Dirty Harry

Dirty Harry (1971, USA, 102 mins)

Source: Warner Bros. Prod Co: A Malpaso Company Production/A Warner Brothers Release Prod, Dir: Don Siegel Scr: Harry Julian Fink & R.M. Fink and Dean Reisner; story by Harry Julian Fink and R.M. Fink Phot: Bruce Surtees; Technicolor, Panavision; ratio: 2.35:1 Ed, Assoc Prod: Carl Pingitore Art Dir: Dale Hennesy Mus: Lalo Schifrin

Cast: Clint Eastwood, Harry Guardino, Reni Santoni, John Vernon, John Larch, Andrew Robinson, John Mitchum

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One of the occasional films which escape the usual boundaries of cinema, Dirty Harry-or at least some of its residue-has, in the last thirty years, taken up a place in popular mythology and its language. In such cases, it is useful to examine the original from time to time.

The project kicked around at least two studios during the 1960s, first pitched as a Paul Newman vehicle, then tailored for Frank Sinatra, finally, on at least the fifth rewrite, for Eastwood who accepted on condition that Siegel direct. Certainly a career highpoint for Siegel, Dirty Harry came at a crucial time for Eastwood: having begun (knowingly or not) a filmmaking apprenticeship with Sergio Leone, Eastwood had been learning the director’s craft (and crafting a persona) with Siegel from Coogan’s Bluff (1969) through The Beguiled (1971) and Dirty Harry, between which Eastwood directed his first feature, Play Misty For Me (1971)-an intense creative period. As noted elsewhere, Eastwood did not base his directing style on either Leone or Siegel-he is quite different from them-but from them he learned how think to as a director (Eastwood’s style is more leisurely, more Old Hollywood, more romantic and more sentimental).

While it seems to be a watershed film, it’s not one by virtue of innovations or ‘firsts’ (except as the Mark I in a lucrative sequel franchise) but rather for bringing together several developing strands and crystalizing the synthesis: Dirty Harry anticipates Mad Max (1979) and Death Wish (1974), presages Taxi Driver (1976), renders redundant (and a bit silly) much of James Ellroy’s posturing, and reshapes an entire literary genre, the police procedural story, by inventing a new position for the hero and for the city-as-crime. (This last is a large claim, but: before Dirty Harry, police procedural models were based on the realist/humanist, just-ordinary-guys-trying-to-do-a-job model of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series; after Dirty Harry came a new model: middle-aged male cops going through mid-life crisis, loners-marriages collapsed, families lost, romantic liaisons transitory, alienated, self-destructive, in conflict with their superiors, values in question-if this sounds like Harry, it also sounds like the writing of John Harvey, Jon A Jackson, the aforementioned Ellroy, Bill James, James Lee Burke, Ian Rankin, Joseph Wambaugh, Hugo Hamilton, Michael Connelly, Reginald Hill, Charles Willeford, Gerald Petievich, Michael Connelly-and that’s just the A-team).

Stylistically, the film looks and sounds remarkably contemporary 30 years later (accommodations made for changes in clothing, hair, and musical fashions). Neither self-consciously modernist or postmodernist, the film has none of the late-1960s/early 1970s hip/groovy/with-it affectations; the closest it comes is a scene in a tacky topless bar, a reasonably documentary detail in a film shot on location in 1970 San Francisco. Like Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958), it is also a wonderful film about that city and its variety. With Vertigo, and with Play Misty for Me, it shares an unusual narrative structure: the story (Harry must pursue and capture the psychotic killer, Scorpio) is told twice. In the first telling, Harry’s arrest of Scorpio is invalidated because he did not follow correct police/legal procedure, and so the second telling begins with the surprise that Scorpio is free again, and must be stopped again. In the second telling, Harry finds and stops Scorpio (in the most permanent way) again outside procedural law but this time by choice: his last act in the film is to throw his police badge into a stagnant slough (thus rendering the sequels prequels, and positioning the first sequel/prequel, Magnum Force [1973], as a self-conscious apologia: Harry Callahan goes after and shuts down a group of maverick police officers who are meting out vigilante justice outside the police regulations and the letter of the law.). There isn’t much point in trying to render word-equivalents for the audio-visual aspects of the film, but the kinesis of music and sound cues, edits, camera movements and movement within the frame are, simply, a textbook of sharp-edged, no-waste, forward narrative movement. Everything gets exactly as much time as it needs, no more; performances, particularly Eastwood’s, match this economy. In this way, it continues to be a benchmark film.

It also deliberately intervened in a public debate in the late 1960s/early 1970s US society. As the film explicitly mentions, a liberal (left-oriented) Supreme Court had handed down decisions (Miranda, Escobido) protecting the rights of accused criminals. The Miranda decision required arresting officers to read a criminal his rights (‘You have the right to remain silent.’ a litany in police dramas ever since, which quickly became a verb: ‘Did you remember to Mirandize him?’); Escobido protected against unreasonable search and seizure, which, in the film, Judge Bannerman of the Appellate Court accuses Harry of in the first apprehension of Scorpio. The film poses the most extreme example of the legal/social issue: suppose a totally uncontrollable and very clever killer preys on society and, though known to be guilty by every viewer of the film, is protected by the very legal sanctions we depend on to protect the accused until proven guilty? This not long after Sen. Barry Goldwater had run for the US Presidency defending “extremism in the defense of liberty” as a key value. What sort of answer/what sort of protagonist do we want for this problem? Or, as the film has it, who speaks for the rights of little Anne Marie Deacon, whose death is the turning point of the two tellings of the story? The obverse question: how far are we (society) to go in responding to such extreme threats?

Because of this, at the time of its release, Dirty Harry became a controversy: the influential American film critic Pauline Kael (among many others) called it a fascist film, presumably because it depicts a (very strange) hero taking the law into his own hands in defiance of his government. In its way, Dirty Harry is the most scrupulous of the 1970s US films built around this issue. Its two-part narrative structure and its dialogue calls attention to the constitutional issues. In opportunistic ways it volunteers our fears, then challenges us to think about acceptable answers. It gainsays our fear of the world’s Scorpios in order to focus on a more pointed issue: our fears of our heroes.

About The Author

Rick Thompson co-edits Screening the Past; his interviews with Samuel Fuller appeared in Film Comment and Movietone News c. 1976.

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