Today, we continue our look at the Dirty Harry film series by considering the fourth installment in the franchise, 1983’s Sudden Impact.
“Go ahead. Make my day…”
Yes, this is the film where Police Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan (played, as always, by Clint Eastwood) delivers that classic one liner. In this case, he says it to a man holding a gun to a waitress’ head. The implication, I guess, is that the gunman would make Harry’s day by killing the innocent woman that he’s holding hostage and therefore, giving Harry an excuse to shoot him in the head. That line really does get to the heart of one of the main themes that runs through all of the Dirty Harry movies in general and Sudden Impact in specific. Harry’s life would be a lot of easier if people would simply stop getting in the way and just let him shoot anyone that he wants to.
At the start of Sudden Impact ,we discover that Harry Callahan is still on the San Francisco police force and Captain McKay (Bradford Dillman) is still his antagonistic boss. Eight years have passed since the end of the Enforcer and Harry is a bit grayer and definitely grumpier. Whereas the previous three films in the franchise made a (minimal) effort to humanize him, the Harry of Sudden Impact is a snarling, forehead vein-throbbing killing machine. After years of dealing with sleazy criminals and weak-willed liberals, Harry now appears to wake up each morning and ask himself, “How many people can I find an excuse to kill today?”
Not surprisingly, all those years of shooting people have apparently made Harry the most targeted man in San Francisco. Within the first 20 minutes of the film, three separate and unconnected groups of criminals attempt to kill Harry. His superiors demand that Harry take a vacation before the entire city of San Francisco is destroyed. Harry snarls in response so his bosses do the next best thing and order him to go to the coastal town of San Paulo to help with an unsolved murder.
San Paulo has a problem. Local lowlifes are turning up dead, shot once in the head and once in the genitals. Along with the gruesome way that they die, all of them seem to be acquainted with a frightening woman named Rae (played by Audrey J. Neenan). The chief of police (Pat Hingle) doesn’t seem to be trying too hard to solve the crimes and he openly resents Harry’s attempts to help. (He’s even less happy about the fact that the mobsters who were trying to kill Harry in San Francisco have followed him out to San Paulo.) Harry, however, is determined to solve the crime even while dealing with the unwanted gift of a rather ugly bulldog (given to him by his latest partner, who is played by series regular Albert Poppwell) and romancing an artist (a rather unconvincing Sondra Locke) who has some very strong thoughts of her own on both the sorry state of the criminal justice system and what should be done to improve it.
Sudden Impact was the only one of the Dirty Harry films to officially be directed by Clint Eastwood. Even if his name wasn’t listed in the opening credits, you would probably be able to guess that Eastwood directed this. From the film’s opening nighttime scene, during which time the screen is almost totally black except for the occasional flash of a gun being aimed, the film features Eastwood’s signature noir-influenced visual style but it doesn’t contain any of the thematic ambiguity that typifies Eastwood’s better films.
Sudden Impact is an entertaining and well-made action film but it’s also my least favorite of the Dirty Harry series. Whereas the first three installments at least tried to play around with figuring out what made Harry tick (and, occasionally, even allowing Harry’s methods to be questioned by sympathetic characters like Chico in Dirty Harry or Kate Moore in The Enforcer), Sudden Impact is content to just to let Harry kill some of the most cardboard villains in the franchise’s history. The end results are crudely effective but ultimately rather forgettable, with none of the eccentric touches that occasionally distinguished the next film in the series, The Dead Pool. There’s a reason why Sudden Impact is best remembered for a one-liner that’s uttered during the film’s first 10 minutes and which doesn’t really have anything to do with anything else that happens in the movie.
Speaking of The Dead Pool, that’s the film we will be looking at tomorrow as we conclude this series on the Dirty Harry franchise.