Film Review: Dirty Harry (dir. by Don Siegel)

Dirty Harry is obviously just a genre film but this action genre has always had fascist potential and it has finally surfaced…Dirty Harry is a deeply immoral movie.” — Pauline Kael

“It’s not about a man who stands for violence.  It’s about a man who can’t understand society tolerating violence.” — Clint Eastwood

I decided that I wanted to review the Dirty Harry film franchise about two seconds after Clint Eastwood finished giving his speech at the Republican National Convention last month. 

It had nothing to do with the politics of Eastwood’s speech because, quite frankly, I think a good film is a work of art and art is always more important than politics.  Instead, as I watched Eastwood give his speech, I was reminded that Clint Eastwood is about as close to a living icon as we have in America.  There aren’t many actors who could get away with giving a speech to an empty chair and, despite the predictable outraged tweets from Roger Ebert, Eastwood is one of them.  And, if Eastwood is an icon, Harry Callahan is perhaps the most iconic role of his career.

Now, I have to admit that, as I started this project, I knew more about Harry Callahan as a character than I did about the films he had actually appeared in.  I had seen both Dirty Harry and The Dead Pool because, for whatever reason, they both seem to turn up on AMC every other week.  I knew that Harry Callahan was a police inspector who was based in San Francisco.  I knew that he was willing to go to extremes when it came to fighting criminals.  I knew that, in his first film appearance, Harry had a really impressive head of hair that had pretty much vanished by the time that he reached his final appearance in The Dead Pool.  And, finally, I knew that, at some point in the film series, Harry growled the line, “Go ahead, make my day.”

So, for me, reviewing every film in the Dirty Harry franchise gave me a chance to discover why Harry has become such an iconic character and why people still ask Eastwood to repeat that “make my day” line.  When I started watching the films, Jeff warned me that the Dirty Harry films got worse as you went along and I discovered that, in many ways, he was right.  But I still enjoyed the experience and I hope that you enjoy reading my reviews over the next few days.

But, first things first.  Let’s take a look at the film that started the entire series, 1971’s Dirty Harry.

I have to admit that it’s a bit intimidating to try to review Dirty Harry because, quite frankly, what’s left to be said about this film?  It’s one of the most influential movies of all time. Any time you see a cop in a TV show or a movie getting yelled at by his superiors for not going “by the book,” it means that you’re watching a movie or an episode that is directly descended from Dirty Harry.  And yet, despite all the imitations, it’s a movie that remains as exciting and visceral today as when it was first released. 

Dirty Harry tells the story of two outsiders, two men who seem to exist solely to reveal the dark impulses of conventional society.  Both of these men are killers and both of these men are motivated by a rage against what they perceive society as being. 

One of these men calls himself Scorpio.  As played by Andy Robinson (who gives one of the definitive cinematic psycho performances here), Scorpio is a jittery mass of nerves, an unkempt man who wears a peace sign as a belt buckle but who also writes letters to the Mayor of San Francisco (played by John Vernon) in which he threatens to kill one innocent person a day unless he’s paid off.  When he first appears, he’s on a rooftop, aiming a rifle at an unaware woman in a swimming pool. At one point, the phallic barrel of rifle seems to be pointed directly at the camera (and by extension, at us in the audience).  When he fires the rifle, we see the mortally wounded woman silently sink under the water.  It’s a scene that still disturbs me every time I see it, one that establishes early on that we’re all potentially vulnerable to the Scorpios of the world.

In the next scene, we see San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood, of course) investigating the crime scene.  The difference between Harry and Scorpio is striking.  Whereas Scorpio is only calm while killing, Callahan inspects the crime scene (and goes through almost the entire film) without showing a hint of emotion.  While Scorpio looks like a madman, Callahan looks like a professional.  And yet, when Callahan foils a bank robbery (and delivers his famous “Do you feel lucky?” monologue to wounded bank robber played by Albert Popwell), it becomes obvious that he does have something in common with Scorpio.  They’re both willing to shoot to kill.  The only difference is that, as a police officer, Callahan is ostracized for his willingness to kill while Scorpio, as an American citizen, is protected by the U.S. Constitution.

It would be foolish to pretend that Dirty Harry isn’t a political film.  One need only watch the scene where a law professor explains to Harry why his pursuit and arrest of Scorpio violated Scorpio’s constitutional rights.  (The way that Eastwood snarls during this scene is priceless.)  As one can tell from the quote from Pauline Kael at the beginning of this review, Dirty Harry was a film that upset a lot of liberals when it was first released (much as Clint Eastwood’s empty chair speech managed to upset Roger Ebert).  However, as the years have passed, Dirty Harry has come to be acknowledged as a classic by critics on both sides of the political divide.

The success of Dirty Harry goes beyond politics.  I think any film students who aspires to direct an action film should be required to watch Dirty Harry a few dozen times before he graduates.  What makes the film work is not just what director Don Siegel does but what he doesn’t do.  As opposed to some of the later films in the franchise, Dirty Harry is a fast-paced film that tells its story with a minimum amount of padding.  It’s hard to think of a single scene that isn’t necessary to tell the story that the film wants to tell.  Even the oft-criticized scene where Harry, on a stake out, spies on some naked lesbians, works as a parallel to Scorpio’s own voyeurism at the start of the film.

Much as in a classic western, Harry and Scorpio are presented as two sides of the same coin.  Both of them are outsiders who refuse to follow the rules of society and the film’s violent and mournful climax is powerful precisely because, by this point, the audience understands that the Scorpios of the world can not exist without the Harrys and vice versa.

Along with generated a lot of controversy, Dirty Harry was a huge box office success.  Not surprisingly, a sequel would follow.

We’ll look at Magnum Force tomorrow.

11 responses to “Film Review: Dirty Harry (dir. by Don Siegel)

  1. Pauline Kael’s essay about “Dirty Harry” is one of the more ludicrous critiques of a motion picture that I have encountered. It’s clear that either she does not understand the film, or her absurdly indignant response is a front to conceal the demons in her own basement.

    A quote from Lee Marvin:

    “I found myself involved in a conversation the other night about Sirhan Sirhan. Some older woman said that they ought to take him out and shoot him. I just looked at her and smiled. She was the one who talked about peace and nonviolence. But when it hits her, baby, she’s ready to kill.”

    One wonders if Pauline Kael was that type of older woman.

    By the way, I finally got around to watching the chair speech last night. I’m not certain what the fuss is all about. Why would anybody question Clint Eastwood’s state of mind over this? He knew exactly what he was doing. I’m more concerned about Obama and his incessant boasting about having killed a certain foreign menace. Obama is Mister Peace-and-Non-Violence when it suits him to appeal to the peaceniks, but his true colours reveal themselves when he tries to score points with the less virtuous aspects of American culture, with a heavy dose of old-fashioned, red-blooded American machismo and fierce patriotism.

    Obama is no different to that old lady that Lee Marvin mentioned. Despite what he might say to the contrary, Obama is overwhelmingly pro-capital punishment, pro-warfare, something that his self-described “liberal” supporters should remember.


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