“Do ya feel lucky, Pilgrim?” What Dirty Harry Could Have Been

Paul Newman as San Francisco Police Detective Harry “Dirty Harry” Callahan?

Today, it sounds unthinkable that the outspokenly liberal Newman could ever have been a contender for the role of Harry Callahan, a police detective who is quick with a quip but even quicker on the trigger.  As everyone knows, Clint Eastwood played Harry and, as a result, he finally became as big of a star in the United States as he already was in Europe.  Today, it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Clint Eastwood torturing the Scorpio Killer for information and then announcing himself to be “all torn up about his rights.”  Just try to imagine Paul Newman snarling as reflexively as Clint Eastwood did upon hearing that the whiny guy in the liberal office taught constitutional law at Berkeley.  Try to imagine Paul Newman calling someone “a punk” or bragging about the power of his gun.  It can’t be done.

And yet, as hard as it is to believe, Clint Eastwood was not the first choice for Harry Callahan.  In fact, Eastwood apparently wasn’t even on Warner Bros.’s list of contenders when they initially bought the rights for the script that would eventually become Dirty Harry.

Written by Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink, that script was originally called Dead Right and it took place in New York.  In the original script, Harry Callahan was world-weary, veteran New York cop, in his 50s and just a few months away from retirement.  In the original script, Harry pursued a serial killer named Travis.  When Warner Bros. bought the script in 1969, they viewed it as being a potential vehicle for Frank Sinatra with Irvin Kershner directing.  (Kershner is probably best remembered for later directing The Empire Strikes Back.)  As was his habit, Sinatra immediately demanded rewriters.  John Milius wrote three drafts, each one expanding on the idea of Callahan as a rebel against the system.  Terrence Malick (yes, that Terrence Malick) was also brought it and came up with a storyline in which the serial killer would specifically be targeting mobsters and other people who had escaped justice.  Somewhere, amongst all the rewrites, the action moved from New York to Seattle.

After all that effort, why didn’t Frank Sinatra play Harry Callahan?  Reportedly, he broke his hand and, as a result, he was told that he wouldn’t be able to hold a microphone or a gun or anything else while it was healing.  Since you really can’t have Harry Callahan without a gun, Sinatra left the project and Irvin Kershner went with him.

While trying (unsuccessfully) to recruit Sidney Pollack as their new director, Warner Bros. searched for a new leading man.  Reportedly, the script ended up on John Wayne’s desk.  Wayne later said that he turned down the role because he felt the violence was gratuitous.  Other sources indicate that John Wayne actually was interested in the role but that the studio didn’t consider him to be contemporary enough.  (After the success of Dirty Harry, Wayne would play a similar cop character in McQ and would provide a hint of what Dirty Harry starring John Wayne would have been like.)  Burt Lancaster turned down the role because he didn’t like the script’s politics.  Lee Marvin and Robert Mitchum both turned down the role because they refused to play cops.  George C. Scott reportedly refused the role because of the violence.  Marlon Brando was considered but, probably wisely, was never approached.

Having been turned down by all of the older tough guys, Warner Bros. went with the younger tough guys.  Steve McQueen turned down the role because he had already played a cop in Bullitt and he felt the critics would accuse him of repeating himself.  (He was probably right.)  Paul Newman refused the role on political grounds but, as he often tended to do whenever he turned down a role, he also recommended another actor for the part.  That actor was Clint Eastwood who was an old friend of Newman’s and who, obviously, had no problems with the film’s politics.

(Let’s take a moment to give some respect to Paul Newman, who was reportedly one of the nicest guys in Hollywood.)

Once Eastwood was on board, his requested that his friend and frequent collaborator, director Don Siegel, be hired to direct the film.  The script was again rewritten, moving the action to San Francisco and making Harry into a far less talkative character.  The serial killer known as Travis became the serial killer known as Scorpio.  The idea of the killer targeting criminals was abandoned at Siegel’s insistence, though Eastwood liked the idea enough to use it for Dirty Harry’s first sequel, Magnum Force.

Audie Murphy

Originally, James Caan was approached for the role of Scorpio but Caan turned it down (which, of course, left him free to play Sonny in The Godfather).  Perhaps most intriguingly, Audie Murphy was offered the role.  Murphy was one of the most decorated combat soldiers of World War II.  He had gone from the Army to appearing in movies.  By the time Dirty Harry went into production, Murphy was largely appearing in B-westerns and was as known for his temper as his films.  (He was acquitted of attempted murder shortly before filming began on Dirty Harry.  Murphy said that his anger issues were largely due to the trauma of World War II and he was one of the first prominent people to openly speak about what has since become known as PTSD.)  Murphy undoubtedly would have been an intimidating Scorpio but he died in a plane crash before he could accept or refuse the role.

