Monday, August 16, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Dirty Harry (1971)

Ah...I love the smell of a reactionary action-movie in the morning...

...And Don Siegel's Dirty Harry (1971) is one of my long-standing favorites of the form, even if the case it presents concerning civil liberties in the United States of the 1970s is undeniably...extreme. (Others have called it sick and "profoundly dangerous.")

In fact, no less a respected source than film critic Pauline Kael had grave problems with the film. Similarly, Roger Ebert termed the Clint Eastwood film "fascist" in "moral position" at the time of the film's release...just two days before Christmas Day in 1971.

Yet by today's standards, Dirty Harry -- though hardly a holiday, feel-good movie -- seems pretty innocuous. If you really, really want to see a film that is fascist in tone, position and expression, check out 2008's Wanted, an anti-human tract which suggests that super-human skills run only in the superior blood line of a murderous elite that knows better than the rest of us work-a-day "losers."

But that's a subject for another day...

Dirty Harry dramatizes the tale of a modern American city under siege. A psychotic sniper called The Scorpio Killer (Andrew Robinson) unleashes a reign of terror upon that derided bastion of liberalism: San Francisco. There, Inspector Harry Callahan -- nicknamed "Dirty Harry" (Clint Eastwood) -- is on the case with his new partner, Chico Gonzalez (Reni Santoni). When a 14-year old girl is abducted and buried alive by the Scorpio, the pace of the police investigation ramps up dramatically.

Callahan apprehends the Scorpio outside the killer's apartment, on the grounds of a local football stadium, but breaks four constitutional amendments in the process. Since Callahan has wantonly violated the killer's civil liberties (without a search warrant, no less...), the City of San Francisco allows Scorpio to go free, and forbids Callahan even from tailing the madman.

When the Scorpio Killer inevitably strikes again, Callahan refuses to help the City bureaucracy catch the killer, and goes off on his own to confront the maniac. After rescuing a school bus of abducted children and shooting down the Scorpio Killer, Callahan finally tosses his badge into a lake. He's finished with a system that puts criminals' civil liberties ahead of victim's rights.

Originally titled, "Dead Right" (a moniker which certainly expresses the film's political leanings...) Dirty Harry makes the case that something is rotten in Denmark, or at least San Francisco. The fear expressed so palpably and vividly by the film is that traditional, "just" America has been overturned by, well, rampant liberalism, specifically by the activism of the Warren Court in the so-called "Civil Rights Era."

In 1966, for instance, in Miranda vs. Arizona Supreme Court, the Miranda Rights of criminal suspects were enshrined in U.S. Law, establishing 5th and 6th Amendment protections for them

"The suspect's rights were violated," declaims one bureaucrat in the film. "I'm all broken up about that man's rights," Callahan responds. He even goes so far as to suggest that the "law is crazy" for allowing a dangerous lunatic like Scorpio to go free and endanger more innocent civilians. Now, as I often suggest here, all films are reflections of their context, of their age, and Dirty Harry is absolutely no exception. It is very much a reactionary film, yes, and one deeply concerned about the direction of our country at the advent of the 1970s.

Director Don Siegel cunningly and cleverly utilizes film grammar and some fine mise-en-scene to argue this conservative perspective. Early, panoramic shots in the film over-look the vast, sprawling city of San Francisco. These rooftop moments visually establish Callahan as being positioned "above" the petty politics of the village below. At the same time, Scorpio is simultaneously positioned on the rooftops, "above the law" as well. The relative rooftop positions of the dramatis personae reveal that Callahan and Scorpio represent opposite sides of the same coin: a hero who won't be sidelined by legal technicalities and a villain who won't be restrained by a legal system that he believes favors his murderous activity.

Several night-time shots of San Francisco locales also successfully transmit the point that new laws -- which allegedly protect criminals -- have only created a society of excess, vice and moral turpitude. Repeatedly, Siegel's camera captures real-life imagery of adult sex shops and theaters (with signage that blares "Totally Nude College Co-Eds" or "Amateur Topless Contest!").

