#4 in my ranking of the Dirty Harry franchise.
This movie doesn’t feel like it really begins for an hour. Considering that it’s the longest of the Dirty Harry movies, that really tells me that Ted Post and his editor Ferris Webster needed to pare down its opening half majorly. Its introduction of the entire concept is repetitive while the main character feels curiously uninvolved for such a long stretch, that it massively tempers the effects of the final half. That final half does show a surprisingly thoughtful approach to the very fine line that the titular character rides between policing and vigilantism. Cut this down by at least twenty minutes, and I think there’s a pretty good movie here. That extra padding just drags everything.
The deterioration of San Francisco continues as rich, connected mobsters get off with murder at trial to the protest of crowds outside the courthouse due to legal technicalities about the inclusion of evidence. He’s pulled over by a traffic cop at a remote spot, and the cop kills everyone in the car. Well, there’s the introduction of the conflict, what is Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood) doing? He, um, goes to the airport and foils a hijacking by pretending to be a pilot. It never has any connection to anything else, and I want to draw a contrast between Magnum Force and Dirty Harry. The first film had a couple of moments where Harry Callahan ended up dealing with unrelated things (like the attempted jumper), but it was doing two things at once. Firstly, the event was part of the search for the killer, the large dragnet that was taking him across the city. It didn’t feel completely random. On the other side, it gave us the introduction of the character’s handle, “Dirty”, how he got all the dirty jobs. The airplane episode doesn’t fit with the first part, it’s literally just a random thing that happens, while supposedly trying to fit the mold of the second part, showing how he gets into the dirty jobs. It’s disconnectedness, though, just makes it feel haphazard and like it comes from a different movie. It may be an attempt to create a James Bond-esque opening action sequence, but those were almost always connected to the rest of the film narratively.
Anyway, my problems with the opening half don’t end there. Amid the introductions of other key supporting characters like Harry’s new partner Early (Felton Perry) and supervising officer Lieutenant Briggs (Hal Holbrook), we see two more instances of traffic cops taking justice into their own hands, the first involves firing into a pool party of criminals and their girls, and the second is a drawn out scene where a pimp (Albert Popwell) taking all of the money from one of his girls (Margarete Avery) and then killing her by pouring drano down her throat. This gets followed up the next day with another scene of the traffic cop pulling over somebody (this time the pimp rather than the mobster) and then shooting them down. According to John Milius, the whole scene with the pimp and his girl was done through dialogue after the fact, and Michael Cimino pulled a whole scene out of it on a rewrite that Post ended up shooting. I really don’t think the full scene works for a couple of reasons. The first is that it leans too heavily on the moral scale in favor of the traffic cops. We know for sure that the guy was scum, and it allows them too much credit, which seems to go against the central idea of the film that they’re actually bad guys. The second is that it’s, again, repetitive to the point of the film. We’ve seen this before, essentially.
The only way Harry is remotely involved in all of this through the first half is his introduction to a group of crack shot rookie traffic cops (oh, I wonder who could be the bad traffic cops…it’s a mystery) that he ends up admiring for their dedication and skills. That Harry isn’t making the connection pretty much immediately is a disservice to the character.
However, once he does begin to piece things together, the movie starts to pick up. It just takes about halfway through the film. Lieutenant Briggs is leading the effort to figure out who is doing all of these killings, assuming that it’s someone dressed as a traffic cop and not a real one, and he sends Harry to tail one of the opening mobster’s lieutenants, Palancio (Tony Giorgio), which he ends up doing his own way, much to the chagrin of Briggs. Meanwhile, the traffic cops end up killing another connected guy in his penthouse that’s under police surveillance, killing the two prostitutes he’s with in the process, as well as another cop who is patrolling the area. Harry does some actual police work when, during a department shooting competition, he uses one of his suspect’s guns to shoot into a bit of soft wood and later reclaim it to do ballistics on to compare against bullets found at the crime scene. Wow…could this have come, like, 45-minutes earlier?
The actual fine line that Harry walks that these traffic cops don’t is the idea of self-protection. Harry killed Scorpio when Scorpio was going for his gun in an obvious attempt to kill Harry. The traffic cops just kill people who aren’t a direct threat. Both targets are the kinds of people that the system is letting slip through its fingers, but Harry isn’t doing it in as cold of blood as the traffic cops. He’s not a vigilante. He’s a cop who goes as far as he can until the suspect breaks and tries to kill him first. He’s very much an Old West gunslinger trapped in a modern American cop’s body.
The ending ends up being a chase that goes onto an abandoned aircraft carrier, a chase with motorcycles in the enclosed space, and it’s fine. It’s standard 70s cop action schlock, lead up to by the big reveal of who the real bad guy is, and it’s, of course, pretty easy to guess.
For about forty-five minutes of this film, I was pretty engaged. The rest of the film left me largely bored, though. I like to imagine that Michael Cimino just completely butchered John Milius’ script (Milius reportedly really disliked the end result), but I have no idea whose idea it was to keep Harry Callahan completely removed from the central conflict for the entire first half of the film. It’s really weird, and it deflates my entire enjoyment of the story. That, combined with the incredibly repetitive nature of the first half, and I just couldn’t get into this.