If ever people talk about “cinema magic” it is doubtful that Don Siegel’s blistering 1971 neo-noir is considered under such a term. But indeed, the film is a beguiling one. Again, a rather odd word to describe a hardboiled detective film, yet the cinematic alchemy at play when viewing is so strong. A film that critic Pauline Kael famously considered as fascist, Dirty Harry subjects us to a protagonist who is more anti-hero than hero. A man whose unorthodox policing methods and disdain for bureaucracy falls awkwardly between what we consider “the law”. When I posted on social media that I was watching Dirty Harry, I received more than one positive comment that I was watching the movie. “The GOAT” (Greatest of All-Time) claimed one response. “What a film” stated another. The amusing thing for me was that the people commenting hold rather liberal socio-political views. That of course is the thing about Dirty Harry, its potency can mesmerise even some of the staunchest tree huggers.
Selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant. Dirty Harry appeared in the December of 1971. A year which had already had Charles Manson and his “family” found guilty of the Tate-LaBianca murders. U.S Unemployment peaks at 6.1% in August and the American Army was gradually leaving Vietnam. Harry also comes out two years after the so-called summer of love of 1969, becoming a conservative bullet point at a time of political upheaval.
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William Beard, Author of Persistence of Double Vision: Essays on Clint Eastwood, claims in the short documentary A Moral Right: The Politics of Dirty Harry that a conservative audience was missing “some kind of principle of the right” in a time where many films appeared to be highlighting liberal disillusion. Describing that part of the era as a “hard time for heroes”, Harry’s assertive nature and ability to take control of all the things that were happening in the way around him was appreciated and needed by audiences. A statement that feels somewhat disingenuous when observing the best picture winners and titles which topped the box office of the whole decade.
If anything, this perhaps makes Dirty Harry even more interesting as the 6th highest-grossing film of 1971, although it was beaten out by William Friedkin’s equally morally grubby crime thriller The French Connection (Best Picture winner of that year). This writer does feel however that perhaps a film like Dirty Harry helped provide a little cubbyhole for films like Death Wish (1974), while the film itself become a franchise of five, which went on until the 80s, finishing with The Dead Pool (1988). By then the blunt edge had disappeared, leaving the series to fall into self-parody. Amusingly, in a recent watch of Predator 2 (1990), the DNA of Dirty Harry can be seen all over Danny Glover’s quick-tempered cop, Mike Harrigan. Only here, two years after the last entry of the Dirty Harry series, we can see how outlandish the cop feature could be with the blueprint.
Dirty Harry was a project conceived by screenwriting married couple Harry and R.M. Fink. Originally set in New York, before being helped into shape by Dean Riesner and transported east, this drum-tight neo-noir follows ruthlessly efficient San Francisco cop Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood). Callahan’s anger at the bureaucratic system of the law boils over when assigned the seek out Scorpio (Andrew Robinson), a deranged sniper murdering innocent victims around the Bay area. This leads him to tread a fine line between cop and criminal to catch his foe.
The main thrust of the film is in no way complicated. What stands out is the titular Harry. A man whose attitude to justice is absolute. The character is said to be loosely based on real-life law enforcer Dave Toschi, a dapperly dressed detective known for being the chief investigator for the Zodiac killings. Toschi’s swaggering mannerisms were also borrowed liberally by Steve McQueen in 1968’s Bullet. He was portrayed in a rather more subdued manner by Mark Ruffalo in David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007).
Retired inspector Gianrico Pierucci said of Toschi, who passed in 2018: “He was a good cop. He said he was always happy to get up and do his job.” It’s interesting to look at archive footage of Toschi and see where the cinematic flight of fancy takes off. Especially with Eastwood’s Callahan, who takes the idea of getting up and doing his job with all the elegance of a bulldog chewing nails. A man guided by a blunt view on justice, but also the detective who hates everyone equally and is assigned the grubby jobs other cops refuse to do. Eastwood growling his dialogue through gritted teeth and striding around San Fran in his cowboy strut shapes Harry is no conventional detective. More “The Cop with No Name” than the animal cracker snacking, professional Toschi was.
Casting Harry went through a multitude of famous names, yet it feels outlandish that Eastwood wasn’t the first name on the list. His most iconic character with good reason, the icy cold manner, hardened glare, and unexpected wit, provide a bizarre charisma. In a short documentary found on the film’s region 2 DVD, Eastwood sees the charm. Harry’s no-nonsense attitude has women attracted to him, while men wish to harness that machismo. It seems to fall through the cracks however that Harry is so married to the job, he lost his wife. A small, telling bit of character development that seems to get lost within the gunplay and retorts.
However, it’s in Harry’s “unconventional methods” that the allure of Dirty Harry comes from. A man who detests the constant red tape which stops him from performing his duty. Harry spends as much time snarling at the impeding protocols slapped on him as blasting his 44 Magnum. The ridiculous hand cannon and memorable quips are still enjoyable moments, yet it’s Harry’s doggedly determined law enforcement and streetwise behaviour which lingers longer in each rewatch. A fully assured, morally unambiguous sense of right and wrong.
