It’s one of the most-quoted films of all time, the basis for entire sub-genres, and the film most directly responsible for giving Clint Eastwood a post-Spaghetti Western career. Yet you’d be hard pressed to find five people in the same place who’ve actually seen Dirty Harry for what it is. I, for example, had never seen it in its entirety until last week. That’s what happens when you spend your childhood watching shitty monster movies (or even good monster movies, for that matter).
I got burnt out, is the thing. Wrestling with Captain America really got to me, but considering what it did to Christopher Lee, I got off easy. So I decided to recharge my batteries by reaching back to a now-officially-classic piece of American film making. It was time to plug one of the more-obvious holes in my personal cinematic education. It was time to start counting shots.
So Dirty Harry, for the increasingly large number of people who might not know, opens with the 1971 equivalent of today’s Islamofascorist: the Lone Gunman. In this case, it’s a rooftop sniper who kills a woman in a pool for…no real reason, apart from the fact that “thrillers” need to start off somehow. And what better way than Murder Most Foul? So the camera leaves our Killer to favor of following the policeman in charge of investigating this senseless crime, San Francisco Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood).
Harry, through the magic of geometry and observation, finds the Killer’s sniper nest and the note the Killer left pinned to a TV antenna, warning that his next targets will either be a Catholic priest or an African American…unless the city pays him one hundred thousand dollars (man must’ve gone to the “start your bidding low” school of terrorist extortion). We get our first true glimpse into Harry’s personality when he mouths off to the mayor instead of providing a progress report like the good little tin soldier the Mayor (John Vernon), the Chief (John Larch), and Harry’s Leiutenant (Harry Guardino) all think he should be. Because Harry is more than a Cop Who Doesn’t Play By the Rules – he’s the Cop Who Doesn’t etc. etc.
You have to ignore a whole hell of a lot of history to see Dirty Harry with fresh eyes, and it’s impossible to recreate the experience of watching this film in 1971. It’s safe to call this one of the most important films of the late 20th century. We can thank this film for Martin Riggs, John McClane, Cobra, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career. We can also thank it for a vault’s worth of shitty Italian knock offs and the modern plague of police procedurals. I’d go so far as to say modern Cop Mythology begins Dirty Harry and has since reached its logical conclusion in places like 24 and CSI: Wherever The Hell We Are This Time.
But we can’t fault the film for that. Like Halloween, it proceeded in ignorance of what it would bring down upon us all, a true Lovecraftian protagonist. Because it’s really the story of a smart-mouthed, cynical, misanthropic asshole who’s either the worst cop in the world, or just the unluckiest. I swear, Callahan must’ve arrested an old gypsy woman at some point in the past (“accidentally” breaking her arm in the process) since he can’t even sit down to eat a hot dog without a bank robbery going off across the street.
It’s like all those shots in the Felisher Superman cartoons, of Clark Kent looking up from his desk, or tuning into a radio, or stalking out the Daily Planet Building to gawk at the latest giant flying robot. I don’t know about you, but I always imagined Clark’s face looking a bit like Harry’s when he realizes someone’s trying to pull a Dog Day Afternoon on his lunch break. That look doesn’t say, “This looks like a job for Superman,” it says exactly what Harry’s mouth says: “Shit.”
As Harry blew away the bank robbers (leading to his first “…you gotta ask yourself one question,”) I realized this was 1971 – only seven years after the Man With No Name strode into town looking for that Fist Full of Dollars. And I realized Harry Callahan was that man, torn out of time and reborn into a modern world too chaotic and random for his old-school sense of “justice.” This world’s very capriciousness is an insult to Harry’s beliefs in the underlying moral order of the universe. So he imposes what order he can with his hand cannon and his badge. Thus we see the Cop Who etc. etc. as a modern-day, revisionist Western anti-hero, with sunglasses replacing his cool hat and those ugly-ass tweed suits acting as his modern serape…but that’s the same man underneath. And there’s the film’s real gag.
