Dirty Harryrecommended viewing

Loaded argument
Don Siegel
Clint Eastwood, Harry Guardino, Reni Santoni, Andrew Robinson
The Setup: 
Harry’s not afraid to take the law into his own hands!

don’t know why I suddenly thought it would finally be a good idea to see this, but there it was, and looking fabulous in blu-ray. The problem with blu-ray, however, is that I can’t take frames off it with my computer, so I can’t take exactly the stills I want, and that annoys me [I actually ended up de-subscribing from Blu-Ray access on Netflix for this very reason—you see how much I GIVE for you?]. We open with a shot of this tribute in a San Francisco civic building to all the cops who have given their lives in the line of duty. Then we’re on a rooftop, looking at a woman in a pool through a rifle’s shots. He shoots the woman, and leaves a note, saying he wants $100,000 or he’ll kill a person a day, starting with an Catholic priest or, ahem, an African-American. We also have the credits, in which we learn that the music is by Lalo Schifrin, and this is directed by Don Siegel, director of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Charley Varrick.

It isn’t very long into the proceedings that it becomes very clear that this film laid the template for almost every cop movie and TV show that followed. We can tell initially when Harry Callahan, that’s Clint, is called in to see the Mayor and mouths off to him. The Mayor recalls an incident in which Harry shot a guy because of his “intent” to rape—but how could he know he intended this? Because he was naked, had a hard-on and was chasing her with a meat cleaver. It makes for a good one-liner, but how many rapes do you really think go down that way?

Harry’s then enjoying a hamburger when he notices a bank robbery in progress. He calls the cops, trying to follow procedure, but when the guys are making their getaway, he knows he can’t wait. So he shoots the robbers from a good distance, right in the middle of a busy street. He comes up to one guy laying in the street, within reach of a gun, and goes into this whole speech about how he has to gamble if Harry has one bullet left in his .44, which could blow is head clear off. So the only question he has is “Do ya feel lucky? Well do ya, punk?” While this is happening we have Harry in an upward shot [that excludes view of any of the public bystanders who might easily have been shot by a stray bullet—below] showing him holding the gun pointed right at the camera. THIS is the moment that I think really energizes audiences about this movie: that you are there with a huge gun right to someone’s head and in a position of absolute power, capable of “blowing their head clear off” at a whim. This is also the crux of the protests people have about this movie: Should audiences really be getting off on imagining that kind of power?

By the way, the bank robbers were all black. Harry then gets stitched up by a black doctor, seemingly there to demonstrate that there are good, upstanding blacks in the world that Harry trusts. We then watch as the killer eyes a black gay man through his sights, but is interrupted by a police helicopter. Harry then gets a new partner, Chico Gonzales, who of course he doesn’t want. In here we start getting the various explanations given for why he’s called Dirty Harry. The first is that he hates all racial groups equally. The second, after he gets a suicide jumper down from a precipice by insulting him, is that he gets every dirty job in the city.

So they send Harry to deliver the money to the killer, leading to this park with a huge cross. The killer calls out orders from the woods, and you’ll notice that when Harry is ordered to put his nose to the cross, we get a POV shot of the cross from an inch away. The killer comes out and kicks the shit out of Harry, breaking two ribs, but Harry stabs him in the leg.

The next night, Harry is out climbing fences and chasing the killer through an abandoned stadium, despite the fact that he’s got two broken ribs! What a tough guy. The killer is also limping around on his lame leg and I have to say it was a bit refreshing as both of them did truly seem to be in pain, and hadn’t just forgotten about their wounds, as often seems to be the case. Harry shoots the killer in the leg and demands to know where the girl is—some girl was kidnapped in here somewhere—and when the killer won’t answer, and starts saying he has rights and he wants to see his lawyer, Harry puts his foot right on the guy’s wounded leg and bears down. It’s torture! Then we go into this long pull-out that must have been accomplished by helicopter, as it starts close on Harry and pulls all the way out into the air above the stadium. What this shot does, however, is acknowledge that it is a BIG DEAL that Harry tortures this guy, which will be a point when we get to discussing this movie’s ethics.

Let us pause to mention that Lalo Schifrin’s score clearly laid the groundwork for countless cop drama scores to follow, and is referred to on Wikipedia as “Acid Jazz 25 years before that genre came about” or something to that effect.

So Harry goes in to his boss who says that if anything, HARRY should be arrested! He violated four different amendments, tortured the guy, and in general was rather brusque and uncongenial. The killer gets to go free—because his confession and the huge rifle they found are inadmissible as evidence, because Harry didn’t have a warrant! Goddamn it, can’t you see how government bureaucracy gets in the way of mowing scumbags down?! Harry’s outraged, and says he’s going to start following the killer on his own time.

Then the killer goes to this hideaway where he pays this black guy to severely beat him. I thought this fellow must be pretty kinky, but it turns out he did it so he could run to the media and say that Harry did it. Kind of a cool twist, but they should have saved it for a movie in which they were prepared to follow through on it, as the whole angle is summarily dropped and goes absolutely nowhere.

