Dirty Harry (1971) is a compelling neo-noir thriller about San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), who is increasingly forced to choose between liberal legal norms and bringing a sadistic serial killer known as Scorpio to justice. Once Harry kills Scorpio, the movie ends with him throwing away his badge, symbolizing a momentous decision. When justice and law conflict, Harry chooses justice.
This is what makes Harry “dirty.” Harry Callahan is not corrupt. He is not willing to dirty his hands with illegality for selfish and petty reasons. But he will go outside the law to secure the higher good. The various events of the movie’s plot beautifully reveal elements of Harry’s character, so that his final choice makes sense.
Dirty Harry belongs in the category of first-rate crime thrillers like The French Connection, L.A. Confidential, To Live and Die in L.A., and Drive.
Director Don Siegel frames Dirty Harry with sweeping Bay Area vistas. Then the camera dives into the action and draws the viewer with it. The script is tightly written and the story swift-paced. Lalo Schifrin’s jazz fusion score marries perfectly with the action and heightens the emotional impact. This being a gritty crime thriller set in swinging San Francisco, there are some racy elements: violence, cussing, nudity, homosexual couples, etc. But Siegel avoids outright obscenity. It is easy to overlook the artfulness of Dirty Harry because the story is so captivating.
The best way to appreciate Dirty Harry is to compare it to its four terrible sequels: Magnum Force (1973), The Enforcer (1976), Sudden Impact (1983), and The Dead Pool (1988).
Dirty Harry was decried as “fascist” for making a hero of a vigilante cop who was also characterized as a racist, although the movie pulled its punches on this particular matter by making Harry an equal opportunity hater and partnering him with one Chico Gonzalez. But Dirty Harry was also a huge hit, especially among white men. This dictated two things. First, there would be sequels because there would be money in them. Second, the sequels would subvert everything that Leftists found “problematic” about Harry Callahan.
This would dictate that the sequels could not build on the evolution of Harry’s character in the original movie, because that was the biggest problem of all. So instead, they just reduced Dirty Harry to a formula and repeated it four times. Each Dirty Harry sequel required: Clint Eastwood, a big gun, some shootouts with hoodlums, some California degeneracy, a clever line he repeats from time to time, and a jazz fusion score, preferably by Lalo Schifrin.
Since Harry is racist and presumably sexist, they have to pair him with a non-white or female partner. Since Dirty Harry was very much a guy movie, they also tarted up the sequels with some romance.
Since the formulaic repetition of tropes without any character development gets boring fast, these movies feel hollow and meaningless. Thus the filmmakers punched them up with fist-fights and car chases and made the sex and violence extra lurid. Dirty Harry had dashes of Playboy. The sequels in the sleazy Seventies were pure Hustler.
The first sequel, Magnum Force, is the worst. With a script by the allegedly “based” John Milius, Magnum Force is less a sequel than a hard reboot of Dirty Harry. At the end of Dirty Harry, Callahan looks like he is quitting the police force and going rogue. In Magnum Force, Callahan is back on the force as if nothing has happened. Moreover, as a large number of criminals start getting gunned down, Callahan suspects that the culprit is actually a rogue cop gone vigilante. Our new Squeaky-Clean Harry is determined to bring him to justice.
It turns out that the culprits are four good-looking white motorcycle cops played by David Soul, Robert Urich, Tim Matheson, and Kip Niven. Of course the “real” Harry Callahan would have been mentoring young men like this, not trying to arrest them. But instead Harry has a black partner, complete with ’fro, named Early. Naming a black man “Early” sounds like a racist joke to me, but surely that was not Milius’ intention.
It turns out that the young vigilantes are mentored by Lt. Neil Briggs, played by Hal Holbrook, a pencil-necked prig who spends a lot of time chewing out Callahan for being trigger-happy. When Briggs finally reveals himself to Callahan, our Squeaky-Clean Harry argues (1) that vigilantism is a slippery slope that will lead to shooting people over parking tickets, which is absurd, and (2) that the system may be broken, but it is the only one we’ve got, and we can’t let go of it, which is Republican. At this point, Milius has completely destroyed the hero of Dirty Harry. And it was premeditated.
It would take a free-standing essay to detail all the ways Magnum Force is lame, tasteless, and subversive. But life is too short for that, so here are a few highlights.
Magnum Force was directed by Ted Post. I didn’t need to visit Wikipedia to know that he made his career in television. Despite being shot on location in and around America’s most scenic city, Magnum Force looks and feels like television: scrunched shots, dull camera work, sclerotic pacing. Not even Lalo Schifrin’s excellent score—the only first-rate thing about this movie—can breathe life into Post’s directing.
The acting is all TV-grade as well. The only thing that would keep this movie off TV is its extremely lurid treatment of sex and violence.
In good dramatic conflict, the outcome is determined by the characters of the antagonists. Action is revelatory of character. Events have a deeper meaning. But during the climactic battle with the vigilantes in Magnum Force, one of them . . . dies in an accident.
The allegedly clever line that Harry repeats is, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” which is a far cry from, “Do you feel lucky?” and completes Milius’ transformation of the hero of Dirty Harry into a smug old fart.
Three years later, Dirty Harry returns in The Enforcer. A mostly white group of hippy criminals has stolen military weapons and explosives from what is apparently a private warehouse guarded by a single geezer. They style themselves People’s Revolutionary Strike Force and try to extort money from the city by planting bombs and kidnapping the mayor.
