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Dirty Harry Retrospective Pt. 1

Posted on September 10, 2014 at 5:30 AM

Dirty Harry Retrospective Part One

The 1970s “gritty crime thriller” really defined the era for me. Sure, there were a lot of disco things and fantasy started to take off a little more with Star Trek and Star Wars, but I think of the movies about cops and bad guys, and sometimes vigilantes. I think of really dark shadows and dirty streets where you can almost smell the urine in the gutter as trash blows across an unwashed sidewalk. Subways were full of graffiti, cars were like boats and guns…well guns were everywhere and the bigger the better.

The French Connection, Get Carter, Gone in 60 Seconds, The Seven Ups, Death Wish, Charlie Varrick, Shaft, Serpico, the often-overlooked Report to the Commissioner and even films that weren’t of the 1970s, such as The Godfather or Chinatown, all shared this aesthetic. These are just a few that spawned from the late 1960s crime pictures like Point Blank and Bullitt.

So when Dirty Harry hit theaters in 1971, it was already in welcome company as the height of these types of movies was just getting started before lettering off by the early 1980s in favor of adding in more comedic elements and spewing the buddy-cop genre. More importantly, though, is it gave is a “hero” that so reflected the time. No-nonsense, to-the-point, shoot first and ask questions later, dissenter of authority and everything about “being a man” that was Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood.

*header art by Justin Reed


Dirty Harry (1971)

Like nearly every year in the 70s, 1971 had itself a ton of classics. In terms of our discussion, 1971 saw Oscar-winning, The French Connection, Get Carter, Shaft, Straw Dogs, Panic in Needle Park, Play Misty For Me (also starring Eastwood)…in other words some serious gritty flicks and most of them pretty violent along the way. Dirty Harry was right in the mix and, outside of The French Connection, is probably the highest regarded out of the bunch.

Right from the get-go, Dirty Harry hits the ground running. It doesn’t have time for any bullshit. We get the first crime of serial killer Scorpio, a note left behind and Harry Callahan on the case. That’s followed up with a better introduction to who Callahan is and his, let’s just say, “life philosophy with the famous shootout during a bank robbery and the famous set of lines:

"I know what you’re thinking: 'Did he fire six shots or only five?' Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya, punk?"

The dialogue from Harry, and really the entire cast, just washes over you. It feels natural despite being overly-poetic and a product of its time sometimes. “Why do they call you ‘Dirty Harry?’” is a running conversation. Harry knows the killer will strike again “‘Cause he likes it.” When confronted about “rights” of a suspect that were treaded upon, Harry responds in stone-faced, sarcastic fashion “Well, I’m all broken up about that man’s rights.” Or a little quip in the doctor’s office where the doctor tells Harry he has to cut off his pants to look at his leg, otherwise it’ll hurt. “Harry gritting his teeth as only Eastwood can and not exactly well-paid says “$29.50, let it hurt.”

That suit, that smirk, that gun. Eastwood owned the role and spouted that dialogue as naturally as any actor could.

Dirty Harry manages to find a formula fast without feeling formulaic. Perhaps because there wasn’t really a “formula” for the Dirty Harry movies yet, but here the balance is perfect: we play with the set up for the first hour or so that’s all about the “big case” while interjecting vignettes along the way of Harry Callahan being Harry Callahan. The main plot here is of the Scorpio killer, but that doesn’t take full-on precedence until Harry makes it the precedent and puts those smaller moments of bank robbery and suicide jumpers behind him.

What’s great here is how Dirty Harry paces itself. You think the story is over…but then it restarts with an entirely new angle as we now know who the killer is and it’s a matter of proving it. Though it may end up with a cheap ending in a way by comparison, but Harry ends up redeemed and his actions justified and that’s all that matters. Plus, the finale is so well done as we start with a school bus leading to a quarry (I think? There’s a lot of rocks on those conveyer belts) with a shootout and a final showdown. It goes on for a good 15 minutes and so utterly satisfying. There’s a lot crammed into this movie. Sure, it’s not some character study or anything, but we get the hero and villain, we get the situation, we get the violence and the risks and the goal…it’s really all you need for this type of thing.

Could more have been gone into some character study of Callahan’s “death wish” and why he carries a big gun other than for metaphorical reasons? Could we get a hint of motivation of the villain outside of “he’s insane and likes to kill?” Could the partner relationship be defined a little better? Look, the answer to a lot of questions like that is yes…but you have to also understand doing so alters the point of the movie. At its heart, Dirty Harry is a bit like a superhero flick before such a thing existed: overpowered hero meets his match and has to overcome the odds against him to save everyone. Boilerplate, straightforward, the only thing lacking is the origin story.

