The Series Project: Dirty Harry (Part 1)

Professor Witney Seibold guides you through all of Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry movies. Just how dirty was this guy, anyway?

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold


Starting with Revenge of the Creature in 1955, and currently last seen in Gran Torino in 2008, it should be noted what a talented cultural powerhouse Clint Eastwood is. The man is, perhaps alongside Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall and Max Von Sydow, one of the only super movie stars we have left. It's been said in the pages of CraveOnline several times in the past that the so-called Movie Star System is currently at an ebb, as people are happily attending movies like The Hunger Games in droves, more for the content and less for the actors involved; do you think The Hunger Games would have made less money if they put a different actress in the lead role? I don't think so. Jennifer Lawrence was fine, but she was not the key to that film's success.

So what a relief, what a glorious re-education, to see Clint Eastwood in his grizzled glory days as Inspector Harry Callahan in the Dirty Harry movies. Not that I necessarily needed a reminder as to how huge a presence Clint Eastwood is in the world of film; I have seen all of his directorial efforts since 1999's True Crime (with the exception of Blood Work), and he has, pretty much, managed to knock it out of the park almost every time. Well, J. Edgar was kinda corny, but it was still well-told. Indeed, even if Eastwood had never acted, he would still be regarded as a soulful and patient director.

But before he gained said reputation, he was known for playing mean-faced, tough-as-nails badasses in a series of westerns and cop films that the film world will also never forget. In honor of the man, this week's installation of The Series Project here on CraveOnline will be devoted to his five-film cycle of Dirty Harry movies, and all the growling, scowling, gun fetishizing, giant American boat car driving therein. For the initiated, welcome back. For the newbies, welcome aboard. Let's see how these famous movie work as a series.

There were five films in the Dirty Harry series, as I said, and they stretched from 1971 to 1988. Each film was made by a different director (the fourth being directed by Eastwood himself), but all followed Inspector Harry Callahan of the San Francisco police department and his no-nonsense way of conducting police work; he would rather shoot down a perp in the street than take him back to the station. Why read Miranda rights to a rapist, after all, when you can wrench him off his victim and throw him out a window? Harry Callahan is more of a vigilante than he is a cop, doling out punishment rather than actual arrests.

Let's dive in, shall we? It's always fun to discuss a legitimate classic.


Dirty Harry (dir. Don Siegel, 1971)

Dirty Harryis one of the definitive 1970s American movies. The 1970s, I shouldn't have to remind you, were a markedly revolutionary time in American film. Movies moved away from cutesy beach party movies and colorful teen fare, and had shifted into a darker and more mature place. Many mainstream American films were now concerned with the Vietnam War, poverty, injustice and tragedy. This was a time of Taxi Driver, The Godfather, The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, and A Clockwork Orange. Even blaxploitation films of the era, however dumb many of them may have been, were edgier than the previous generation's distressingly antiseptic (and marvelously campy) JD flicks. Dirty Harry fits into this mold. It's about a hot, crime-riddled place (in this case, modern-day San Francisco) that is packed with vice, discourtesy, and depraved sex. Modern angst has dictated that people can only find satisfaction in desperate grabs at small scraps of happiness that they can foster off the floor of a broken economy. The only people who have any sense of justice are violent-minded near-sociopaths like Harry Callahan who bother to outwardly and unapologetically punish those who break the tenuous strands of law that are only barely keeping the filthy cesspool of civilization together. But, y'know, in a cool way.

Yes, despite the filth and hopelessness of the time, Callahan is way cool. He wears shades, carries a gun as big as your head, and takes no guff from anyone. Although it would be nearly a decade before the notion of Badass Cinema would begin in earnest, Harry Callahan is something of a badass. He won't be transformed into a cartoonish badass until the fourth film (it's not until Sudden Impact that he'll say “Make my day.”), so for now he feels more like a product of the time. A man who, in a wish-fulfillment kind of way, can remain hard and strong against a tide of dirt, constantly with his mind on the job. It's kind of a revenge fantasy more than a justice fantasy, but many people respond strongly to it. Indeed, Dirty Harry became such a powerful pop culture hero that his gun, the famous Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum revolver, “the most powerful handgun there is,” became a collector's item very much in the same way James Bond's Walther PPK did. I'm not a gun person, and I've only ever fired guns as part of my rifle shooting merit badge course as a Boy Scout, but I think if I were to choose between the two, I'd go for the Walther PPK. It's slimmer and sexier. The .44 Magnum may look cool, and may have the ability to blow holes though walls or whatever, but it just looks like a phallic extension.