It’s no surprise that the comic book Judge Dredd not only riffs on Clint Eastwood’s edgy persona but also takes the judge, jury, and executioner element of Harry to outrageous points in the 2000 AD comics. The infamous bank robbery scene is not only memorable for Harry’s “make my day” exclamation point placed at the end of the scene. What’s remarkable is watching a detective noticing something of concern in the middle distance, using the restaurant chef to survey the scene inconspicuously, and asking him to call in a “2-11” before going outside to thwart the robbers himself. The scene is also playfully cine-literate, with the nearby cinema highlighted at the beginning of the scene showing Play Misty for Me (1971). Why’s that interesting? Find out the names of the director and star after reading this piece.
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If Harry habitually steps over the line to get results, then the villain of the piece deems it entirely fair to burn the rule book to drive Callahan to his very limits. The similarities between Andrew Robinson’s Scorpio and the real-life Zodiac killer are seen. Siegel’s film pushes things further. Scorpio’s costuming and hair are a mosaic of a late-stage hippy. His peace sign belt is a jarring addition to a man whose despicable crimes seem to have no bounds. So many interactions have Harry metaphorically bringing a knife to a gunfight. Underestimating Scorpio’s derangement, while also being tied up in well… the law. Scorpio is only too happy to utilise things such as leaning on the law’s bureaucratic nature to gain the upper hand on Callahan.
Once the stakes are realised, Dirty Harry becomes dangerously compelling. Harry Callahan is a morally dubious cop. In one scene we witness Harry “help” a dangerously suicidal man. The way he does it? Let’s just say that today’s crisis negotiators would be giving Harry a fail grade. Of course, Harry’s penchant for grubby jobs and getting results places him in a unique position. Yet his pursuit of Scorpio provokes Harry to go beyond the pale. What feels so commonplace in many crimes features now, Eastwood’s Harry helped make famous. Sparking the darker imaginations of many would-be cops.
A more contemporary comparison to Harry would be Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), which composes the fight for the side of justice in more fantastical terms. Is a person so willing to circumvent the law to capture a villain who sees no line in the sand? However, the comic book shield of characters such as The Joker and Batman perhaps allows a certain step away from the material. What makes Harry so troublesome even today is how many feel the rough practices of the renegade cop reside in the back of many people’s subconscious. As mentioned in the first paragraph, Harry Callahan’s character holds a seductive appeal.
This makes Don Siegel such an interesting filmmaker to observe. It’s not the first time he pushed the buttons of the audience so well. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) questioned blind conformity in the era of McCarthyism, While The Beguiled (1971), made right before Dirty Harry, revels in its lurid melodrama and feverish sexual repression. A film which critic Jason Bailey notes becomes “almost an art-house I Spit On Your Grave” (1978). This description makes the film bolder than Sofia Coppola’s gothic 2017 remake.
There’s so much to admire from a craft point of view, which of course only edges the seduction further. Together Siegel and cinematographer Bruce Surtees capture a beautiful San Francisco under siege. The film is peppered with high vantage points and bold contrasts of bright daylight and hard shadows. An apt look for a film of its nature. The film embraces inky blacks just as strongly as anyone did in the 70s, and considering the DVD that I own of the film is nearing 20 years old, the print is still holding up.
The visuals sometimes enjoy toying with a viewer. The 40 ft neon ‘Jesus Saves’ placed in the middle of the city holds a certain pointed irony. It’s not like we haven’t seen anything like this before. John Huston’s Wiseblood (1979) does similar. However, in this earlier instance, you can see Siegel wanting to drive the point home. An earlier moment has Harry climbing to a vantage point. The camera pans across to an open view of the city. Not only does this early moment establish the San Francisco setting but also who its sheriff is. As the series of films goes on, we are made aware of Harry’s streetwise nature. He’s mistaken twice as a civilian. The conversation with the restaurant vendor is chummier than a usual patron. This air of familiarity subtly helps people side with Harry so it’s no surprise that by the time Harry is applying aggressive pressure on gun wounds, many of us are on his side.
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A film must be pretty good to allow me to be ok with this much ugly. The lawlessness of Dirty Harry taunts and challenges the more civilized side of a viewer, but Siegel’s taut command of craft placates so much of its rogue behaviour. It’s almost a crime to have gone this far and not even mention things such as the snake-hipped score from Lalo Schifrin or the tightness of the film’s screenplay from story to dialogue. Even when the film’s focus isn’t on the main narrative, each incident builds on the character or the world. The film doesn’t need Harry “psyching out suicide jumpers” and yet it’s a moment within the scene that gives us even more of Harry in his manner of doing things. If this is what he does to save people… what will he do to those he hates?
50 years on Dirty Harry is still as entertaining as it ever was. Borrowing Kevin Thomas’ quip from The Los Angeles Times about the film: “a high-style film with lowbrow appeal, a movie after which you may dislike yourself for liking it as much as you do”. Indeed, this may be the point. It’s very easy to watch what comforts you. The lasting power of such a movie is perhaps that it goes against the grain, pushing buttons that should possibly get pressed more. Unlike The French Connection, Dirty Harry revels a bit more in the idea that the audience is rooting for him. Both are wonderful crime films, but it’s no surprise that I perhaps think about the latter film more. Simply because of its confrontational power. By the time we get to 1988 and the limp-footed fourth sequel of the series, Harry is now formulaic and out of step with the action films and thrillers of the time, despite the still impact of violence. But this takes nothing away from this forceful first appearance of Harry Callahan or the controversy of his presence. Therefore, I consider it cinema magic. You still feel the pull. Even 50 years away.
Dirty Harry was released in the UK on 30th March 1972.