1970s, 3.5/4, Dirty Harry, Don Siegel, Review, Thriller

Dirty Harry

Here we see the influence of Fritz Lang‘s M decades after its release. There’s the emphasis on process and the absolutely insane antagonist serial killer. Where there are differences are the obvious setting changes, but also the focus on an individual investigator and how the official process can outright fail. Made by Don Siegel in his consummately professional manner, there’s little flashy about this film stylistically, and he creates an engrossing tale of procedural obsession in the face of pure evil, all without ever hiding who the bad guy is once. He’s in the opening scene, and everything.

A killer who calls himself Scorpio (Andy Robinson) uses a sniper rifle to terrorize the city of San Francisco, starting with a woman in a rooftop pool while leaving a note (akin to Zodiac whom partially inspired Scorpio) threatening more. To the case, the chief of police Dacanelli (John Larch) assigns Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) whom everyone in the department calls Dirty Harry because he gets all the dirty jobs. Aside from the opening scene introducing the overall threat of the film, the early scenes are all designed to introduce Callahan, and he’s an interesting character. His description of the attempted rape he stopped the year before is so clearly drawn in stark terms that he even gets the mayor (John Verner) to agree with his take. Of course, the big introduction is the foiling of the bank robbery where Callahan has his famous little soliloquy about his dear .44 Magnum, and it shows how he’s chaotic good. He’s going to stop the evil doing, and he’s going to do it his way, in just enough time to finish his bite of hot dog.

The movie then becomes concerned with the process of tracking down Scorpio. A police helicopter spots him on a roof across from the park of Saints Peter and Paul Church, but Scorpio gets away. With a description, the police are set on a search throughout the sprawling, messy city to find someone matching that description, and Harry and his new partner Chico (Reni Santoni) spend the night tailing a guy who has a similar bag, only for Harry to get sucker punched by some locals as a Peeping Tom. I think the weakest part of the plotting of the film ends up being the plan to try and corner Scorpio, having Callahan and Chico alone on a roof across from the roof Scorpio had been seen at with nary any backup around. It works because movie, of course, but it’s thin. It does give some nice time for Harry to peep in on a naked woman inviting a couple into her apartment (he really does seem to be a Peeping Tom).

Angry and having gotten away, Scorpio ups his game to the point where the mayor decides to simply give in, and Harry gets the job of being bagman to deliver the $200,000 ransom in order to save a girl Scorpio has kidnapped and buried alive with enough air until 3 am. Scorpio puts him on a runaround the city, going from one public phonebooth to the next on foot, while Chico follows in the car, using an early 70s listening device to keep up with the instructions Scorpio is giving Callahan. Exhausted, Callahan runs through the night, desperately trying to keep up and avoid unnecessary delays (pulling his gun a couple of times to get people out of his way), culminating in a meeting at the Mount Davidson cross where Scorpio shows the depths of his evil to Callahan. The chase continues on foot with Callahan tracking Scorpio down to Kezar Stadium where Callahan tortures the man to giving up the location.

Where Dirty Harry really diverges from M is here. M was all about the precise process without worry about breaking laws to achieve the goal. Dirty Harry has a relatively realistic view of criminal justice in the early 70s, and Callahan’s actions simply do not conform to them. He illegally searched premises, illegally seized evidence, and tortured a suspect. There’s no way the district attorney will be able to use any of the evidence Callahan found in any kind of trial. Callahan is beyond pissed. Not only did he collect all of the evidence that easily lays out Scorpio’s guilt, he got an actual confession, not just of the accurate location of the missing girl, but Scorpio’s deeply rooted evil. Scorpio is bad and broken, but the civil government can’t touch him. I think Harry would have been angry but understanding of the situation if the civil government had decided to keep a close eye on Scorpio after they let him go from the hospital, but they were too scared to even approach him. Their love of the process and fear of reprisal from the press tied their hands to the point where they simply let this murderer go without any strings. One time, I might have considered that unrealistic, but not anymore.

With Callahan on Scorpio’s back, tailing him on his off hours, Scorpio can’t get anything done, so he pays someone to beat him up, blames it on Callahan, and gets the room he needs, stealing a school bus with several children in it, and negotiating for his money and a jet plane. Callahan gets orders to not interfere, but we all know Harry Callahan at this point. He’s Dirty Harry for a reason, and it’s not just because he gets the dirty jobs. He attracts himself to them.