The story of Dirty Harry is a riff on the then-recent Zodiac killings, which plagued northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and were detailed in David Fincher's excellent 2007 film Zodiac. In the film, the killer is now nicknamed Scorpio, and he shoots people with a sniper rifle from rooftops. He then sends taunting letters to the police and to the San Francisco Chronicle, just like the real Zodiac Killer. Dirty Harry is not framed like a murder mystery, however, and we see relatively early on that the killer is a guy named Charles Davis, played by Andrew Robinson from Hellraiser.

As is also in keeping with a lot of 1970s crime flicks, the film takes frequent digressions away from the main story to give us small pieces of character insight. There is one scene, for instance, wherein Callahan has to talk a jumper down off a rooftop. Harry ends up enraging the jumper so that he attacks Harry instead of jumping, and Harry is able to subdue him and bring him down to safety. The function of this scene is, as far as I can tell, to allow harry to explain his nickname. “That's why they call me 'Dirty Harry,'” he says. “'Cause I do all the dirty jobs.”

Harry has a partner in the film named Chico (Reni Santoni) who is a wide-eyed kid. Rather than being an innocent who has yet to be corrupted, or a decoy with a target painted on his chest, Chico proves to be a capable partner. Yes, he gets shot and laid up in a hospital, rattled by his police work, and is not present for the finale of the film, but he seems to buck conventions. However, the “unwanted partner” was to become a cliché in these films, so all future partners should be thought of as descendants of Chico.

The story of Dirty Harry also surrounds the controversy over the now-ubiquitous Miranda Warning, which was put into practice in the late 1960s. Many people objected to the rights of the accused, as it allowed clearly guilty people to weasel their way out of crimes thanks to a technicality. I have seen a political cartoon from the time, showing a man holding a smoking gun, approaching an unsuspecting police officer. He says: “I just gunned down three people in cold blood, and since you didn't read me my rights, this confession is inadmissible in a court of law.” The popular criticism of the Miranda Warning was that it added a level of doublespeak to an already complicated system. Dirty Harry, then, will find himself butting heads with an increasingly bureaucratic system when he thinks more like a vigilante.

So yes, Callahan spends the first half of the film tracking down and arresting Scorpio, only to find that he did it incorrectly, and that Scorpio will be released on a technicality. Never mind that there are witnesses who saw him. The arrest was bungled, and that's that. In a world where people are innocent until proven guilty, the Miranda Warning seems necessary. In a world of frustrated, hard-ass, hard-working street-level arresting cops, I can see how it would be an inconvenience. The second half of the film will be Callahan's increasingly powerful work ethic and sense of justice leading him to apprehend Scorpio on his own. To do so, Callahan will eventually have to go rogue from the police department (his bosses are never happy with his techniques).

It also doesn't help that Scorpio seems to be openly taunting him. Robinson is excellent in the part, as he is equal parts intelligent, creepy, and outright whiny. He really does seem like an unstable killer. During the film, Scorpio hired a thug to beat him senselessly, only so he can claim that Callahan did it, and that he's being harassed by the police. Rights of the accused, eh? Scorpio ends up hijacking a school bus, and forces the kids to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” while he badgers them and beats them and threatens to kill their mothers. It's an amazing scene. Scenes like this wouldn't appear in a contemporary film.

Harry ends up killing Scorpio in a quiet and tense shootout. He then chucks his police badge into a lake. It seems like Dirty Harry is frustrated with the way the law works in an age where serial killers have now entered the lexicon, and the world is increasingly lawless. Dirty Harry is a great film, but it is very bleak, and seems to declare that thick-skinned violence is the only logical response to society's inevitable madness.

Dirty Harryis a classic, and should be seen by all movie fans. Although, if you're one of those guys who insists that his new girlfriend watch it repeatedly with him (or spread out between Apocalypse Now and Porky's), then maybe you should lay off a bit. Or don't complain when she wants to watch Steel Magnolias.