And in the scene during which Callahan (illegally...) tracks Scorpio to a nightclub, the entire interior scene is cast in a garish, lurid red illumination. It is literally a modern "red light district." This accent on what the filmmakers apparently consider "out-in-the-open" vice is also suggested in a scene in a San Francisco park at night-time, when Harry is propositioned by an attractive young man who calls himself "Alice" and says he'll take on "any dare." Callahan sends him home with a dismissive one-liner. There are bigger fish to fry...

The action in Dirty Harry is also punctuated by several images of Old Glory, the American flag. We see the stars-and-stripes fluttering in the breeze over San Francisco's city hall, in the mayor's office and even -- damningly -- plastered on Scorpio's refrigerator in his stadium apartment.

These views of the flag are designed to broadcast an ironic, even cynical notion: the idea that the law enforcement bureaucracy and the criminals -- in a perhaps unintentional alliance -- have taken over the country and the city streets with their dangerous vision of "America."

The preponderance of flag imagery successfully reminds the audience both what America was, historically, and what the filmmakers' fear America has come to symbolize in the 1970s. Several times in the film, Siegel also cuts dramatically to beautifully-composed insert shots of the regalia of police work -- the badge, the gun, the flag -- and asks viewers to consider the symbols and the meaning behind such items. Do they still carry the same pride? Are we -- as a people -- still behind these symbols?

Another symbol that shows up in the film is a colossal, Christian cross, standing in that aforementioned San Francisco Park. The Scorpio orders Harry to "face the cross," a signal, perhaps that Callahan will ultimately be crucified by the powers that be for failing to respect criminal rights.

The Dirty Harry script (by Julian Fink, R.M. Fink, and Dean Riesner, with uncredited assists from John Milius and Terrence Malick) also builds the case that good men will no longer desire or continue to work in law enforcement so long as criminal rights are favored over victims' rights; so long as they are hand-cuffed by bureaucracy. After being shot on the job, Chico Gonzalez -- a clever, earnest and wholly sympathetic detective -- decides not to return to the force. He's going into teaching instead. And when Chico's wife asks Callahan why he remains a police officer in this environment, Harry has no cogent answer. "I don't know. I really don't."

Even the film's opening imagery is squarely on the side of the individual policeman: it's a lingering, even loving shot of a plaque in San Francisco's police headquarters, showcasing -- through a series of dignified dissolves -- the names of fallen police officers. From the outset, then, Dirty Harry aligns itself with the man on the street, with the cop on the beat, not the chiefs, the mayor, the D.A. or the like. Those folks are all bureaucratic dunderheads more interested in covering-their-asses than in fighting crime and achieving justice for the wronged, the film suggests. As simplistic as this view is, the opening shot of Dirty Harry is also undeniably inspiring: a testament to the policeman's credo; to his dedication to protect and serve.

By film's end, in a deliberate reflection of High Noon's (1952) denouement, Callahan tosses his police badge away. If he can't protect the citizenry, the badge is meaningless in his eyes. By discarding his police badge, Callahan separates himself from a hierarchy that is more concerned with the letter of the law than the spirit of justice. He's not going to be anybody's "delivery boy" anymore.

One way of interpreting Dirty Harry -- beyond the clear parameters of right-wing political polemic -- is as a very modern-day transposition of familiar Western genre tropes (like the aforementioned tribute to High Noon). Harry Callahan is the lone "hero" who rides into town to defend a helpless, imperiled community. As the form demands of its cowboy protagonists, Harry can't be a part of the established system when he saves the day. On the contrary, he becomes a vigilante who can only operate outside the system. The vigilante, according to Pramod K. Nayar, in Reading Culture: Theory, Praxis and Politics (Sage Publications, India, 206), "represents a symbolic escape-route for law-enforcers: it is only by stepping out of the bounds of the law that the law can be upheld."

The myth of the American frontier, the myth of the cowboy riding into the helpless (and often corrupt) community to save the day is one that has been re-directed in recent years to the superhero genre, for instance, particularly the cinema of Batman. However, these tropes also inform the specifics of Dirty Harry to a remarkable degree.

