(0039X) Dirty Harry

Dirty HarryDecember 26, 1971 | 3 weeks at #1

Seen by Martin before? No

What did I expect? A brutalist police movie with an agenda.

What did I get? Hooooo, boy. In Dirty Harry entertainment and politics have a fight to the death, and — well, in all honesty entertainment wins, in the world at large anyway. But here at Boffo politics is going to get its day in court — big surprise. I also view Dirty Harry as a war between two fantasies, the revenge fantasy that the Bay Area understandably needed after the Zodiac Killer case, trumped by the more regrettable political fantasy of a world in which liberals have no sway. In short, this is a stirring, problematic movie.

Eastwood’s Harry Callahan clearly conforms to some kind of debased knight-errant or samurai archetype, and the movie should really be taken as an attempt, largely successful, at modern myth. It doesn’t work on me, but then it wasn’t designed to work on me. Indeed, it was pretty much designed to poke me in the eye over and over again. Point is, those mythic elements — which are also its propagandistic elements — are most present at the start and the end of the movie, and it’s precisely those elements that tend to bend the movie out of its natural shape. There are entire stretches in which Callahan is presented more or less “straight,” possessed of conventional charm and fallibility, just like any other nuanced, interesting character. Those parts of the movie are conventionally enjoyable, because they require no political agenda.

Problem is, agenda overwhelms the other parts of the movie, ultimately making it difficult to enjoy conventionally. If you have serious problems with the movie’s overt conservatism, it’s likely you won’t enjoy the movie much. It might be better to think of Dirty Harry not as a serious movie (it does have pretensions to seriousness) but as straight B-movie escapism that is cannily pursuing a place in the political conversation. Dirty Harry is a conservative fantasy that answers a powerful need in the audience to express its displeasure about the crime problem; that is its function, not any actual solutions or program it might provide. But in its zeal to address that need, it puts its thumb on the scales.

The two things I would say to conservative (or, for that matter, apolitical) lovers of Dirty Harry are (1) it seems highly unlikely that the Scorpio Killer would have been released in the circumstances presented; and (2) Harry Callahan is crazy reckless!

Let’s hit the second one first. Harry is depicted (SPOILER ALERT!) firing rounds at criminals in the presence of many innocent bystanders, and at the end of the movie he dispatches Scorpio with his famous .44 Magnum, while the killer is holding a small child hostage, literally using the boy as a shield. I think anyone taking the movie seriously enough to think, “See, liberals are pussies” etc. should really take a moment to ponder whether a cop like this is really what we want on the streets — a cop who doesn’t have the scriptwriter making sure his choices come out okay. Enough said on that point.

As far as Scorpio’s Miranda and Escobedo rights are concerned, I am very skeptical that the liberal emphasis on criminal rights achieved protections as rock-solid as presented in Dirty Harry. Scorpio is holding a young woman captive in a secret location, who (he claims) will die if she is not attended to within a short while. Meanwhile Scorpio has also been leading Callahan all over the city as part of his ransom arrangements. It seems to me that this must fall under “probable cause” or “exigent circumstances” or something — but I’m not a lawyer. I tried to discover via Google what the relevant statutes were in 1971, but (surprisingly) I could not find this out. Insofar as the movie is flatly lying about this, it’s a problem, especially if the movie could have used an almost equally disturbing example of liberal overreach by representing the facts faithfully — as I suspect is probably the case. But when you’re busy creating a filmic syntax for upending liberal pieties, overdetermination is simply going to be involved.

Beyond that, Dirty Harry operates in a reality-free zone, especially when it comes to the media and the internal workings of the police. In so many movies, the chief of police is beholden to the press, which would serve as a powerful incentive to apprehend Scorpio no matter what the attorneys would say — that never comes up in Dirty Harry. And similarly, we’re all familiar with the practice whereby police officers like Callahan are protected by a willingness to falsify official accounts of criminal pursuits — to “hush up” this or that unpalatable act — again, that possibility is never raised. Inclusion of such elements would have made the creation of mythic Dirty Harry difficult, so they left them out.

Clearly Dirty Harry is a work of escapism, and to a certain extent, I just have to accept that. The way I look at it, escapism and fantasy are fine right up to the point that a movie asks to be taken more seriously — and in making such a pointed critique of the legal system, Dirty Harry asks to be taken more seriously. But that logic only goes so far — Dirty Harry isn’t explicitly a political movie, it’s an entertainment, and its popularity speaks to the appetite among the public for tougher attitudes on crime.