Oh yeah. The “Do I feel lucky?” speech is still awesome.



Magnum Force (dir. Ted Post,1973)

Dirty Harrywas a huge, huge hit, and Callahan, like John Rambo, became an icon instantly. Sales of .44 Magnums went through the roof. I wonder if cases of vigilante killings also went up. As a result, the first Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force, seems less like a logical continuation of the story, and more like an attempt to cash in on the myth.

I suppose that's okay, as Magnum Force is actually still a rather good film, filled with awesome action, and a kind of clever storyline that comments on the function of vigilantism. It's just that, at 124 minutes (the longest in the series by about 20 minutes) it feels indulgent. There are many more shots of the .44 Magnum, and Harry himself, although still well-played by Clint Eastwood, has taken on a kind of folk hero status. In Dirty Harry, Callahan was a wounded man who was disillusioned by the darkness around him. In Magnum Force, he seems like a super soldier of the people. This mythologizing of Callahan will only increase as the films continue. By Sudden Impact, he'll be downright immortal.

Also, in the last film, I got the impression that Callahan was punished for his vigilante work, and that he wasn't going to be a cop anymore, what with the whole throw-my-badge-into-a-pond thing. There are some references to an enforced vacation and busting Callahan in some dialogue in Magnum Force, but there are no scenes showing how Callahan returned to the police, or the direct fallout of his admittedly criminal actions. Like many sequels, Magnum Force conveniently ignores certain events to get itself rolling.

Even though the film is long, and still has many of those pleasant digressions that made the first Dirty Harry so atmospheric, the story is surprisingly simple: Callahan, now with a new capable partner named Early (Felton Perry), is on the case of a motorcycle cop or cops who have been pulling over infamously acquitted Italian gangsters and murdering them on the side of the road. It's bad enough that these gangsters are being acquitted on technicalities (shades of Miranda, but no actual references), but now we have a murdering cop or cops to deal with.

Harry suspects that the killer cop is his old buddy Charlie (Mitch Ryan), who has openly expressed hatred for criminals and a desire to kill them. Charlie is also destitute after the loss of his wife. Harry seems to immediately intuit that Charlie is up to no good, but protects him out of loyalty. It's never said, but I suspect that Harry secretly approved of Charlie's actions. As the body count rises, and the new lieutenant (Hal Holbrook) becomes frustrated, Harry has to hide his feelings. Which is fine. Harry is not very emotionally expressive. Unless the emotion is outrage or anger.

Callahan has always struck me as being kind of asexual. He seems to have disdain for all the sex clubs he's constantly wandering by on the streets of San Francisco. He doesn't hate the homosexuals and the hookers he sees in such areas, but he doesn't seem titillated by them either. He's too focused on his job. Odd, then, that Magnum Force should give Harry a casual girlfriend in the form of Sunny (Adele Yoshioka), the pretty Japanese woman who lives on the floor below him. This subplot was either included merely to sex up the joint a little, or, perhaps more cynically, to establish that Callahan has a case of the NotGays. I don't see how Harry's sexuality has anything to do with his police work, but I guess the filmmakers felt the need to establish that he was definitely a straight man. I think I liked him better when he was asexual, or turned off by romance.

Anyway, it's eventually revealed that the vigilante cops, the “Magnum Force” if you will, is actually a cadre of police rookies who have agreed to start a vigilante club fresh out of the academy. They see it as a new way of cleaning up the crime-soaked streets. Murder! Fun! The cadre is headed up by (no surprise here) Hal Holbrook. Harry, in a long and exciting shootout, kills them all.

There was an opportunity here to show that Harry's vigilante ways were actually corrupt and incorrect, especially when taken to the logical extreme to which they were taken by this Magnum Force. A good villain speech would have been fitting. The “We're not so different, you and I” sort of thing. But no. Harry is never directly confronted. He just outshoots the bad guys. In this slightly dumbed-down version of Dirty Harry, I guess that was to be expected.

In terms of story, Magnum Force is well written and easy to follow. But since it has less in the way of atmosphere and attitude, I would call it the lesser film.



