Movie Review – Dirty Harry

The blueprint for every “rough justice” cop movie filmed since, and spawning four sequels itself, this gritty, rough-diamond crime flick brought star Eastwood in from the Westerns and onto the streets, a modern cop with a violent, angry way of getting the job done. Dirty Harry became synonomous with the hard-bitten, violent, anti-social crime films that came since, and remains one of the defining moments of the genre. Still potent even today, Dirty Harry played to Eastwoods strengths: his leading man status is again proven right.


– Summary –

Director : Don Siegel.
Cast : Clint Eastwood, Andy Robinson, Harry Guardino, Reni Santoni, John Larch, John Mitchum, John Vernon, Lyn Edgington, Ruth Kobart, Woodrow Parfrey.
Year Of Release : 1971
Length : 102 Minutes.

Synopsis: When a sniper holds the city of San Fransisco hostage by threatening to kill people unless he is given money, Detective “Dirty” Harry Callahan and his new partner are given the task of tracking him down and stopping him.  Callaghan’s methods bring him into the firing line of his superior officers, and he must run the risk of being expelled from the force to bring this madman to justice.

Review : The blueprint for every “rough justice” cop movie filmed since, and spawning four sequels itself, this gritty, rough-diamond crime flick brought star Eastwood in from the Westerns and onto the streets, a modern cop with a violent, angry way of getting the job done. Dirty Harry became synonymous with the hard-bitten, violent, anti-social crime films that came since, and remains one of the defining moments of the genre. Still potent even today, Dirty Harry played to Eastwood’s strengths: his leading man status is again proven right.


Ahh yes, the original. Caught a showing of this film a while back on local TV here in Australia, and thought it might be good to give you my opinion on it. For those unaware, Dirty Harry was the first in a series of five films depicting the escapades of Harry Callahan, a San Fransisco cop whose methods are unusually…. brutal. The Harry films embedded Clint Eastwood into the pop-culture conciousness, spawned a stream of now classic quotes, and gave us the anti-authority police officer archetype, the kind who “don’t take no crap from nobody” and who will bust your ass if you get in his way, in much the same way that he became the definitive cowboy figure from his pulp westerns under the guidance of Sergio Leoni.

Dirty Harry came along in 1971: the Sixties were done and the world, and America, was entering a new age of cynicism, apathy and unease. The swinging sixties were about to give way to the sexual revolution and drug-laced counterculture of the 70’s, a time of beatniks and hippies. Dirty Harry came along just before this idealized time, though, with his no-nonsense brand of policing and social justice giving the world a little hope that things weren’t in such bad shape. According to various sources, Eastwood was not the first choice to play the ice-cold copper; instead it was written as a part for Frank Sinatra! While this may be hard to imagine, other actors also in the running for the role of Callahan included Marlon Brando and Audie Murphy, however when they all passed, Eastwood took the job.

The story revolves around a serial killer (Andy Robinson) calling himself “Scorpio” terrorizing San Fransisco, demanding money from the city otherwise he will kill people via sniper rifle. Detective Harry Callahan, working from the homicide division, is given the case, and a new, inexperienced partner, Chico (Reni Santoni). Callahan’s authority complex usually gets him into trouble, although his methods of extracting results usually end up with criminals off the streets: until they are found to have been mistreated, not given due process or some other legal loophole which allows them back onto the streets. Callahan resents this kind of red-tape mentality, and at one point in the film says “who speaks for [the victims]?”, after Scorpio, at one point captured, is released on a technicality. Scorpio becomes more vindictive after this, pointing his rage at Callahan, and takes a bus-load of schoolkids hostage. From there it’s a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse between the detective and the killer, with only one left standing at the end of it.

Go ahead, make my day!
Go ahead, make my day!