But first, let’s talk about its smaller gags – like how Dirty Harry fools you into thinking this’ll be an all-singing, all-dancing, all-shootouts rampage-a-thon with that gratuitous bank robbery. Instead, what develops is a rather nice slice-of-life police procedural, centered around apparently the only guy the SFPD calls for “any dirty job” that needs doin’. Like catching serial snipers, breaking up Convenient Bank Robberies, or escorting suicidal jumpers down off of their ledges with the strategic deployment of a fist to the face.
When the fire department first asks Harry to climb in the bucket, notice the look on Harry’s partner, Inspector Gonzalez’s, face. Gonzalez’s sheer disbelief that anyone in their right fucking mind would send Harry Motherfucking Callahan to talk down a suicide is equaled only by my own.
Really, though, Harry’s the messiah, suffering and dying for the sins of mankind. Like any good martyr, Harry wages a daily war against the rotting excesses of a corrupt and callous society ruled over by bureaucrats who’ve grown deaf to the suffering of their people. Why else would so many weird, Christian motifs appear throughout, especially whenever Harry and The Killer square off? Staking-out San Fran’s rooftops, Harry takes up position right under a gigantic, neon “Jesus Saves.” Forced to deliver the Killer’s ransom money by a mayor who must hate his job as much as we’re meant to hate him, Harry and the Killer eventually meet under a the gaze of a giant stone cross…which the Killer makes Harry face – practically kiss. Eventually (and amazingly, by modern standards) the Killer kicks Harry’s ass, reducing him to a bloody mess at the foot of that cross before Harry gets The Killer back with a knife to the knee cap. Because that’s how this Savior rolls. “Jesus” is the first word out of Harry’s mouth and one of the last words out of the Killer’s. It’s enough to drive a guy insane. Hence the first lines in the theatrical trailer:
“This is about a movie about a couple of killers – Harry Callahan and a homicidal maniac. The one with the badge is Harry.”
So let’s turn to the homicidal maniac, played by Andrew “Andy” “Garak” Robinson in – I shit you not – his feature film debut, officially qualifying Robinson for my list of People Who Should be More Famous than They Are. Robinson’s Killer – who signs his letters “Scorpio” – is the most-influential movie monster of his generation. In Scorpio we see every bullshit, one-note Killer in every crappy Cop Drama from here to eternity, so help us God and Harry, amen.
I’m amazed “Andy” manages to make Scorpio such an engaging antagonist. It’s a testament to his ACTING skill since the script gives him absolutely nothing to work with. No back story. No characterization beyond standard Movie Insanity. Barely any dialogue, either, apart from the occasional violation of the First Commandment. Yet Scorpio’ scenes are textbook cases of characterization through expression and testaments to Don Siegel’s powers of directing. Robinson has such big expressions and Siegel selected so many good ones that I ended up “liking” Scorpio more than any of his subsequent imitators. (In so much as one can “like” the bigoted, psycho-killer antagonist of a standard Cop Drama.) I even like the way they dress his sets. Little fucking bastard would be a Raiders fan, wouldn’t he?
So why’s this film so famous? Or infamous to some? Well, both Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert called it “fascist” when it first came out, so there’s that. In order to understand why, I’d have to spoil it for you…if forty years of rip-offs hadn’t already done that.
The first hour of the film is everything I want in a Cop Drama. It’s got a taciturn, badass protagonist who’s put upon without being melodramatic or overemotional. It’s got a crazy villain played by one of my favorite actors. It smoothly and organically ratchets up the tensions and increases its complexity as Harry and the other cops react to Scorpio’s increasingly erratic desperation. Someone should strap Jerry Bruckheimer, Steven Bochco, and Shawn Ryan into Clockwork Orange rigs and force them to watch this film until its divinely-constructed principals are burned straight into their brains.
Then Dirty Harry falls apart once Harry tracks Scorpio to his lair – the groundskeeper’s quarters of a stadium I don’t recognize because…well, fuck your sports, is why. Harry climbs over the fence and Scorpio flees as best he can with one functional knee. Harry pursues and the two wind up squaring off in the middle of a football field – the modern age equivalent of old Rome’s Circus Maximus, site of many a martyrdom. Harry wings Scorpio with his hand cannon and approaches the Killer with menace in his voice…because he’s Clint Eastwood, damnit, and that’s just how he talks. The camera pans back from this tableau as Scorpio screams about his “rights”…as if the film itself cannot stand to face what Harry’s about to do.