In understanding this filmic tradition, it may be easier for some modern viewers to the film's hard-right leanings. Siegel's movie is simply adhering to the Western myth, finding modern corollaries for long-standing cowboy chestnuts. That it does so with great humor at times is to Dirty Harry's everlasting credit. The scene in which a pistol-packing, hot-dog chewing Inspector Callahan single-handedly takes out a cadre of urban bank robbers plays as a parody of the Western or police drama far more adeptly than it functions as political agit-prop. After Eastwood glowers by a theater showing Play Misty for Me, sits down for a hot dog, and calmly -- while eating -- tells the chef to call in a 211 in progress -- there's a tongue-in-cheek vibe that's easy to enjoy.

On the other hand, Roger Ebert and other writers accurately pinpointed Dirty Harry's straw-man argument, a deliberate stacking of the deck to achieve maximum dramatic effect. Look at the film's villain, for instance. The Scorpio is not merely a criminal, he is the most extreme case of psychotic imaginable.

Alone, he terrorizes an entire city (including crying school children...), but then -- when confronted by the police -- he whimpers and cries about his rights, about retaining a lawyer. So he's both a maniacal genius and a sissy coward. Thus, I submit the Scorpio's not very realistic; he's at the far end of the spectrum of believable criminality. Most criminals aren't such maniacal masterminds. And few law-breakers would have the foresight, resources or self-discipline to go out and find someone to beat them up so the police appear to be brutalizers and abusers. This guy -- as a function of Dirty Harry's political message -- plays all the angles expertly.

Yet, oppositely, movies have never been strictly about realism; they're about making the most dramatic case imaginable. And that's exactly what Dirty Harry does; and does very well. The Scorpio is a great villain, contradictions and all. I love Siegel's selection of shot or camera angle at the stadium, when Harry finally traps the Scorpio. After the Scorpio stops screaming about his rights, about his lawyer, the camera (apparently perched on a helicopter) retracts from the scene --- up, up and away into the atmosphere (even leaving the stadium) -- as though God Himself is utterly disgusted by his wailing about civil rights.

Another straw man in the film, of course, is the derided bureaucracy of San Francisco. Down to a man, everyone but Harry is depicted as an appeasing, legalistic boob. Every last one of these heartless souls is willing to let a diabolical criminal go free because the letter of the law was broken regarding the Scorpio's rights. These characters are painted with an unnecessarily broad and simplistic stroke. In real life, lieutenants, mayors, and district attorneys also have the safety and well-being of the citizenry on their minds. They are not, everyone of them, all CYA-technocrats. But once more, this depiction -- while udeniably one-sided -- is also part of that Western tradition. By necessity, Harry Callahan must defeat the villain alone, outside the "legalities" of the corrupt system, and according to a higher natural law: true justice.

In other words, Dirty Harry puts down just about everybody so as to elevate Callahan -- the every man -- to the role of iconic defender of society and guardian of justice. Frequently, Siegel provides heroic low-angle views of Callahan too, or gazes at him down the barrel of his gigantic...pistol. In non-too-subtle terms, we are asked to worship this decent, uncorrupted man, and not just the girth of his pistol, either.

"My, that's a big one!" Scorpio exclaims with envy. Is he talking about the Magnum?

Many critics and audience members were legitimately upset and offended by the arguments that Dirty Harry makes with such power and cinematic aplomb. Philosophically, I certainly don't agree with many of these arguments simply on the grounds that everyone -- even police officers -- can make a mistake. You don't just want the police to catch anyone who looks guilty, you want to make sure they've caught the right person, the guilty party. Otherwise, innocent people will be tried, incarcerated, or heaven forbid, executed. In my eyes, society must balance some rights for those suspects not yet proven guilty in court with the freedom of the police to do their job effectively. I submit that recent History has proven that America pretty much has a good balance: we have seen violent crime rates go down and down since the 1970s -- the era of Dirty Harry -- even with those once-controversial Miranda laws in effect.