But Dirty Harry is less about just the story as much as it is a vicarious movie for men. Honeslty, if you know of a woman that actually likes these movies, I’d love to meet her. This is where “badass” kind of began. Sure, Steve McQueen kind of had that angle, but he wasn’t blowing people way and spouting awesome lines while doing so and it would be three years before Charles Bronson turned all that up to eleven. It’s a fantasy. Wish-fulfillment. Whatever you want to call it.

He's a vigilante, but still within the law as he sees it. It's a unique blend, and he carries out justice the way a lot of people dreamt of when playing cops and robbers.

That shouldn't undermine the quality of the picture, though. The way San Francisco is represented, the script is still tight and the directing sharp by veteran director Don Siegel, who also produced the thing. It’s hard to believe it went through such a history for so man years, at one point up for Frank Sinatra or Robert Mitchum to star, even offered to John Wayne for a vehicle at one point (and, apparently regretting this, went on to make The Shootist) and was even swirling ABC Television as a series.

It went through a ton of drafts too, depending on who was staring and who was directing. It was redone when Sinatra and director Irvin Kershner were aboard in the late 60s, redone again by Terrence Malcik of all people a little later but thanks to Eastwood’s Play Misty For Me in 1970, he was suddenly a “name.” No longer all about westerns and war flicks but a guy that can open a thriller and genre picture and get good reviews on top of it and when attached, it went through more variations. It was Eastwood that brought aboard Don Siegel.

Going by all this, it’s kind of amazing the thing even got made.

It’s a flawed film certainly, though. Every print and transfer I’ve seen struggles with the night shots where you a) see absolutely nothing or b) it looks like it was lit with flashlights. As much as I want to say it’s “moody” (and truth be told, night lighting was always super-dark in the 1970s movie making) at the end of the day I either can’t see shit or it feels contrived like a cheap set where we don’t have key lights but the janitor has a cool industrial lamp that might work. I suppose that, considering how well the film looks during the day shots, it’s just that more apparent when put up against the rest of it.

You also have a little too much camp when it comes to Harry’s superiors. At its heart, the movie, for the most part, works in those shades of gray. Nothing is really black and white. Except here where it seems the DA and the judges and the Lieutenant and everyone is against a guy really coming in and saving the day on a number of occasions. The scene of Harry being told his evidence was illegally seized shouldn’t have been as “Harry versus them” - I mean this is the guy. They know this is the guy. And they don’t even put a uni on him? It feels as though they flat-out don’t think it’s him when it’s obvious that it is. The scene needed a “Harry, we agree, we know it’s the guy, but there’s nothing we can do.” Instead it comes across as “Sorry, you’re wrong. You screwed up and it’s not him.”

Then you have the bad guy. You see, while we keep up with Harry and all his justice-spewing gun-shooting adventures, the main bad guy is going along and doing what bad guys do - here being sniping people from rooftops. Though he does a lot of interesting things to manipulate the police force and Callahan himself, the write-off here is that "he's insane." That's it. We never really understand the guy or know why, we're looking as deep into him as we are Harry. But while Harry is a bit of a caricature, the bad-guy's take on being what he is needs a little more to it. I mean, you have the name "Scorpio" and he's not even half as interesting as the killer he was based on. Maybe more letters to the newspapers and police are needed to really bring out his weird internal logic.

That's not in any way Andrew Robertson's fault. He's fantastic in the role as Scorpio, but he has so little to work with other than either a) be a crazy killer or b) be a punching-bag for Harry.

Unlike some of its later films, Dirty Harry has a distinct voice and point. It makes no compromises, even when it turns a little too “superheroey” towards the end where Harry conveniently knows where the killer is going to be and what bridge to wait on as he drives under. It still holds up incredibly well to this day, well directed, shot (outside of the super-dark night scenes) and Eastwood is obviously having fun in the role.

The influence of movies like this first Dirty Harry can't be spoken of enough. While I wouldn't put it as big of an impact as a Dr. No or Star Wars, it really gave the cop-action-thriller an identity that many would copy and rehash for the next 20 plus years before tiring out by the early 90s. Plus, Dirty Harry the character, even after all that, is still probably the most widely-regarded and beloved - political incorrectness and all. He's not as tragic or manic as a Martin Riggs or as mean-spirited as Michael Winner. He's basic and on the side of the law, and he has a big gun to prove it.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Magnum Force (1973)

If someone were to say “Magnum Force is the best out of all the Dirty Harry movies,” I probably wouldn’t argue. I mean, it’s damn good. Between this and the original, it’s a hell of a one-two punch in just a few years that defined the gritty crime drama of the early 1970s. Perhaps it being as well acted and directed as its predecessor, the director Ted Post continuing much of the style that Don Siegel established. Perhaps it’s the great performance from Hal Halbrook as Briggs who is all up in Callahan’s business.