This is such a logical place to end the narrative I had to pinch myself when the movie, against all common sense, continued. Then I realized the last 40 years of Cop Dramas had not, in fact, been in vain. Believe it or not, the genre has actually moved forward. These days, no Cop worth his inability to Play By the Rules would dare confront the Killer before end of Act Two.
Here, Scorpio’s initial capture is the end of Act Two. Act Three opens with Harry meeting the D.A. (Josef Sommer) and a circuit court judge (William Paterson) who both concur that Scorpio must be set free. Evidence gained through Harry’s search would be inadmissible in court since Harry didn’t have a warrant to break and enter into Scorpio’s “home” and Harry violated at least five amendments in the course of making his arrest. The D.A.’s not about to waste two hundred grand on a trial he can’t win so, sorry Harry, but that man has his “rights.”
Except this is bullshit of the highest order! A needless plot contrivance meant to pad the film out to feature length. An unforgivable sin that keeps me from becoming the kind of ra-ra-sis-boom-ba, Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry fan I probably sounded like a few paragraphs ago. It’s as if two scripts, both about two thirds of the way completed, were horrifically sown together by some mad scientist out to make some kind of…I don’t know, movie centipede.
Even if the sniper rifle Harry found and the Killer Shrine on Scorpio’s wall are inadmissible, Scorpio just beat Harry down in a public park under a giant fucking cross not ten minutes of movie ago. Harry’s partner, Gonzalez, is your witness. Scorpio proceeded to shoot Gonzalez, seriously wounding him, to the point where Gonzalez uses that as his excuse to quite the force. Scorpio would’ve probably killed him outright had Harry not introduced the Killer to Mr. Stabby-Stab. Come to think of it, that knife that would be covered in Scorpio’s blood and match the wounds on his leg exactly. Add the testimony of that hole-in-the-wall doctor who treated Scorpio’s wound (and recognized him on sight, and led Harry to his hideaout) and boom. That’s at least enough to get a grand jury indictment. Go to trial and you could easily get twenty-five-to-life with that in the hands of a good ADA. Fuck me, Scorpio up and left you a note in the first scene! You can’t get one good handwriting sample out of this joker before he gets out?
No, because the film is purposefully dumbing itself down in order to bludgeon the audience with its Message For Our Time. One Harry helpfully spells out for us and all the mouth-breathers in audience. “What about that little girl?” The little girl Scorpio kidnaps once the police drive him off of The City’s rooftops. “What about her rights?” Yes, indeed. It’s the kind of Message Bludgeoning that leaves permanent marks and lowers the collective I.Q. of entire nations. The Law – created as it was by the very same, mealy-mouthed beurocrats who are now constrained from doing The Right Thing by their creations – has failed Victims in an effort to protect Criminals. “Then the Law’s wrong,” Harry says, appealing instead to a Higher Authority.
That’s why both Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert mistook this film for fascist propaganda. And honestly, if you tilt your head a bit, it kinda is. Who says the Higher Authority Harry appeals too is some just, benevolent God? Does that kind of God rule Harry’s universe (never mind ours for the moment)? Harry’s Higher Authority could just as easily be “the safety and security of America.” Replace “America” with “Germany” and you’ve got Heinrick Himmler on the stand at Nuremberg, telling his prosecutor that, while every horrible thing the Third Reich ever did might be considered illegal in a democracy, they were all necessary at the time and under the Reich. To protect Germany, you see. Not its people, be they victims or criminals, since such distinctions don’t really matter to actual fascists. No, when they spoke of nations they spoke of a greater body politic that transcended Enlightenment notions about the “rights” of the “individual.” In truly fascist regimes, the “individual” and hish “rights” are not even conceptualized. They becoming meaningless concepts, allowing every harsh, extra-legal action to be justified in the name of protecting…whatever it is you’re protecting. And the first thing all fascists do these days is stand up and boldly procliam, “I’m not fascist! Those whinny, pansy-ass liberals over there, they’re the fascists! We need to burn down their houses and force them into camps before their lovey-dovey talk of ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’ opens the door for a takeover by foreigners!”