So yes, Dirty Harry indeed looks ultra-paranoid these days. And really, Harry Callahan is a trained, experienced police officer, so certainly he understands the importance of a search warrant. If he can't play by the rules proscribed by society at large, he has no business being in the game. (And indeed, perhaps Callahan realizes that fact; perhaps that is why Harry discards his badge at the end of the film...he no longer wishes to play.) And yet -- and I realize this may offend some people -- I still like and admire this film.

Today, perhaps the best way to look at Dirty Harry is as the cinematic missing link between John Wayne and Christian Bale, between the Western Cowboy and the superheroic Dark Knight. I don't have to agree with any (or every) argument or viewpoint in the film to make note of its significant artistry and skill. Stacked deck or no, straw man argument or no, Dirty Harry is still a great action film, a classic (if utterly reactionary) example of the genre.

So, how can a left-winger like me admire a right-wing cinematic effort like this? I guess I just feel lucky (punk...) to live in a country where our art has the freedom to argue a point, to debate the law, and to take a stand...even if I disagree with the conclusions reached.


  1. Doughboy81012:59 PM

    Hey John,

    Really nice write up! I have always loved the movies of Don Siegel. You can definitely tell that Eastwood learned a lot from him and you can still see his influences in Clint's movies. I always saw this film as part of the pendulum swing (answer) to movies like Easy Rider and such. Its ironic that my favorite Siegel film "Charley Varrick" doesnt even feature eastwood.

  2. Hi Doughboy810,

    Thank you for the kind words about the review. I also enjoy the films of Siegel and Eastwood very much, and wanted to focus today on this controversial, but very skillfully-created action film from the 1970s.

    You are right to mention the pendulum swing...Dirty Harry is definitely a swing back to the right, after the leftward swing you mentioned, towards Easy Rider!

    all my best,

  3. SteveW1:17 PM

    Great analysis. I'm with you in both admiring it and being repelled by it. It's a very effective and well-made movie, for what it is, and aimed squarely at Nixon's "silent majority"--the conservative America of the era that had had its fill of free love, drugs, civil rights, hippies, etc. Today of course that "silent majority" is loud and proud, what with Fox News, Beck, Limbaugh, et al behind it.

    You're right also about the origins of this character in the Western lawman who's effectively a law unto himself. What "Dirty Harry" does brilliantly is contrast that with a (mythical) vision of a legal system hamstrung by leftist simps, and an equally mythical psycho who brilliantly manipulates that legal system. (Kael in her review noted that she grew up in San Francisco, and, whatever the politics of the city as a whole, the idea that its police force was taken over by the civil rights crowd was ridiculous--the SF police were actually notorious for being brutal, corrupt, and hardly concerned with the niceties of the rule book.)

    It's a brilliant right-wing fantasy, making politically explicit what was always implicit in the prototypical Western man of action. The Western hero never made a mistake, never killed the wrong guy, never shot the innocent bystander, and basically always knew the right thing to do and did it. He kept everyone safe--the women, the children, the cowards, the bad shots--and we never questioned his judgment. It's a child's fantasy of a trusted authority figure. "Dirty Harry" is basically saying, we need that guy in this age of moral relativism. The movie pushes it so far that you can see the authoritarian mindset behind that vision of the Western hero. With a very small shift in perspective--say, if the psycho he was up against were any less frightening, or if the city officials weren't such mealy-mouthed frauds--Harry himself could quite easily be cast as the bad guy. (John Ford flirted with this with the Wayne character in "The Searchers.")

    I'm pretty much repeating what you said, so I'll stop now.

    1. Anonymous10:42 PM

      I am taking a film class this summer, and I need to justify why we should watch such and such movie. I decided to use Dirty Harry as one of my three options, and I just want to say that your review is very interesting and helpful. I agree the movie is just great!

  4. Steve W:

    No, don't stop, please -- those are great, crisply-worded insights, and you say exactly what I had hoped to say in the review.

    Right on: the movie is so artistically brilliant, and yet the message is so -- well, you said it, repellant to me personally. I don't believe in infallible mortals (cops, writers or otherwise...) and that's part of the film's straw man argument.

