Film Threat archive logo


By Brad Laidman | January 3, 2001

In which, Clint Eastwood gives us the morally ambiguous cop for whom every red blooded white American male had always been longing. Hero as stalking killing machine. Eastwood’s neo-fascist Dirty Harry was controversial in 1971, but today he seems to be the rule, at least in the world of movies. Even the most liberal of us seem to love seeing our movie cops kick a*s. Miranda be damned. It’s one thing to show Danny Glover and Mel Gibson storm a Chinese restaurant, toss off a few ethnic slurs and cause some damage in “Lethal Weapon 4,” but imagine my surprise given people of color’s constant war with the men in blue to see Samuel L. Jackson toss away his badge and go vigilante in the “Shaft” remake. Luckily for us, we’ve got Harry Callahan and he is always right, or at least he seems to be every time they make a movie about him. Whenever we feel a little tormented about his complete disdain for civil rights, we see Clint visit a dead cop’s wife, and the sensation passes. The movie opens with a tribute list of San Francisco police officers slain in duty. I suppose one would wonder if those men would feel honored by being compared to Clint’s intensely motivated right-wing modern cowboy. Although, I have no doubt every current cop has seen this movie a thousand times, and usually in a large group filled with other cops.
If Harry Callahan had seen “A Few Good Men,” he would have loved Jack Nicholson’s “deep down you want me on that wall” speech. It’s the very essence of his being. Do these right-wingers naturally want to be cops and soldiers or is it something they get brainwashed with during basic training? Nothing wrong with seeing “Patton” 800 times in boot camp is there? The flailing liberals apparently never make it out of boot camp; they get hazed and wind up the subject of lawyer movies, which are attended by a completely different crowd.
Clint has great style in this movie. When the milquetoast liberals try to debate the finer points of Constitutional rights and freedoms, he gives them his patented, grueling slow-burn glare. After watching Dirty Harry for a while, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he suddenly emitted a flaming death ray from those intense eyes of his, and he gets ticked off here at the drop of a hat. Forgetting for a second Eastwood’s more artistic moments — his power as an actor derives from his incredible ability to dominate silence. I’m forever in love with fast-talking sharpy characters, but I have to admit that when violence is on the line, they hold up pretty poorly next to Clint just shutting up. We don’t hear about his moral dilemmas, his weaknesses, his qualms, we just sit there, wait, and shudder as we imagine the worst from the glowering giant. This is why everyone thought Sonny Liston was going to kick Cassius Clay’s a*s forty years ago. As a side note, I have no doubt about it Clint would have made a great Batman. He’s too old now, but about 15 years ago he would have been the perfect man to bring Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns” to the screen. Of course Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone borrowed from Clint’s strong silent style, but they did it mostly out of necessity because English wasn’t their first language.
I can see why this movie scared so many people. I’m fairly liberal and I find Clint’s super-cop infinitely appealing. Imagine how this movie goes down with people who already have one foot in the door of the local militia or Klan auxiliary. Even Pauline Kæl would have to admit that politics aside, this is a pretty damn effective action movie. This is Clint at maybe his best looking and healthiest, and his Inspector Callahan is perhaps every rebel’s dream. In Harry’s first bit of dialogue, he even talks trash at the mayor. He knows what matters and what doesn’t. He hates rules, and he probably would have been a drifter sharpshooter in the old western days. Today only cops get to have guns, so he had to become a cop.
This is also where the big “kill a guy and toss off a cool catch phrase” trend came from. It was a perfect model for Arnold and Sly’s movies because they only needed to remember a few cool lines. The famous one here is something to the effect of “well do ya feel lucky punk?” “Make my day” was Reagan’s favorite and who would be surprised that he was a big fan too? The “did I fire six shots or only five” gag is pretty fun as long as you can stomach the accompany sadistic thrill it gives Harry. His Callahan is single mindedly obsessed with his job. There was a lot of fun and silliness around San Francisco in those days, but I doubt Harry spent 15 minutes partying for the sum total of the ’70s. Like any real cop Harry is a bigot, but we’re told he just hates everybody, which I suppose is the fairest thing you could hope for in those days. Harry doesn’t even particularly like the people he’s sworn his life to protecting. Although, one day a crowd beats Harry up thinking he’s a lowlife, and he seems to like their chutzpah.
Stuff happens to Harry all the time. He goes for a hot dog and winds up shooting a bunch of bank robbers. He knocks a suicidal jumper cold in a classic scene that we’ll say Mel Gibson paid homage to in the first “Lethal Weapon”. All while desperately looking for a psychotic random killer. Harry’s wife was killed by a drunk driver, which makes for a great comic book hero origin. It was so good that Marvel pretty much ripped it off when they made “The Punisher”.
“Dirty Harry” has what I think is the greatest villain of all time. In a lost and forgotten great performance, Andrew Robinson is the off kilter psycho Scorpio. He’s basically Charlie Manson minus the girls. He starts shooting people and tells San Francisco they have to pay him a hundred grand to stop. He is the violent hippie, and he even has a warped peace sign for a belt buckle. Hippies are usually thought to be pretty peaceful, but I guess Manson ruined it for everybody. Robinson is gory and evil enough looking to start with, but soon he’s stabbed in the leg by Clint and winds up with a grotesque limping gait that leaves him constantly hunched over like Quasimodo. Then get this — to make Harry look bad he actually pays a huge Black guy to beat the living hell out of his face. Who knew that there was a market for this kind of service? Pretty soon Anderson is the low-down-dirty, spookiest, downright nasty-looking mother to ever grace the screen.
The key scene here is the one where Harry discovers Scorpio at Kezar Stadium. Scorpio has supposedly buried a girl alive, and in order to find out where she is Harry brutally tortures him by grinding his foot into his leg wound while Scorpio bleats out something to the effect of, “You can’t do that, I have rights, I want a lawyer.” When Harry finds out that the police are letting the killer go because he violated the guy’s rights, that’s when his nuclear glare shines the brightest. Harry is even so dedicated that he starts stalking Scorpio on his free time. Maybe we should pass a law that says you have rights unless the officer has a strong suspicion that you are a deranged loony killer and time is of the essence.
As for the sequels, it seems that Harry has a huge need to get bigger and bigger guns. By the time “Dead Pool” came out, he was shooting people with a huge harpoon gun as a sort of graying, pissed-off superhero. Poor movie cops. The bad guys always have machine guns and the best they can do is to pack some serious heat from a handgun. Essentially, after the first movie Harry Callahan become an action hero; a good action figure but still essentially an action hero. Those sequels are what essentially financed “Bird,” “White Hunter, Black Heart,” and “Unforgiven,” so they deserve some respect. In “Magnum Force,” Harry is confronted with a squad of young vigilantes that seem like his spawn. It’s an interesting premise, but after seeing him toss away his badge in the original you’d have to wonder about the realism of Harry opposing them. They are his scary offspring. It’s alright to like the movie “Dirty Harry”. Just don’t like it too much.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join our Film Threat Newsletter

Newsletter Icon