Or maybe it’s just the idea alone. You see, after using the original film to establish the setting and character, and have a serial killer on top of that, you have to up the ante somehow. Instead of looking externally, the story looks internally at the SFPD itself and the varying degrees of vigilante justice. This sequel actually helps define Harry even further: sure he’s a guy that will do things his own way, but he’ll never do what the Magnum Force crew in this one will do. It added a new dimension, which is rare for a sequel as most (and we’ll be seeing that down the road) tend to rigidly keep their characters in line with what was established in the first film.

Magnum Force also has some very memorable set pieces. One I always like is the competition at the firing range where it’s down to Harry and Davis and Harry loses…or does he? He’s always a step ahead, and it’s a great reveal. Then you have another with a bomb and another with a car and motorcycle chase that leads to a foot chase that leads to the final showdown…only this time it’s Harry that’s running, not the bad guy.

Dirty Harry was destined to become a franchise. In just a couple a years from the first film, Magnum Force hit theaters. It was destined to be a franchise (for better or worse).

As mentioned, taking the reigns from Don Siegel in the director’s chair was Ted Post who really made his name in the television world, directing soaps like Peyton Place and westerns like Rawhide and Gunsmoke. One would think it was a downgrade: going from a pretty well regarded director like Don Siegel who put out The Killers, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Verdict and Riot in Cell Block 11 (and would go on to direct Charley Varrick and Escape from Alcatraz before retiring from the director’s chair in the early 80s). Yet, it's not. it's very much the same style and look and tone of the original movie, though not as "dirty" and "gritty" which I attribute more to a new cinematographer than anything. The way scenes play out and are set up very much continue what was previously established.

Truth be told, when it comes down to it, Magnum Force feels more polished than its predecessor. I have to give that credit to its screenwriter, or co-screenwriter rather but he’s first billing, John Milius (who was uncredited for the first film, though it’s hard to know to what extent). The guy just knows how to write, folks. We’re looking at Jeremiah Johnson, Apocalypse Now, the original Conan the Barbarian, Clear and Present Danger and the TV series Rome just to name a few.

Also Red Dawn…

Anyways, I think that, unlike the first Dirty Harry which had a pretty big slew of writers (Harry and Rita Fink, Dean Riesner, Joe Heims and Milius just on the final draft alone), you have Milius really spearheading the whole thing with the main story and script with little interference from other hands. Of course, this is just an assumption and I could be completely wrong, but I know the next film, The Enforcer, had four writers involved as well and it was a mess. As was Sudden Impact though it had Eastwood helming that helped it slightly. Then you have the stronger script in The Dead Pool which had three writers but one obviously primary ones, and was...well I don't want to spoil everything here. Let's just say sometimes patterns just show themselves.

What I like most about this one is the supporting cast, something Dirty Harry kind of had in a way but, for some reason, just didn’t seem as memorable outside of his partner. His new partner here is “Early” smith played by Felton Perry, who is younger and we have a nice bit of continuity as he references Callahan’s previous partner. Then you have nice bit players and supporting roles that, despite having only a little, do a lot with it. Hal Holbrook is the guy that’s going to be most apparent story-wise and Holbrook is fantastic as Briggs. He has this charm that kind of sucks you in…but some things are often too good to be true as the story not only gives a great reveal (twice) but centers square on him. I mean…you really come to hate the guy.

Hal Holbrook really brings it, and the entire movie's value is raised. No supporting cast in a Dirty Harry flick will match what Magnum Force brings

David Soul as Davis, Tim Matheson as Sweet, Kip Niven (who would later join The Waltons of all things) as Red and Robert Urich as Grimes make up the four “Magnum Force” members and though they say few words, and all have a similar look (as does the T-1000 apparently, he must have been a fan of bike cops or maybe this movie). You think for a while it’s just one guy, but you slowly begin to realize (and later fully revealed) that it’s an entire team and that maybe Harry is in over his head. There’s just something about these four assholes - their view of the world, their arrogance, their hatred of Callahan…well they all get what’s coming. Especially Grimes who takes one hell of a head-on collision.