    But in the Western you can see the building blocks of Dirty Harry, and perhaps the DNA of the Dark Knight too. It's the fantasy of the infallible, just man riding into town and bringing justice: unquestioned, impartial justice to a corrupt system. Reality doesn't quite work that way, but this IS the American monomyth, isn't it?

    I've been thinking about it a lot lately, and that's why I featured this film today. Dirty Harry is so well-done, so carefully-crafted, and yet, as you say, it doesn't quite take into account the reality of the time (like the true nature of the SFPD!)

    Thanks for saying all that so clearly and ably. I appreciate the comment very much!

    best wishes,

  5. What I find interesting is that many people associate the film's "right wing tendencies" (for lack of a better term) with John Milius' being involved in the screenplay--but in many interviews with him, while he acknowledges his contributions (the "lucky" speech), he notes that his Harry was a sad, lonely man whose only human contact was with prostitutes, who lived in a run-down hotel, etc. In other words, someone more like Popeye Doyle, from 1971's other controversial police actioner. The Harry we now see has been "cleaned up" somewhat. Then again, the Friedkin/Hackman dynamic is much different from the Siegel/Eastwood one.
    Thanks for another great article,

  6. Hi Ivan,

    Thank you for a great comment on the background of Dirty Harry, and particularly the participation of John Milius.

    I recall that in many of Siegel's other films, his heroes are often isolated loners -- men with no families to speak of. And the Harry Callahan we meet here seems to fit into that tradition. We know from this film that Harry's wife was killed by a drunk driver some time before the Scorpio Killings.

    But you're right, he's very much cleaned up from that description offered by Milius. Still has rough edges (language, particularly...) but no visits to prostitutes. :)

    Thanks also for bringing up, as counterpoint, The French Connection. That's a good point, and helps paint a bigger picture of this era in American film history.

    Dirty Harry vs. Popeye THAT would be a movie.

    Thanks again,

  7. Grayson6:23 PM

    I recommend that everyone watch Josh Olson's (screenwriter of A History of Violence) review of this film over at Trailers from Hell:

    He hits on several points already made, such as the comparison with The Searchers. As for Ivan's point, Mr. Olson notes that in the trailer and the film Siegel hints at this. After watching Josh's review you can watch the trailer without the commentary by clicking on the tab at the upper right.


  8. Hi JKM;

    Terrific piece (no, not the magnum) and very apropos to the Clash of the Titans criticism earlier. I'm pretty "left-ish" in my views (far entrenched in the left-libertarian quadrant at but "Dirty Harry" is one of my all-time favorite films for many of the reasons you cite. But rather than just commenting to agree with you, let me add a bit of "I-was-there-if-nonetheless-quite-young" perspective about the era and an odd truth that sometimes gets forgotten: "Dirty Harry" was an icon to the counterculture. Like Peckinpah's "Western-with-a-political-axe-to-grind" Straw Dogs Siegel's film (and Eastwood's character resonated with the long-hairs and was marketed to that audience. Why did that movie connect when the similar (same director, actor, and politics) Coogan's Bluff (popular with the John Wayne crowd) did not? There's probably a doctoral thesis in that question, but I'll make a guess: the enemy in Dirty Harry, is, essentially The System and its empowerment of evildoers. Harry is an unpleasant (but nevertheless lovable) anti-hero in what is clearly a cartoonish entertainment (like Archie Bunker, whose appeal was similar - even though the might have resembled him down to the striped bell-bottoms, no one really "identified" with Meathead). Even though the film's overt politics may have been abhorrent to the Left, the character of Harry was someone they could identify with and admire - someone who'll stand outside the Process, someone with no use for The Man (despite being The Man). It's more of an individualistic philosophy than a fascist one. I think.

    One could see a hint of this in Harry's smile when he pulls the trigger on the empty chamber - it's a nasty joke, but there's a clear element of "I'm just messing with you"; a sort of fraternity of outsiders alongside the contempt. None of that for Scorpio, mind you.

    After all, the "Easy Rider" generation also devoured Conan, Heinlein and Ayn Rand - and made all of them icons.