Somewhere in here Harry’s partner Gonzales got shot, and Harry visits him and his wife in the hospital. He says he’s going to retire from police work, it’s too dangerous for him. Gonzales’ wife asks Harry why he stays in it if it’s such an awful life, and he says “I don’t know.” He also reveals that his wife was killed by a drunk driver, and that there was “no reason for it.” These are brief little tidbits, but they work to deepen the characters here enough to overcome what would—at least by 2009—be unbearably banal cliches.

Okay, time for the climax. The killer takes a school bus with seven kids hostage. He smacks around one of the kids and makes him feel really pooty. Then they’re driving somewhere when he spots Harry standing on a bridge—somehow having known precisely where this guy was going? But it’s well done, with Harry looking all iconic up on the bridge [in trademark suit and tie], and shown reflected in the windows of the school bus as the killer inside freaks. Harry jumps on the roof of the bus, and after a long struggle, has the killer wounded and in the close-range sights of his .44 Magnum. And guess what—he repeats the exact same “Ask yourself: Do I feel lucky?” speech from the beginning, word for word, making it seem that Harry may be just a tiny bit loony himself. Finally he blows the guy away. In a final little bit, Harry goes off to this pond-pit thing, gazes contemplatively at his badge, and tosses it in.

The movie brings up several ethical questions, which it answers in different ways. Eastwood says at the time there was a lot of liberal attention paid to the legal rights of criminals, and he felt the rights of victims were being forgotten, and that this movie tapped into a widespread social desire to get past all that mamby-pamby rights stuff and just get to who the scum is, and blow that scum away without a lot of whining and brie and paperwork. And apparently this appealed to a conservative base that thought that society in '71 was going too far down a liberal path that made a lot of complications when we all know who the criminals are, and cops should be able to just go out and get them without having their hands tied by a bunch of rights malarkey.

The thing is, at least with this movie, is that it’s a very loaded argument. Harry never misses, so when he opens fire in a crowded street, he never accidentally hits a bystander [although in reality the gun he uses is not used in police work because it is so powerful bullets are known to go through the target and hit someone else]. Harry is never wrong, so he never kills or arrests someone who isn’t a criminal. So it all works out in the movie, but you can just imagine the same shoot-first ethos in another cop with “values” most others don’t share—what if he was racist? And just thought that he was right and just went around killing and torturing blacks because of the righteousness of his belief? You’d have something like the crazed cop at the beginning of Dawn of the Dead. So this movie works because everything just happens to always work out perfectly for Harry, and we never have to deal with the more messy reality and ambiguity a character like his would have to stand up to in real life.

That said, this movie does a great job of capitalizing on amplifying that desire for power in the audience, the wish to just cut through the red tape and hold a gun to some guys’ head, and to let us vicariously hold that gun and feel that power. The way the movie can do all this reasonably is that it is fairly deep with its characters and it casts Harry as an aberration, going far to distance the point of view of the movie itself from his actions. He’s not just a righteous urban avenger, the movie says, he’s a little obsessed and crazy too. When he repeats the exact same “Do I feel lucky?” speech, word for word, to the killer at the end, the focus is not on how awesome he is, but that he may in fact be a little nutso, which goes far to help the movie retreat from full-on supporting Harry’s actions. The movie can do a lot of this—including and especially the badge-throwing at the end—because it was the first, and wasn’t made with sequels in mind. Therefore Harry can be set up as a little crazier and more obsessed, since they aren’t planning a long line of movies… yet. His actions can also have serious consequences, like that badge-throwing, which lays out a number of implications—is he going to go full-on rogue?—that I’m sure they retreat from right quick in the first of the sequels.

There’s just so much to say about this movie. What’s most interesting about this movie to me is how it has been MISinterpreted as being a full-on endorsement of its shoot-first ethos—which the movie itself is not explicitly against, but is clearly ambiguous about. It’s impossible to quantify such things, to pull out the thread of influence of a film and see precisely how it affected society, but if I could pick a short list of films I’d like to do that with if I could, this might be on it. One thing I would LOVE to know is the place of this film in the lives of Bush and Cheney, as the ethos here is really what become the most salient part of their overall view: “We know who the bad guys are, so we should be able to just go kill them without having to worry about a bunch of mamby-pamby laws.” And the arguments against them are the same as one has against Harry in this movie; simply: “What if you’re wrong?” In the movie, Harry is always right, has the entire movie constructed to support his viewpoint, and never misses a shot or makes a mistake. Ah well, if only life were more like the movies.

Nevertheless, something you need to see, given how influential it remains to this day, almost forty years later. This movie virtually created the entire cop genre as we know it now, and it’s something worth seeing. It’s also just a bang-up thriller about an obsessed cop and a psychotic killer, that’s very involving and exciting to watch. If you’ve never seen it, you should pretty much just go for it.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it’s very influential and a great pulp thriller, too.