The Enforcer (dir. James Fargo, 1976)

Although The Enforcer orbits entirely around a now-clichéd cop movie premise (the notion of the mismatched partners) it can be given credit for having an excellent character dynamic. We who grew up in the 1980s know the mismatched partner cliché all too well. Starting with 48 Hrs., trekking through Partners, dipping into The Hard Way and taking a definite plunge into the turgid and insufferable sump of Turner & Hooch, Top Dog, K-9, Heart Condition and Cop and A Half, our dubiously grizzled heroes have been paired with slobs, mouthy black guys, disgusting animals, ghosts, and little kids. At least with The Enforcer, the cliché feels fresh, as it hadn't been done too many times yet.

When Callahan's partner dies (and this was not Early from the last film, but a fat white guy), he has to take a new partner in the form of Inspector Kate Moore, played by Tyne Daly. Daly is a great actress, and it's astonishing to see her so young and lithe; I'm used to her more recent stage work. The dynamic between Moore's open-minded inexperience and Harry's grizzled cynicism makes for an interesting new twist to the series. The Enforcer is considered, from what I gather, the least of the Dirty Harry movies, but I like it a lot more than Magnum Force. Mostly thanks to Tyne Daly.

Oh yeah, that mythologizing of Harry? It's only continued. Harry gets a partner killed in this film, and his new lieutenant, Mr. Bressler (Harry Guardino, who will also appear in the next film, making him one of the only recurring characters in the series other than Callahan himself) is, like all his predecessors, constantly impatient with Harry, but seems more capable of standing up to him. Nonetheless, Harry still seems capable of anything, and faces no consequences for his actions. Harry's “Get Sh*t Done” attitude has how begun to eclipse his realism and his strength as a character.

The bad guys in the film are kind of cartoonish and never seem all that threatening, and, most bafflingly, are never given a motivation. I guess since the bad guys are all Vietnam veterans, it could be seen as a comment on the war, but nothing is made explicit. They're just bad guys. The bad guys are, by the way, a van full of vengeful vets who have been stealing military-grade weapons, and hiding them on Alcatraz (I know, it's only a cheesy, recognizable locale for a finale). They have to go through a lot to steal the weapons, and a few of them die in the various robberies. The bad guys are all kind of recognizable types. There's the unhinged tough guy. There's the cool leader. There's the pretty lady. They're kind of like “The A-Team,”but working for evil. Sadly, none of the bad guys ever emerge as real humans, and exist only as an ineffable evil force for Harry to eventually take down.

Harry and Moore, meanwhile, go about their investigation in a clever way (they use their underground connections), and are eventually undercut by Lt. Bressler's politicking. He busts the wrong people, and insists that Moore and Callahan unduly receive credit. The scene wherein The Mayor is preparing to give public commendations to Moore and Callahan is a cute and strong interplay of character dynamics, and it's especially great to watch Daly in these scenes, as she seems torn between her unorthodox police work and the need for recognition. Again, Daly saves the day.

A pity, then, that she had to die. Yup. The Enforcer kills her off in the finale. The Mayor is hastily kidnapped by the bad guys, and Callahan and Moore infiltrate Alcatraz, where Callahan shoots all the bad guys, and Moore rescues the mayor. In the shuffle, Moore is shot. Callahan blows up the ringleader with a mini bazooka (!) just in time to watch Moore die on the concrete. I guess since Callahan's partners survived in the last two films, this one ups the ante by killing two partners. What a pile of suck. I would love to have seen the series continue with Daly as Callahan's partner. Callahan may have a reputation as a lone wolf who plays by his own rules, etc., but the idea of a lone wolf needing someone is way more interesting to me than watching a badass mindlessly killing people.

It will be seven years before another Dirty Harry film, and the goof quotient will be decidedly upped for the last two films, and the gun fetish will only increase. I guess Jimmy Carter's stint as president didn't warrant a vigilante mindset, and it took Reagan's cowboy policies to bring back the badass. Some could say that Reagan is solely responsible for Badass Cinema.

But that is a motion that will have to wait until next week, my lovelies. For the time being, we will put the .44 Magnum back in its case, and break it out for Sudden Impact and The Dead Pool on next week's The Series Project. When you see Jim Carrey lip-synching to Guns 'n' Roses, you know we'll be in a new era. Until then, punks, hope you feel lucky.