Even in the sections that feel more organically honest, a lot of the elements feel concocted to achieve the proper manipulative effect. For example, Callahan is presented as harmlessly racist/not-racist in that “I hate everyone equally” way that conservatives love so much. A fellow cop on the force exuberantly explains to Harry’s new college-educated, Hispanic partner Gonzalez that Harry “doesn’t play any favorites! Harry hates everybody: Limeys, Micks, Hebes, Fat Dagos, Niggers, Honkies, Chinks, you name it.” Gonzalez sensibly inquires as to Harry’s attitude about Hispanics, and Harry, standing nearby, responds jovially, “Especially Spics,” and winks to his friend. The whole thing is sheer genius: Harry is shown to flirt with racist attitudes but deep down, he is established as entirely non-racist but merely contemptuous of politically correct conformity. Later on, after he is wounded, Gonzalez earns Harry’s respect — showing that Harry is flexible enough to admire even a college-educated know-nothing under the right circumstances. As a character, Gonzalez is consciously engineered to defuse liberal complaints about Harry while showing his fealty to conservative mores, all of which serves to fuel Harry’s iconic status among conservatives as well as among the down-trodden apolitical audience that dislikes crime and liberals to varying degrees.

The best moment in the movie comes in a snatch of conversation with Gonzalez’ wife, as they depart after visiting her wounded husband in the hospital. Gonzalez has just explained to Harry that he’s thinking of leaving the police force, for which Harry admirably does not judge him (see? Harry’s fair!). Gonzalez’ wife inquires why Harry is so driven to take risks in fighting crime, what he gets out of it. Harry mutters inarticulately, “I … don’t know.” It’s the best, most honest moment in the movie — and by the way also serves to bolster Harry’s mystique as a modern samurai or whatever.

Treated strictly as a movie, Dirty Harry is very effective and exciting, but it has two notable formal flaws. First, Siegel botches just about all of the nighttime action, of which there is more than a little; you simply can’t see much of anything. And second, the script’s understanding of Scorpio’s psychology is pretty faulty. Scorpio is presented as a homicidal maniac who is highly interested in the ransom money and also willing to maim himself in order to frame Dirty Harry, none of which hangs together very well. You’re either a maniac or a calculating career criminal; the two don’t blend well. I found that slapdash and unconvincing, anyway. Andy Robinson is extremely well cast as perverse and annoying Scorpio; he really gets on your nerves in just about every frame he’s in.

What here smacks of 1971? Well, the liberal hegemony of the legal system, of course, and the conservative frustration that brought the movie into being.

IMDB score: 7.8

My score: 7

Director: Don Siegel

Writers: Harry Julian Fink, R. M. Fink, and Dean Riesner

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Andy Robinson, John Vernon, Reni Santoni, Harry Guardino, John Larch, John Mitchum, Mae Mercer, Lyn Edgington, Ruth Kobart, Woodrow Parfrey, Josef Sommer

IMDB synopsis: In the year 1971, San Francisco faces the terror of a maniac known as Scorpio- who snipes at innocent victims and demands ransom through notes left at the scene of the crime. Inspector Harry Callahan (known as Dirty Harry by his peers through his reputation handling of homicidal cases) is assigned to the case along with his newest partner Inspector Chico Gonzalez to track down Scorpio and stop him. Using humiliation and cat and mouse type of games against Callahan, Scorpio is put to the test with the cop with a dirty attitude.

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2 thoughts on “(0039X) Dirty Harry

  1. Joe Y. says:

    I recently saw this for the first time, and it didn’t strike me as particularly conservative. I must admit I don’t follow conservative culture too closely, and therefore have no idea whether or not those folks claim this movie as one of their own.
    The movie seemed to me to be a simple updating of the screen persona Eastwood had created for himself, that of the man outside the law, like the Western characters he portrayed so successfully. The plot of this movie could have easily been translated to a Western, and I guess I didn’t read any further into it than that.
    But thinking about it in the context you’re proposing, I see how it might be possible. The funny thing is that looking at this movie from the current day, Dirty Harry looks like the anti-authority rebel who rejects his orders and does what he thinks is right. Doesn’t seem so conservative to me, authority figures like the mayor and the chief are considered to be the conservative ones in 2012. But in the ’70s, and especially by setting the movie in San Francisco, maybe the mayor and the chief are the symbols of whimpering liberals who have taken over the country and he’s the conservative hero who must reject their PC orders so that the proper action can be taken.
    Either way, the best thing about films from the ’70s is the grittiness, and this movie has that in spades. Plus, we all know who won the culture war right?

  2. firefall says:

    Funny – I remember first seeing this when it came out, at the tender age of 13, and coming out of it convinced that HARRY was actually the villain, and the movie was portraying what a scandal it was that he got away with, and got praised for, his lunacy (being brought up by a deeply cynical police detective myself may have affected this of course). It’s a movie I still enjoy for its iconic pieces, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone taking it seriously now … or then, really.

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