harry

Dirty Harry (1971)

Dir. Don Siegel

Written by: Harry Julian Fink, Rita M. Fink, and Dean Riesner

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Andy Robinson, Reni Santoni


Clint Eastwood was one of my cinematic heroes when I was growing up. I came of age watching his films and modeling my impressions of cinematic masculinity on his stoic, skillful, ruthless archetypal characters. Whether he was the Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s famous trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns, or William Munny in Unforgiven, or Inspector Harry Callahan in the Dirty Harry films, Eastwood stood out to me as an example of American cinematic machismo. Throughout his career, he embodied so many famous characters and character types that it was easy for me to pick an Eastwood film for every mood. Sometime in my early 20s, that started to change, as I became more aware of Eastwood’s personal politics, and as he began to age, publically, and ungracefully. Though Unforgiven will likely always have a spot in my personal top ten films of all time, Clint Eastwood and his films became an early lesson for me in learning to appreciate and separate an artist’s output from his or her personal politics or persona. While I found little common ground with Eastwood as his politics became publicly more and more reactionary and right wing, I still found myself appreciating of many of the films that he directed and starred in as works of art. However, I found other films of his to fall into a grey area, where their content seemed too influenced by Eastwood for me to feel totally comfortable enjoying them. Dirty Harry, unfortunately, falls somewhere in this category.

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My reservations about the film aside, Dirty Harry is considered one of the definitive action films of its time, and deservedly so. The film, which would be followed up by four sequels of varying quality, introduced the world to Inspector Harry Callahan (Eastwood), a hard-boiled, no-rules San Francisco police detective who believes in bringing in his man at any cost. In Dirty Harry, Callahan is tasked with tracking down and apprehending Scorpio (Robinson), a serial killer who is threatening to murder one San Franciscan every day until the city obliges to pay him a ransom of $100,000. Callahan and his partner Chico (Santoni) track Scorpio across the city, nearly catching him several times, but the killer manages to elude apprehension over and over again. Scorpio teases the police department and mayor’s office with another threat, this time telling them that he’s buried a teenage girl alive and they have just a few hours to meet his demands before she suffocates. Callahan finally manages to track Scorpio to Kezar Stadium, where Scorpio hands out programs for the 49ers games, and confronts him on the football field. Harry shoots Scorpio, and tortures him by stepping on his wound until Scorpio gives up the location of the girl. However, when the police check the location, they find the girl already dead, and Scorpio is released from custody because Harry violated his civil rights. Scorpio continues his crime spree, hijacking a school bus and demanding a plane ticket out of California, but Harry is quick to cut him off. The two square off in an abandoned quarry, where Harry is quicker on the draw and manages to shoot Scorpio down. After killing Scorpio, Harry tosses his badge into a lake, unwilling to be a member of a police force upon which he cannot shoot first and ask questions later.

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I can assume, based on my editorials in that plot synopsis, that you can gather my attitude towards some of the more political or socio-political content in Dirty Harry. Dirty Harry is the story of a rogue cop who flaunts departmental procedures and scoffs in the face of citizens’ civil rights, ruling over a city with an iron fist and a .45 Magnum, daring criminals to test his authority. Of course, on the other hand, Dirty Harry is the story of a crazed serial murderer who would hold a major city hostage were it not for the endeavors of one cop, willing to make the sacrifices that others aren’t. Where your sympathies tend to fall when watching Dirty Harry is largely dependent on your existing worldview and political stance. I certainly don’t mean that anyone watching the film would necessarily be drawn to rooting for Scorpio, but that the extent to which a viewer can sympathize and root for Harry is largely dependent on their own views on authority. Clearly, the audience is intended to root for Harry Callahan, as he’s the hero of the action movie, but I personally find it really difficult to reconcile my anti-authoritarian stance with a film that asks me to root for a renegade cop. I hate cops. Always have, always will. I do understand the need for law enforcement in a society, but the brand of highly militarized law enforcement practiced currently in America is antithetical to my worldview of treating other with dignity and respecting their rights as human beings with agency. To me, Harry is just as much a psycho killer as Scorpio, and his refusal of the badge and the moniker of official power at the film’s end isn’t something to be celebrated, because Harry’s lust for power and violence doesn’t stem from his position as an authority figure, but from some deep-seeded defect inside of the character. Harry will continue his brand of vigilante justice (in no fewer than four sequels) whether he has the backing of the badge or not.

Dirty Harry is a particularly difficult film for me to watch in 2017 in light of the ongoing revelation of widespread and heinous abuses of power by police officers across America. Institutional and individual abuses of power on the part of law enforcement are certainly nothing new, but the existence of cell phone video technology and the prevalence of social media have shed a light on what I feel is the most important news story happening in America today. Every week, a new video surfaces of a cop somewhere gunning down a citizen, who is often unarmed, and almost always hasn’t committed a capital offense. Police in America have taken to playing judge, jury, and executioner in the street and on the beat, and too often the targets of their ire are young black men. Seeing Harry Callahan pointing a massive pistol in the face of a black man who is cowering on the ground, and teasing him with the famous catchphrase, “Do you feel lucky? Well do you, punk,” is simply too disturbing to me. The actions that Dirty Harry takes throughout the film and his casually bigoted attitude towards any nonwhite characters in the film are beyond the pale. While Siegel crafts an engaging and original action film around his rogue inspector, Harry Callahan simply isn’t a character that I can stomach spending any time with. His reckless, sadistic behaviors simply hit too close to home after seeing dozens of examples of modern day cops acting out their own vigilante fantasies on grainy cell phone video. As engaging and groundbreaking as the film might have been for its time, its current relevance really sours me on it.

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As I mentioned, there is an important lesson for me to learn in the films of Clint Eastwood, both those that feature him as an actor and the films that he has directed, about separating a work of art from its creator. In Dirty Harry, in particular, there’s a micro lesson that I can glean about admiring aspects of a work of art while being uncomfortable with or out of step with its overall message or presentation. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the many positive aspects that do exist throughout the film. One of the things that jumps to my mind immediately when I think of Dirty Harry is the film’s unique score, composed by Lalo Schiffrin. The soundtrack to the film is a psychedelic jazzscape, featuring unusually syncopated rhythms and atonal melodies. The acid jazz underscores the film’s many chase scenes and heightens the tension of the images, creating a natural sense of unease in the viewer through its use of dissonance. The film is also well shot, its rapid zooms and quick cuts became genre staples throughout the 1970s. Dirty Harry stands as a massively influential film, not just in its own time period, but into the present day. Unfortunately, its influence doesn’t seem totally limited to the cinema. In the film, we have examples of a rogue cop who wantonly acts out street justice, and of a psychotic killer who would, almost certainly, be one of today’s mass shooters who have utilized easy access to high-powered, military-style weapons to enact their terroristic fantasies, killing hundreds. I’m not suggesting that the current state of police/citizen relations is in any way impacted by a 45-year-old film, but that the culture of American hyper-masculinity that lionized a vigilante cop in Dirty Harry has evolved and mutated to such a degree that our society is beset with an epidemic of gun violence and of institutionalized, state-sanctioned murder of citizenry. Dirty Harry is a well-made action movie, but because of its inherent conservatism, it isn’t any fun. The film’s current relevance saps it of any of its levity for me, and it isn’t a film that I’ll likely be watching again.

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