Covid-19 has made movie-going difficult, if not downright impossible. With most new content pushed until 2021, this left me with some free time to watch films that remained elusive to me. Films that I just never got around to watching. Many of the films are available online, either on subscription services or for rent. This is one of them: Dirty Harry.
The film is burned into pop culture with “do you feel lucky punk” to the iconic Magnum revolver. With the parody of the character, I knew what he was supposed to be about, but never actually saw the film to know the true basis of the movie or character. Dirty Harry is actually a conservative view of law enforcement in the early seventies. Or, more like a condemnation of the justice system coming out of the sixties.
We seem this motif a lot in the eighties. Movies like Cobra and Lethal Weapon. When you watch the film, you see a lot of the themes that dominate multiplexes in the next decade. Bear in mind, this movie was released in 1971. Harry understands that he can only do certain things within the law, but to catch some of these criminals, you need to go outside of the law.
Who is Dirty Harry?
San Francisco Police Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan is a weather cop, who not a lot of people like. Not to mention he has a nickname that his newest partner is trying to figure out. It would seem that Harry does the dirty jobs that no other police officer can or is willing to do. He has no problems getting down and dirty to do the right thing. The basis for the anti-hero, which emerges in the seventies.
What brings Harry into the forefront is the murders of a maniac known as the “Scorpio Killer”. It was very loosely based on the Zodiac Killer that terrorized much of the Bay Area and Northern California for a long time. Inspector Chico Gonzalez (Reni Stantoni) becomes his new partner and it takes a bit to warm up to Harry. There are uses of racial slurs by Callahan, but it is diffused in the end that he isn’t a racist. He hates everyone equally.
The Scorpio Killer begins a cat-and-mouse game to go after Callahan, which makes it personal. It is an ongoing trope or joke – hard to tell which – that Harry’s partners never last long. It is obvious that he feels he is the best when he works alone, but he does need some help. Though his tough exterior, his partners tend to understand that he isn’t a cold, vicious bastard. He is actually a good cop doing dirty jobs.
The climate of the time
Aside from the Scorpio Killer (Andrew Robinson), Callahan is at odds with the Mayor (John Vernon) and the Chief (John Larch). It is a trope we saw in the eighties and nineties, which is still around. The Bad Boys movies take it to the hilt. Callahan takes things to the extreme, which usually violates someone’s civil rights.
Conservatives at the time would knock rights of the criminals versus the rights of the victim. Which isn’t completely invalid. It does seem that criminal’s rights are held to a higher degree than the rights of the victims, who had their rights violated. It isn’t hard to fall into that vigilante type of heroics. Then again, it starts to skirt into that “judge-jury-and-executioner” type of justice. Almost a Judge Dredd type of law enforcement.
It isn’t hard to fall into Callahan’s corner. Clint Eastwood has a talent for allowing even the most liberal to side with him. Even though he treats his partners with a bit of disrespect and sarcasm, Eastwood manages to drop a nuance to show he cares. This marks a major turn that when his plan goes wrong and causes harm to his partner, he takes it personally. It does take time to teach you how he became this bitter warrior for the decent people of the city.
Don Siegel does a great job is capturing San Francisco of the time. It wasn’t as gentrified as it is now. Lots of open land and the use of landmarks reminds us where this is taking place. It isn’t a Vancouver that is made to look like the Bay Area.
The film manages to hold up
Dirty Harry manages to hold up over the nearly fifty years since its release. If you remove the films that followed it, you can see where the next two decades of cop films came from. Callahan isn’t the hero that everyone wants. He is the hero they need. Even the cops around him joke about his reputation and manner. However, in the end, they know he is what they need.
The Scorpio Killer is a bit over-the-top, but fits perfectly in that dynamic. He goes from being the hunter to the hunted, and you can’t help but feel a sense of glee. The film is violent and has a lot of nudity, but you need to remember the times. It would be easy to cancel this movie when you judge it by the social norms of the present. But, when you get into the substance of the social commentary and characters, you can actually enjoy it.