As I started the film, the first thing in my mind was Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, that portrait of San Francisco in the 1950s, all height of fashion as was Hitchcock’s mien. Here, just over a decade later, San Francisco seems to have greatly changed, and not for the better. There are porn shops and strip clubs. There’s permissiveness of all sorts of activities on the street that wouldn’t fit with the well-manicured and dressed men and women dealing with height issues. That moment where Callahan watches a woman disrobe and blithely welcome two guests into her home is not indicative of the same city. It’s a city in the process of change, and that change carries a lot of negatives along with it, including the spinelessness of the civic officials who keep wanting to just give into the madman on the loose instead of trying to actually deal with it.   They’re effectively just keeping their hands off on a city that is in the opening stages of degradation. This is a milder vision of societal collapse than Death Wish, but it’s obviously of the same vein. It’s a city willingly giving up the gains and one man who can’t understand why.

And that’s the underlying conceit under the whole thing, providing a wonderful subtext to a film that it feels like everyone knew was there. It gives real strength to the decisions of the lone ranger out of time, unable to understand the bureaucratic need for the protection of evil men. Don Siegel manages everything so well, giving real professionalism to a story that really could have been no more than mere exploitation. There are ideas afloat, all buoyed by Eastwood’s rock-solid central performance while everyone around him manages well on their own.

It’s a star making film for a man who was already a star, evidence that he was really one of the biggest men in Hollywood at the time and really understood his own star power, surrounded by other creatives who understood it as well as he did. There’s some roughness that gets me, but otherwise, this is an intelligent, tense thriller that builds on what came before and really provides a great twist on well-worn formula.

Rating: 3.5/4

3 thoughts on “Dirty Harry”

  1. #27 on my favorite 100 movies list (don’t get excited by the ranking, the list is alphabetical)

    Though not directed by Clint, this is one of his best movies and I’m glad to discuss it.

    There’s a lot of talk about this movie basically being a reskinned Western, and though there are influences of that genre, it really isn’t that. If it owes a debt to another genre, it’s the Noir and Pulp crime stories of Daishell Hammett and Mickey Spillane. It’s the ‘badass gunman’ genre, it’s Man Against the System as much as it is Man Against Man.

    We have the collision of Justice and Law, of Good and Evil. With Harry Calahan, we have a man of the Law who is more concerned with Justice. He wants to protect the innocent and sees clearly the best way to do that. And he does it, regardless of the cost to himself. He holds his superiors in contempt because he can see that they are morally compromised. He’s almost an Objectivist hero, in that sense. And, though Harry spreads his contempt around equally among his peers, it’s worth noting that he mostly treats people with a certain amount of teasing. This is part of the ‘giving shit and taking shit’ you see a lot among rough men and it doesn’t affect relationships. In fact, most of the cops hold Harry in a complex light of admiration mixed with dislike…yet there’s respect and even affection there. Watch how he is treated moving through social relationships, more often than not, the reaction of the other cops tells you more about THIER character than about Harry himself.

    But I digress. This is a really, really good genre film. It has a hero you can root for, who is perhaps not a straight arrow (again, Noir protagonists are often morally compromised or pose as such), but he’s reliable. He’s good. He has a code of honor that he holds higher than the Law, Life of the Innocent wins over Legalism. And it has a really despicable antagonist….or antagonists, if we count his superiors. And I do, for they are indeed obstacles he must overcome.

    And, for a police action/drama movie, it gets its gunplay right. Guns hurt. But they aren’t magical. They run out of bullets. They are as useful to good guys as bad guys. Nerve and accuracy count for more than speed. Respect to the armorers and the stunt team who set up the action scenes.

    It’s very close to a flawless story and one of my favorite movies.

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    1. Harry himself is the real reason this movie works. He’s such a clearly written character while being up against the odds in every direction. He’s got a system that the audience can root for even if he’s loose with his methods, and the movie kind of leans in his favor by never letting him be wrong about his conclusions. He’s never over-enthusiastic about justice when it comes to someone actually innocent, and I think that’s a niggling issue I have with the movie (obviously not enough to derail the whole thing). An interesting sequel idea might have been Callahan having to deal with the fallout of torturing someone he was convinced was the criminal in some major crime and ending up being wrong.

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