#2 in my ranking of the Dirty Harry franchise.
#22 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
The first Dirty Harry film where Clint Eastwood has an official directing credit (he did a bit of directing on the first one and is rumored to have shadow-directed the second when Tim Post didn’t work fast enough for his liking), Sudden Impact became a Dirty Harry film late in the screenplay’s pre-production life. It was originally just a story of a woman taking revenge on her rapists, and everything in the final film that comes from that original idea is what works best. Almost everything pasted on to feature Harry Callahan feels oddly out of place. However, Eastwood brought his consummate professionalism to the affair, especially regarding performance from his actors, and ended up creating the best Dirty Harry film since the original.
Harry Callahan is causing too much trouble in San Francisco. His methods of evidence collection keeps leading to criminals getting off, and he decides to confront a mob boss about his involvement in the death of a prostitute at his daughter’s wedding which leads to him having a heart attack. How do either of these things end up relating to the central plot of a woman taking her vengeance in Santa Cruz, California? Not at all, in fact. Harry Callahan is really, really pasted onto the edges of this story. The most one can say it does is anger his superiors enough to send him to Santa Cruz to investigate some background on a man from Santa Cruz who was found killed just outside of San Francisco, one bullet in his crotch and the other in his head. Sure.
Anyway, it’s never a mystery who’s doing the killings. We see Jennifer (Sondra Locke) clearly early, and she even admits it to her catatonic sister Beth (Lisa Britt), both victims of a rape on the Santa Cruz beach ten years earlier. What sets off the revenge was a coincidence (told about, but I think it would have been better had we seen it play out, I would imagine a victim of the process of adding in Callahan) where Jennifer simply came across one of her rapists one day in San Francisco. He didn’t recognize her, but she did him. She agreed to go with him to a remote place where she killed him. This sets off her quest for revenge, going back to Santa Cruz, her lowkey rampage being what brings Callahan.
One of the less successful parts of this film is the rapists themselves. There are four of them left (including one woman who seemed to be a leader of some sort who egged everything on), and we never get a great sense of who they are now or who they were ten years before. The most interesting of them is Tyrone (Wendell Wellman) who regrets the whole thing and wants to move on to protect his hardware store business. Ray (Audrie Neenan) just kind of growls at everyone. Alby (Michael Child) is the son of Chief Jannings (Pat Hingle) and was so overcome with his role in the affair that he drove his car into a wall in an attempted suicide that left him paralyzed and in a semi-vegetative state. The real leader of the whole thing was Mick (Paul Drake), who gets introduced near the halfway point in a scene in Las Vegas where he’s a bit aggressive with a prostitute, a scene that gets interrupted by a call from Ray that brings him back. Mick is simply not a great bad guy. Drake gives it his all, but all he has to work with is a guy who acts vaguely psychopathic. It’s perhaps likely that he was this thinly written in the original form of the script, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was at least partially a result of the culling of original material in favor of more Callahan screentime that led to this state of affairs.
The thematic focus of the whole series is the institutional failures regarding justice, and it’s nice that this finds a way to fit in with that. Moving to a small town setting, it allows for the kind of street-level crimes that Callahan looks into combined with corruption of the highest levels of government present. The previous films were more about institutional cowardice while this is more about institutional complicity. It’s a nice variation on what’s come before, and it gives Pat Hingle a good scene to explain his failings.
Callahan ends up behind the ball a fair bit in this small mystery that we know the solution to from the beginning, and he’s really the least interesting part of the whole thing. When he comes in at the ending to wipe away the criminality in an action-packed finale, it feels perfunctory rather than like the culmination of a series of events. All of the character growth and emotional resonance belongs to Jennifer, and in one of Sondra Locke’s last film performances she gives Jennifer a strong acting base on which the film stands. She may have been too old for the role (a quick flashback to when she’s supposed to be in college really makes it obvious the age difference between actress and part), but she does everything she can to help the film.
Sudden Impact is barely a Dirty Harry movie, but it’s still a pretty good movie. The central elements around a woman finding delayed vengeance for a crime along with the failings of the system end up making it feel more like a worthy thematic sequel rather than a literal one, but Eastwood brings his practiced workmanlike hand to the production to help string it all together. It could have used another rewrite to more intricately integrate the Callahan elements into the central story, but as it stands, it works well enough.