Dirty Harry (1971)
May 14, 2018 6:00 PM - Subscribe

When a mad man calling himself 'the Scorpio Killer' menaces the city, tough as nails San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan is assigned to track down and ferret out the crazed psychopath.

Chicago Reader: Don Siegel's cop movie was received as a right-wing fantasy on its release in 1971, and it probably made a lot of money on that basis. But now that the political context has faded, it's easier to see the ambiguities in Clint Eastwood's renegade detective—who, in the usual Siegel fashion, is equated visually and morally with the psychotic killer he's trampling the Constitution to catch. A crisp, beautifully paced film, full of Siegel's wonderful coups of cutting and framing. With Reni Santoni, Harry Guardino, Andy Robinson, and John Vernon.

Pauline Kael: Dirty Harry is not about the actual San Francisco police force; it’s about a right-wing fantasy of that police force as a group helplessly emasculated by unrealistic liberals. The conceit of this movie is that for one brief, glorious period the police have a realist in their midst—and drive him out.

Dirty Harry is not one of those ambivalent, you-can-read-it-either-way jobs, like The French Connection: Inspector Harry Callahan is not a Popeye —porkpie-hatted and lewd and boorish. He‘s soft-spoken Clint Eastwood— six feet four of lean, tough saint, blue-eyed and shaggy-haired, with a rugged, creased, careworn face that occasionally breaks into a mischief-filled Shirley MacLaine grin. He’s the best there is—a Camelot cop, courageous and incorruptible and the protector of women and children. Or at least he would be, if the law allowed him to be. But the law coddles criminals; it gives them legal rights that cripple the police. And so the only way that Dirty Harry— the dedicated troubleshooter who gets the dirtiest assignments—can protect the women and children of the city is to disobey orders.

As suspense craftsmanship, Dirty Harry is smooth and trim; based on an original screenplay by Harry Fink and his wife, R. M. Fink (formerly a TV writing team, now operating out of Switzerland), with some additional writing by Dean Riesner, it was directed in the sleekest style by the veteran urban-action director Don Siegel, and Lalo Schifrin’s pulsating, jazzy electronic trickery drives the picture forward. Lalo Schifrin doesn’t compose music—he works on you. It would be stupid to deny that Dirty Harry is a stunningly well-made genre piece, and it certainly turns an audience on. But turning on an audience is a function of motor excitation that is not identical with art (though there is an overlap); if it were, the greatest artists would be those who gave us heart attacks. Don Siegel is an accomplished exciter; once considered a liberal, he has now put his skills to work in a remarkably singleminded attack on liberal values, with each prejudicial detail in place. Dirty Harry is a kind of hardhat The Fountainhead; Callahan, a free individual, afraid of no one and bowing to no man, is pitted against a hippie maniac (loosely based on San Francisco’s Zodiac Killer) who is a compendium of criminal types. The variety of his perversions is impressive—one might say that no depravity is foreign to him. He is pure evil: sniper, rapist, kidnapper, torturer, defiler of all human values. Paradisiacal San Francisco supports this vision. In New York, where crime is so obviously a social outgrowth, the dregs belong to the city, and a criminal could not be viewed as a snake in paradise. But, as everyone knows, the San Francisco light and the beauty of the natural setting transform and unify the architectural chaos; even poverty looks picturesque, as in other tourist traps, and crime can be treated as a defiler from outside the society. This criminal is not one for whom we need feel any responsibility or sympathy, yet he stands for everything the audience fears and loathes. And Harry cannot destroy this walking rot, because of the legal protections, such as the court rulings on Miranda and Escobedo, that a weak liberal society gives its criminals. Those are the terms of the film. The dirtiness on Harry is the moral stain of recognition that evil must be dealt with; he is our martyr—stained on our behalf. The content fits the form, and beautifully—hand in glove. In the action genre, it’s easier—and more fun—to treat crime in this medieval way, as evil, without specific causes or background. What produces a killer might be a subject for an artist, but its a nuisance to an exciter, who doesn’t want to slow the action down. When you’re making a picture with Clint Eastwood, you naturally want things to be simple, and the basic contest between good and evil is as simple as you can get. It makes this genre piece more archetypal than most movies, more primitive and dreamlike; fascist medievalism has a fairy-tale appeal.

Roger Ebert: The movie clearly and unmistakably gives us a character who understands the Bill of Rights, understands his legal responsibility as a police officer, and nevertheless takes retribution into his own hands. Sure, Scorpio is portrayed as the most vicious, perverted, warped monster we can imagine -- but that's part of the same stacked deck. The movie's moral position is fascist. No doubt about it.