Instead, the role went to Andrew Robinson, who an unknown at the time.  He was also, in real life, a pacifist who had difficulty not flinching whenever he had to fire a rifle in the film.  That said, Robinson gave a brilliantly unhinged performance as Scorpio and reportedly had to get an unlisted telephone number because of all the angry and threatening phone calls that he received after the movie was released.

Now, I have to admit that I personally find the idea of Frank Sinatra/James Caan or, for that matter, a John Wayne/Audie Murphy police procedural to be kind of intriguing.  And goodness know, I would certainly like a chance to see Marlon Brando doing the “do you feel lucky, punk?” speech.  In the end, though, I think things turned out for the best.

6 Good Films That Were Not Nominated For Best Picture: The 1970s

David Niven at the 1974 Oscars

Continuing our look at good films that were not nominated for best picture, here are 6 films from the 1970s.

Dirty Harry (1971, dir by Don Siegel)

“Well, I’m all torn up about his rights….” Detective Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) says after being informed that he’s not allow to torture suspects for information.  Unfortunately, in this case, the Academy agreed with all the critics who called Harry a menace and this classic and influential crime film was not nominated.  Not even Andy Robinson picked up a nomination for his memorably unhinged turn as Scorpio.

Carrie (1976, dir by Brian DePalma)

The Academy liked Carrie enough to nominate both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively.  The film itself, however, went unnominated.  It’s enough to make you want to burn down the prom.

Suspiria (1977, dir by Dario Argento)

In a perfect world, Goblin would have at least taken home an Oscar for the film’s score.  In the real world, unfortunately, Argento’s masterpiece was totally snubbed by the Academy.

Days of Heaven (1978, dir by Terence Malick)

If it were released today, Terence Malick’s dream-like mediation of life during the depression would definitely be nominated.  In 1978, perhaps, the Academy was still not quite sure what to make of Malick’s beautiful but often opaque cinematic poetry.

Halloween (1978, dir by John Carpenter)

“The night he came home!” should have been “The night he went to the Oscars!”  The film received no nominations and it’s a shame.  Just imagine Donald Pleasence winning for his performance as Loomis while John Carpenter racked up almost as many nominations as Alfonso Cuaron did this year for Roma.

Dawn of the Dead (1978, dir by George Romero)

If the Academy wasn’t willing to nominate Night of the Living Dead, there was no way that they would go for the film’s longer and bloodier sequel.  But perhaps they should have.  Few films are cited as an inspiration as regularly as Dawn of the Dead.

Up next, in about an hour, the 1980s!


Embracing the Melodrama Part II #53: Someone I Touched (dir by Lou Antonio)

someoneitouch_225In the 1975 made-for-TV venereal disease epic Someone I Touched, there’s a scene of children’s author Cloris Leachman at work.  She’s sitting in her office, typing away on a manual typewriter.  Directly behind her is a crude drawing of a clown.  And to the right of her, there’s a statue of the same creepy clown.  Eventually, her husband (played by James Olson) comes into the office and, after a very long argument, finally forces himself to confess that, as the result of a one-night stand with a grocery store cashier (Glynnis O’Connor), he has syphilis.  And it’s possible that Cloris now has syphilis herself.  And, since Cloris is pregnant, it’s also possible that their baby may be born with syphilis.

And it’s all very serious and very dramatic and certainly, it’s nothing to laugh at.

But, I have to admit, that I could not stop thinking about that creepy clown.  And I have to admit that as Cloris was stumbling back in shock, I started to giggle because I just couldn’t stop thinking about what it must be like to work in an office surrounded by creepy clowns.  It made me think about The Sims and how, if your sims ended up getting depressed, the tragic clown would arrive and just makes things worse.

That’s the thing with Someone I Touched.  It’s a very serious film and yet it’s almost impossible to take that seriously.  Whenever a helpful health worker (Andy Robinson, the Scorpio Killer from Dirty Harry) shows up to dispense statistics or the cashier attempts to track down everyone that she’s ever had sex with or Cloris and Olson start to argue about the sad state of their marriage, you’re very aware that the film is dealing with some serious subject matter.  And yet, you can’t take it seriously because of all the little details.  You find yourself fixated on how ugly 70s interior design truly was.  You watch this tiny vein in Olson’s forehead and you worry if it’s going to explode during some of his more dramatic scenes.  You listen to dialogue like, “It (syphilis) can be a real drag if you don’t take care of it” and “Tramps get Syphilis!”  You realize that Leachman is supposed to be playing someone in her mid-30s, even though she was 49 when the film was made.  You listen as Olson explains his recent one night stand by saying, “I was looking down the barrel of my 40th birthday,” despite the fact that Olson looks like he’s in his mid-50s.  And let’s not forget those creepy clowns…

And you just can’t take the movie seriously.  You know that you should but you just can’t.  How could one well-intentioned film produce so many involuntary giggles?

Now, I know you’re probably thinking to yourself, “I would never watch a movie like that!”  But, if you change your mind, Someone I Touched is currently available on Netflix streaming.


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.