Magnum Force is simply all about escalation. It raises the stakes from the first film naturally while, in execution, slowly build and builds to a great climax as Harry finally gives them all what’s coming to them. There’s a great sense of vindication to all that (again, living vicariously through Harry here) that, despite not having as interesting of a thematic punch as its predecessor, is every bit as satisfying and immensely entertaining. It took some of the elements that defined Dirty Harry and turned it on its head just slightly enough to distinguish itself. The characters have fantastic chemistry and there’s tons of memorable “Dirty Harry” moments throughout, plus one hell of a car chase and finale to top it all off.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Enforcer (1976)

At its heart, The Enforcer had at least an idea it was trying to put forward. I mean, it's right there on paper in terms of plot. Unfortuantly, it came across as an underwritten gimmick and an underwritten movie that’s less about the bad guys and more about the situation Harry finds himself in: his partner is a woman.

The set up to all this is great. Harry, naturally, is a complete asshole and his new partner, trying to learn the ropes, pretty much lets him be an asshole until she realizes she’s in over her head. Fighting, then working together, then redemption…it’s all there. But as awesome as Tyne Daly is as Kate Moore, and she certainly holds her own, the plot is ridiculous and a complete mess and her character is so lacking chemistry with Callahan that when the scenes of them together and “getting to know each other" occur it feels sadly forced.

There's something just almost here, Tyne Daly certainly holds her own and Eastwood as solid as ever...but the connection is just never made.

Ah, I used that word “gimmick.” I don’t use that word lightly, but the fact is this movie had one point and one point only: to give Harry Callahan a new female partner and see what happens. That’s the entire hook, and when the hook becomes the defining element of the film and everything else feels so inorganic, it turns into a gimmick, and that’s what happened here. The end result is a bit of a sexist mess that might have had good intentions but really doesn’t go anywhere or say anything in terms of character and certainly not plot.

This is best showcased in the complete lack of a “bad guy” to really focus on (because we’re focusing entirely on Kate Moore instead). It shifts from a terrorist organization to a bombing to the mayor getting kidnapped…it can’t focus on what kind of movie it wants to be. Plus the finale…ungh…where to begin. Sure, a shootout on Alcatraz sounds good on paper…but it’s so dull and uninspired that even the big cheesy rocket-launcher exploding bad-guy at the end doesn’t feel satisfying.

There’s also character actor Albert Popwell, who knew his way around some blaxploitation back in the day. Unfortunalty, much like James Bond’s Live and Let Die, The Enforcer’s take is less blaxploitation and more pretty-damn-racist (though not as egregious as that flick) as both really don’t get the genre and are just trying to capitalize on it.

You have some uncomfortable racial undertones that feel…gross. The entire barbershop scenes could have been removed, but for some reason they wanted it.

That’s not to say there’s not some darn good moments in this one, though. A great chase sequence goes from ground level to Frisco rooftops, a fantastic scene of Harry telling off the mayor and his boss and a decent moment at the end that, despite kind of repeating the elements of the original’s finale, has a nice touch as Harry does a variation of the High Noon “screw this” idea.

This was director James Fargo’s first film, and it really shows. Uneven, not particularly well shot (especially the final gunfight) and just kind of a mess of a movie full of hints of sexism, misogyny and racism that veteran screenwriter Stiring Silliphant (who worked alongside the likes of Hitchcock and Peckinpah) and co-writer/Eastwood pal (and co-writer of the original Dirty Harry) seem to throw into it as though it’s as edgy and gritty as its predecessors. It’s not, though. It’s just a bunch of ideas thrown into a pot and you hope something floats to the top but nothing does making The Enforcer and incredibly unmemorable film along the way.

The bits of comedy never work. Not once. Every time they creep up, it feels completely forced.

In the end, though, it doesn’t feel like a complete movie, so much so I have a hard time writing a lot about it. It's just so...bland and uninteresting. It had the ideas but nothing really came together and nothing really feels resolved, which is disappointing considering the supporting cast is superb. Nothing here is retained. I mean, I forgot everything about the movie even after watching it again this third or fourth time. In fact, I have so little to say because the movie is just so utterly mediocre (at best) and downright insulting (at worst).

The Enforcer really showed the beginning of the end already for the Dirty Harry series and we’re going to be seeing unevenness from here on out, as well as way too many compromises and hints of desperation to hold on to a franchise that, at one point, defined an entire genre.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


The Enforcer is arguably the low point of the series. I say "arguably" because, truth be told, the final three films we still have left to cover are all chock-full of problems and it's hard to really pin down which is the worst, though none of them are necessarily terrible at least as there are bits and pieces that are a bit inspired.

"Wait," you're thinking. "Three movies? Aren't there only two movies left in the Dirty Harry series?"

Technically you're right...but at the same time you're wrong. A little history lesson coming next week as well.

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