Variety: Eastwood is dedicated – to his own violence. Perhaps his anger at Robinson is more at the delay in capturing him; after all, between bites on a hot dog, Eastwood foils a bank heist at midday, talks down a suicide jumper, and otherwise expedites assorted ‘dirty work’. The character nearly drools, but Eastwood is far too inert for this bit of business.

There are several chase sequences – before the sadist-with-badge dispatches the sadist-without-badge. Thereupon, Eastwood flings his badge to the wind and walks away. At least Frisco is safe from his protection (but think of the rest of us).

MoMa Inside/Out Blog: It would be hard to argue the film (like Harry) is not racist, homophobic, and devoid of a genuine respect for what most of us consider constitutional liberties. How much of a defense is it that the film was made in the wake of assassinations, the turmoil of a society engaged in “unpatriotic” rebellion against a murderous and unnecessary war, and the changing values depicted in then-contemporary San Francisco?

Empire: apping into the public's pervading mistrust of the authorities — principally courtesy of the massive NYPD corruption scandal that was ripping through the US police force at the time — Siegel's ambivalent masterpiece laid down a template (1. Kill someone in the first five minutes 2. Stage your finale near water 3. End with a pull shot — usually helicopter — away from the action) that would not only be strictly adhered to by its own sequels, but, generally, by copycats ad infinitum.

It's been referenced in everything from Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) to Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995). It's been spoofed well in The Naked Gun (1988), and not in Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992). And it marked the continuation of a beautiful mentor/protege friendship between Siegel and Eastwood.


Art of the Title

Do ya feel lucky, punk?

Dirty Harry Lives: Clint Eastwood's iconic character spawned generations of vigilante cop fantasies.

Looking back at Dirty Harry

The Contemptuous and Racist Dirty Harry

Dirty Harry and Popeye Doyle fight for the title of 1971’s premier tough cop

The Dirty Harry series provoked, peeved, and transformed cop movies
posted by MoonOrb (10 comments total)
I watched this movie for the first time just a couple of years ago, mostly because I was rewatching Deep Space Nine and wanted to see Andrew Robinson's breakout role. He's great in this.

I was working for a criminal defense NGO at the time, and everything to do with police and the justice system was so far off from reality that it was kind of hilarious.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:16 PM on May 14, 2018

Fuck this movie. I mean, it's nicely put together, but so was Triumph of the Will.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:12 PM on May 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

(Which is not a judgment on MoonOrb for posting the thread, I should clarify. Even despicable propaganda should be fair game for discussion.)
posted by tobascodagama at 8:13 PM on May 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

At least one of the links deals with that side of things.
posted by rhizome at 9:50 PM on May 14, 2018

That Pauline Kael review is so good.
posted by Monochrome at 10:23 PM on May 14, 2018

I was rewatching Deep Space Nine and wanted to see Andrew Robinson's breakout role

posted by Alvy Ampersand at 11:35 PM on May 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

I will say, it was sort of nice to see just how outrageous this movie feels now. Even with everything going on politically, while I can imagine a movie with this basic plot being made today, there are many parts that would never fly with modern audiences. I'm mainly thinking of the bit where the killer is released by the cops because he was beaten during arrest, even though (as I recall) they already had other evidence that he was the killer. Most audiences wouldn't buy that crap in 2018.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:38 AM on May 15, 2018

Another person here, who watched the film just for Andrew Robinson. (Garak is likely my favourite recurring character in any television show, ever.) I recall reading somewhere that his portrayal of the Scorpio killer was so effective members of the public were posting death threats to him.

Apart from him, the only thing I really enjoy about the film is that it spawned Ryan Stiles' reading of Harry's classic comment whilst impersonating Carol Channing.
posted by myotahapea at 2:11 PM on May 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

The other good thing I guess is that it (I assume) inspired the ending of Altman's The Long Goodbye, which was an interesting deviation from the book.
posted by tobascodagama at 2:32 PM on May 15, 2018

All I can say about this film is 28 years ago I had a housemate in college who like to watch the Dirty Harry movies in the common room, while cleaning his. 44 magnum.

I spent the last six weeks of that semester sleeping with a chair jammed against the door, in the hope that if he did go on a killing spree, I would have just enough time to dive out of the 2nd. floor window.

I've forgotten his name, otherwise I'd check to see if he's been responsible for any mass shootings since then. I'd say it's pretty much a certainty.

So yeah, that's what I think of when I think of Dirty Harry films.
posted by happyroach at 3:06 PM on May 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

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