I am so glad that I finally crossed this classic off my watchlist. How on earth had I not seen Dirty Harry before? I don’t often watch action films in this vein but when I do, I question why I don’t watch more of them. I’d say that this classic is worth it.
A mad killer nicknamed Scorpio is stalking the streets of San Francisco, the character being loosely based on the Zodiac killer of the same period. Police Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), nicknamed ‘Dirty Harry’ for his unconventional reputation on cases, is tasked with catching the murderer. Directed by Don Siegel, this would be the first of five films following Callahan on the job (most notably 1983’s Sudden Impact, you know, “make my day”).
In an age (as if it ever ceased) of cases where police officers have both mistakenly and deliberately gunned down innocent people and endless stories of the failure of the justice system to properly punish criminals, it’s actually kinda nice to see a member of the police force doing his unorthodox best to catch a killer. This is Eastwood at his best – cool and iconic with a sharp tongue. It’s a joy to watch. The debates on the morality of the character and the ideologies espoused in this film are honestly endless, and it would be imprudent for me to analyse them so pathetically here. Nonetheless, there’s plenty to talk about, so here’s my six little things about Dirty Harry.
1) This film is a pretty bleak portrayal of American society in the 1970s – a curiously entertained crowd gathers to watch a man who is threatening to jump off a building, the seedy strip joints call to mind the New York of Taxi Driver (1976) and a sign reading ‘Jesus Saves’ dazzles in neon lights. Dirty Harry is a vision of a self-destructive American society in tatters after the turbulent 1960s and the conservative backlash personified by the election of Nixon in ’68.
2) It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book but the whole ‘loner inspector is dismayed to find that his new partner is a college boy, only to discover that they work well together’ schtick is a nice addition to the storyline. Make no mistake though, this is Eastwood’s film.
3) Callahan’s boss tells him, “You know, it’s disgusting that a police officer should know how to use a weapon like that.” This personifies everything that I loved about Callahan – he has an understanding of how these criminals work and cuts through the bureaucracy that can have fatal consequences in police departments. That, and his previous act of apprehending a naked man who was chasing a woman through a dark alleyway with a butcher knife.
4) This was a really interesting shot – Callahan is torturing Scorpio who screams ‘I have a right to a lawyeeeeeeer’ as the camera zooms out across the field. It’s almost grotesque, much like most of the film that left me feeling uncomfortable.
5) Speaking of, can it get anymore grotesque than Scorpio maniacally forcing the school bus of children that he’s just kidnapped to sing tunes such as Row, Row, Row Your Boat on repeat?
6) Finally, could I possibly talk about Dirty Harry without mentioning this scene? I love watching a film that I haven’t seen before and yet feeling that scenes like this are etched into my memory, word for word. “You’ve gotta ask yourself one question: ‘do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” While this early scene establishes Callahan’s credentials as an unconventional hard man, you look back and wonder if it was necessary. But maybe that’s just because it’s now folklore.
What better way to end this review than with an excuse to post music, here’s Dirty Harry by Gorillaz.