  9. DLR:

    Fantastic comment. You have expressed something very clearly in your comments that certainly vexed me when writing my review.

    Sure, I am a lefty and yet I love this film, and feel oddly drawn to the character of Harry Callahan. I don't believe what he believes, and yet...there it is.

    What's that all about? Well, you explain it clearly (and the Archie Bunker comparison really sealed it for me...). Harry doesn't just express a right-wing point of view, but a point of view concerning the existing system, the existing societal structure. We can buy into Harry's dislike of the system, even if we don't buy into some of the film's paranoia.

    Very, very interesting. Thank you for sharing your experience and insight on this; a historical aspect/quality of the film that unnerved me a bit.



  10. Anonymous10:45 PM

    I'm adding "Wanted" to the Netflix queue immediately!
    Oh, nice write up on "Dirty Harry". I've always said it really only scores points as a facist manifesto if you are a very shallow thinker. In a film you can make sure that the hero is up against the MOST despicable character. Also that he never roughs up the wrong citizen nor do any of his bullets pass through a deserving villain to strike an innocent bystander... In short characters like Harry are heroes because the artificial reality they live in is... artificial - designed to support their heroism.
    It reminds me of the famous(I bet they actally did this on "24" but I didn't get past the first few episodes of season one)argument in favor of the use of torture. The argument requires a definitely guilty terrorist in custody, who definitely has knowledge that can stop a dreadful terrorist attack. There is no other option. The clock is ticking. Surely you would use torture to prevent the loss of hundreds or thousands or even millions.
    So I see "Dirty Harry" as a bit of a strawman argument if we must view it as propaganda.
    Helluva an entertainment, though.

    I prefer to remain anomalous...

  11. Anonymous11:59 PM

    I love how you put Dirty Harry in the gap between John Wayne westerns and the Dark Knight, as I grew up watching all three. In my home growing up, besides a healthy diet of sci fi and horror films, Eastwood, Bronson, and Wayne were the cinematic trinity. All three have films in which they take the law into their own hands, bringing about their own form of vigilantism. Take my favorite Wayne film, The Cowboys. While it isn't Wayne himself who takes matters into own hands but his proteges, it is still the old west version of an eye for an eye. This is even more the premise of True Grit.
    Of Course with Bronson, no better example is vigilantism than Death Wish. Then of course, there's Billy Jack, willing to go down for what he believes is right even if his methods are seemingly wrong.
    Now a days, we have the likes of Dexter to punish those who escape justice...a serial killer who only kills who he deems need his form of justice. Strange logic. The inmates are running the asylum logic.
    Great article
    Dreaded Dreams
    Petunia Scareum

  12. I always get a chuckle out of the reference to DIRTY HARRY in ZODIAC when we see Dave Toschi leaving the theater in bitter resentment.

    Great post, John!

  13. Fantastic piece, John! DIRTY HARRY remains the best and most admired in that series of films by people on the left and right of the political spectrum. That's a hard trick to pull off, but Siegel and Eastwood managed it. And yes, it is a western at its core. But, it still exemplified the 70's anti-heroes prominent during that decade -- I very much agree with DLR's Harry/outsider take.

    The latter films in the series also seem to bounce across the political spectrum. Harry doesn't play ball with the vigilantes SFPD cops in MAGNUM FORCE, for example, but he sure comes down on them forcibly, huh? For me, on an emotional level I'm cheering Harry on (pretty damn enthusiastically), but if I think about it I'm cringing. Great analysis and comments that this post is generating. Thanks for this, John.

  14. Anonymous1:20 PM

    I often wonder at the 2 sort of 'anti-heroes'.

    The first are the sort like Harry, Mad Max, etc. They're loners, who work outside the system for the system's benefit. The problems they solve seem to be unsolvable from inside the system. They may be unwilling or willing, but they're essentially caretakers.

    The other sort is less interesting to me, because they're just guys with their own agendas.

  15. Anonymous12:20 PM

    There was some talk of remaking Dirty Harry several years ago. How do you think they would do it today?


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