Harry is paired with a female rookie (Tyne Daly), because the mayor wants to court feminists and good press. She tries hard to be a good cop. She also tries to seduce Harry. But her lack of experience gets her killed while rescuing the mayor. Thus The Enforcer actually amounts to a powerful critique of affirmative action and the political flakes who push it. Too bad it isn’t a better movie.
The Enforcer is directed by James Fargo, who like Ted Post captures the Bay Area’s spectacular scenery, as well as lurid sex and bloody violence, with all the cinematic sweep and dynamism of an episode of The Golden Girls. Harry’s pursuit of the criminals takes him to a whorehouse and onto the set of a porno movie. The killings are extra bloody and lurid. There are plenty of chases to a very routine jazz fusion score by Jerry Fielding.
But none of it has any higher meaning. There is no character development, just repetition of the formula: Harry mows down bad guys with his big gun, gets heat from the brass, and mutters the word “marvelous” occasionally, because that’s this script’s idea of wit.
Aside from Eastwood, the acting is barely serviceable for television. When Tyne Daly flirts with Harry—“Isn’t Coit Tower phallic?” “Ooh what a big gun you have.” “Do you use a .44 magnum for penetration?”—the acting is barely serviceable for porn.
Eastwood himself directed Sudden Impact, his fourth outing as Dirty Harry. Sudden Impact the best of the sequels and a huge box-office smash. It has the best one-liner of all: “Go ahead, make my day.” But this film is mediocre at best.
Eastwood’s girlfriend Sondra Locke plays Jennifer, the victim of a gang rape who decides to hunt down and kill her assailants ten years later. She kills her first victim in San Francisco, which puts Callahan on the case. Jennifer then leaves for the fictional town of San Paulo (filmed in Santa Cruz), where the rest of her assailants live. Callahan, meanwhile, gets in some heat with the brass and is forced to take a vacation. He just so happens to go to San Paulo, where he gets involved with Jennifer and notices a pattern when new bodies start turning up.
Mick, the most dangerous of Jennifer’s targets, turns the tables and attacks her, using her gun to kill the local police chief. Harry kills Mick and rescues Jennifer. Harry suspects that Jennifer is the real killer, but since Mick has the murder weapon on him, Harry pins the other murders on him and lets Jennifer walk away. It is a bizarre ending. It is not really an endorsement of vigilantism, however, because Harry doesn’t actually know why Jennifer is killing these people. It is just a bizarre lapse of responsibility.
Unlike the other sequels, however, Sudden Impact at least had the potential to be a good movie. All it needed was a better script, better actors, and better directing. It is certainly Eastwood’s weakest work as a director. Locke’s character is almost as bland as her comatose sister. The villains are ridiculous, cackling caricatures. The acting is TV-grade.
The plot is filled with dumb, disconnected events with no larger meaning. For instance, as in Magnum Force, when some of Harry’s enemies attack him, they die . . . accidentally.
As Harry practices shooting, a black man with a gun creeps up behind him. The actor is Albert Popwell, who played different characters in the previous Dirty Harry movies. We worry that he is about to shoot Harry, but no, the stalker is one of Harry’s police colleagues. The whole scene is pointless manipulation.
Beyond that, the character is completely useless. Aside from fake stalking Harry, he gives Harry another useless character, an ugly bulldog that farts and pisses to take up screen time. Then he shows up later to be killed by racists. His existence is simply dictated by the movie’s formula. But since Harry is on vacation for most of the film, he can’t be paired with a female or non-white partner, so Popwell’s character can’t really be integrated into the drama.
There’s little to be said about the final Dirty Harry movie, The Dead Pool. The movie is purely by the numbers. This time the brass decide it would be good for the department’s image to partner Harry with a Chinese-American cop, Quan (Evan Kim), who knows kung fu. The Dead Pool features the world’s most ridiculous car chase, in which Harry screeches and lurches through the hills of San Francisco pursued by a toy car. Harry’s clever line is, “You’re shit out of luck,” which is how I felt watching this turkey.
Eastwood was 58 in 1988 when The Dead Pool was released, so he decided it would be the last Dirty Harry movie. Having made more than $30 million from Sudden Impact, Eastwood decided to cut some of his friends in on the payday. The director of The Dead Pool is Eastwood’s stunt double, Buddy Van Horn. The story was thought up by two goofy libertarian pill and smoothie merchants, Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw. It’s everything you’d expect from such a brain trust. Given the cynicism of this exercise, it was a clever deflection to make the putative villain an even more cynical director of slasher films, Peter Swan (Liam Neeson).
This being the Eighties, the Hustler magazine sleaze of the Seventies sequels is gone from Sudden Impact and The Dead Pool. Lalo Schifrin returns to write the scores, but this being the Eighties, we hear drum machines, funky basslines, and insipid melodies.
As for the message of The Dead Pool, there’s not much left of the old Dirty Harry to deconstruct, but I do note that he is now respectable. He’s made the cover of San Francisco magazine, which he indignantly trashes. You see, Harry’s primary conflict with the brass is no longer about trampling on the rights of criminals but about cooperating with the press. In the course of the film, however, Harry learns that reporters are not all bad. In the end, he even saves one from a serial killer. Since the press is the ultimate enforcer of liberal norms throughout the whole series, if you are looking for an anti-establishment hero here, you’re shit out of luck.