So what, exactly, is “Dirty” Harry Callahan protecting here? His wife is dead (of course), killed by a drunk driver last year. “No reason for it.” Harry doesn’t even really know why he does what he does himself. He’s obviously ill-suited for anything else besides hurting people. Almost as if he were specifically designed to hurt criminals. As if he were as much of a one-note cypher as his antagonist; an empty, protagonist-shaped box into which the audience can put whatever they like.
Yet the film is always, always, going out of its way to Designated Harry as the Hero. You feel for the poor bastard right from the start. Bad enough his superiors force him to deliver cash to a mad man. Bad enough the mad man runs him all over town in an attempt to evade surveillance. With all that on his shoulders, Harry still has to face off against gangs of toughs, drunk homeless dudes, and propositions from suicidal twinks. It’s as if San Francisco itself is attacking, rising up to aid Scorpio in his completely-unexplored ends. And if we have any doubts as to the real cause of Scorpio’s madness we need only listen to Harry’s dialogue as he and Gonzalez drive around the Tenderloin.
Harry: These loonies there; I’d throw a net over the whole bunch of ’em.
Gonzalez: I know what you mean.
I do too, Harry:
When they go, I will throw my net over them; I will pull them down like birds of the air. When I hear them flocking together, I will catch them. Woe to them, because they have strayed from me! Destruction to them, because they have rebelled against me! I long to redeem them but they speak lies against me. (Hosea 7:12-13)
Yet, despite all this, Harry never once displays the true blue fascist’s hatred of The Other. He’s got a glare, snarl, and cutting remark for everybody. So much so that his colleagues praise him for his Equal Opportunity Hatred of all creeds, colors and coital choices. Harry Callahan, in the parlance of our modern rap stars, just don’t give a fuck.
So we see Harry’s Higher Authority is, at the end, neither God nor the State. Harry’s a nihilist, pure and simple. The daily horrors of his job and the absence of any counterbalance has left him a hollow shell, more of a Ghost Who Walks than any of the twenty-one Phantoms known to recorded history.
And since none of the crap Harry goes through is necessarily his fault I can’t even call him a tragic hero. The film just throws roadblocks in his way for our amusement. That’s the real reason why the political structure of this universe’s San Francisco is powered by Pure, Grade-A Stupid. Jesus Christ, if the Mayor wants to give into a crazy person’s demands that’s fine. (Well, it’s not – it’s totally unbelievable, but whatever.) But what Mayor in the multiverse would be stupid enough to promise that crazy person “he would not be molested”…and then send Harry Motherfucking Callahan out to the meet-up? That’s a whole new level of Stupid we would not see again until Mayor Vaughn refused to close his town’s beaches.
I think Dirty Harry could stake a good claim to being the Ultimate Nihilist’s Film. No less a luminary than Robert Michum (who turned the part of Harry down) called it one of those “movies that piss on the world,” and who are you to argue with a man who stormed Normandy in 1962’s The Longest Day? That being the case, I can’t help but like Dirty Harry. Even if the whole Third Act is a tacked on exercise in padding and Blunt Force Message Trauma. This is the American Action Movie’s Citizen Kane, an enduring inspiration, and a monument to good filmmaking. Too bad about all those sequels, homages and rip-offs. They’ve only diluted this flick’s inherent impact.
But there’s a very good reason Dirty Harry‘s been so inspirational. The film is, at its core, quite the deft character study. By injecting the Western Anti-Hero into a modern setting it allowing America’s silent “majority” to believe cops were still the virtuous agents of God and His eternal (Law &) Order they all want their cops to be…despite what the Supreme Court, or the social activists of the time, might’ve said, having learned from many a varied and painful experience.