Dirty Harry is a dirty, pulp-inspired tour-de-force of violence, revenge and social retribution, directed in an almost veritè style by Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Two Mules For Sister Sara, Coogans Bluff). Almost entirely hand-held, the film feels more like a documentary than an action film, and while certainly tame by some of today’s standards, is quite shocking in it’s violence. Callahan’s capture of Scorpio on the football field, after a long and breathless pursuit, is one of those moments where you just hope he shoots the bastard; as Scorpio lies bleeding, wounded, on the ground, Callahan stands over him, gun drawn, leering down at the prostrate man, before pushing his foot into Scorpios badly wounded leg. The camera begins to pull away, leaving us without resolution as to the fate of Scorpio: did Harry kill him as revenge, or did he bring him in to face justice. A wonderful shot, melancholy, deliberate, cool. There’s a sense of vengeance and justice in Callahan, a moral fortitude that the film seems to revel in as lacking from society as a whole.

At the time Dirty Harry appeared on the scene, a lot of fuss was being made in legal circles for the recent case of Miranda vs Arizona, in which a decision was made over a criminal suspects right to silence, which impacted law enforcement across the US by mandating that a suspect had to be informed of his right to silence upon his/her arrest. These became known as the Miranda Rights, and the debated question of what rights a criminal has is a pertinent one that Dirty Harry tackles. You see, Callahan is of the belief that the police are there to protect the innocent, the helpless and the vilified, and that if somebody decides to commit a crime, then their “human rights” become null and void, something to which the Miranda Rights issue would bring into question.

During the course of his initial arrest of Scorpio, Callahan neglects to carry out the procedure with the correct methods, resulting in the judge allowing the killer to walk free on a technicality. This provokes the aforementioned quote from Callahan about protecting the rights of the victim. It’s a valid question, and a valid moral issue: at what point does a criminal, especially a killer or increasing savagery like Scorpio, lose his right to a fair and just trial or hearing, given the heinousness of his crimes? Who protects society from people like Scorpio if the law allows them back onto the street for not crossing the i’s and dotting the t’s? Dirty Harry, in some ways, attempted to question this ethical dilemma in a brutal, violent way: yet Harry isn’t without redemption. As a kid, and never being allowed to watch such a violent film, I always thought Harry was the bad guy, or was somebody with a mean streak who just doled out his own form of police brutality and damn the consequences. After a more mature viewing, I discovered that Callahan is perhaps the one cop I’d want covering my back in a fight: he holds the moral high ground and holds it well.

The most powerful handgun in the world.....
The most powerful handgun in the world…..

The film’s look and style have been much copied in the years since: the realism and gritty natural style of the film really grabs your attention, the themes, while buried underneath a 70’s veneer of vengeance and retribution, are still socially viable today, and the characters themselves parodied and copied in other films afterwards. The calm, frosty cop, his sidekick who a) doesn’t understand what’s going on, or b) tries to be like his partner but fails and is killed/wounded, the police chief who constantly tries to get the cop to conform to the rules, but secretly admires the man’s efforts, and the criminal who severely underestimates the police force to track them down. Recent film series’ in which these classic touchstones have been glimpsed include Lethal Weapon and even Arnie’s The Last Action Hero, the latter of which actually takes these cliches and expands them into self-contained story arcs of sorts. There would be many others, but here, finally, we have the originator.

Dirty Harry isn’t anywhere nearly as violent as you might expect, or as legend would have you believe. Yes, it does contain some graphic bloody moments, but contextually they’re nothing as gory as we’ve come to expect from “cinema” these days. Where Dirty Harry gets it’s more adult rating is from it’s themes. The revenge/vengeance motif is dominant, for sure, but the ethics of justice and the achievement of it, is perhaps more pertinent, and more rewarding, if one chooses to dig further in. Eastwood’s Harry really is a stand-up guy, a paragon of good cop, of catching the bad guys no matter the cost or consequences. For those liberal enough to subscribe to this ideal, that justice should be served no matter the cost, perhaps you’ll find a kindred spirit watching this film. For those more reserved to human rights across the board, criminals included, then this film will no doubt continue to cause outrage. Whatever ethical standard you subscribe to, you’ll still find something to appreciate, enjoy or identify with in Dirty Harry.

One of the defining roles (among the many) of Eastwoods early career, Dirty Harry remains a pivotal cinematic moment: not simply for the now classic lines the characters spouts when dealing with scum, but for the open wound it inflicted upon cinemagoers with a new form of storytelling. Brutal and thematic, Dirty Harry still packs a punch.





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