Called 'fascist' by liberal reviewers, Dirty Harry fell like a gauntlet before a complacent film establishment, who were shocked by its total abandonment of standard movie attitudes toward crime. A definitely right-wing look at an America that conservatives were certain was crumbling into anarchy, the movie that started as a script called Dead Right took the old liberal standard High Noon and turned it on its head: America was no longer worthy of the loyalty of its public servants, the police.
Dirty Harry is the original conservative backlash movie, that shocked pundits all across the political spectrum, even as it was just accepted as another violent thriller by the general public. America in late 1970 was perceived as being under attack by revolutionary bombers, antiwar protesters, drug-crazed addicts, hippie perverts, and sexual deviants, the responsibilty for which right-wingers placed firmly at the feet of Liberalism, period. It was then that conservatives first charged Liberalism with the crime of being disloyal to those 'true American values', which they felt were under attack from all sides.
To make this right-wing fantasy float, the writers cobbled together a villain who personifies every criminal evil imaginable, a combination of the Zodiac Killer (a real public enemy), Charles Manson, and that shaggy insolent kid who's taking your daughter out on dates and doing God-Knows-What with her. Andy Robinson embodies a public menace so kill-worthy, he might as well be one of the giant ants from Them! Mister Rogers would stand in line to send this guy to the gas chamber. The writers make sure he gives off all the right negative vibes: he's longhaired, sexually ambivalent (or perhaps just whiney-psycho), and wears a Peace symbol for a belt buckle.
Up against a world that can create this monster, Clint Eastwood's Harry commands such respect that audiences laughed as he tortured suspects and taunted wounded prisoners. Many less enlightened Police officers since this film have taken Harry's attitude to heart; at its core, Dirty Harry is a license to intimidate and threaten. Audiences also booed the ridiculously exaggerated mayor and D.A., who repeatedly release Scorpio and other murderous scum, when in reality there'd be all kinds of offenses to hold them on. Dirty Harry demonizes the liberal authorities, who are seen as cowardly bureaucrats more interested in punishing Harry than neutralizing a killer. The mayor and police chief roles are filled by actors John Vernon and John Larch, who normally play slimy villains.
High Noon presented a town populated by hypocrites who didn't deserve their upright Marshall, who wouldn't back him up when he was in trouble. Conservatives were rankled when a disgusted Gary Cooper threw his badge into the dust at the end. Dirty Harry takes the position that the courts and laws (and the Constitution and Bill of Rights) are designed to help the creeps who menace society. The only right thing to do is to use vigilante tactics. That is a fascist movie, because reality is exaggerated in favor of Harry's extreme point of view, and Clint Eastwood's charisma is used to sell it. Nobody's good enough for Harry, not the politicos, nor the ordinary people in the poor neighborhoods he's supposed to be protecting. The argument is that you either are in favor of allowing the cops to operate completely without restraint, or you're against the American Flag. 1
The film's ugliest tactic is using the actual names of fallen San Francisco Police officers over the titles. With the same lynch-mob logic that says anyone against the Vietnam war is betraying the brave soldiers who fought, the producers of Dirty Harry want the viewer to choose sides on the crime issue, now, using the yardstick they define.
When the film was new, The LA Times presented a big photo of Harry standing over the wounded Scorpio on the 50-yard line of a football field, grinding his heel into his suspect's leg wound. All the discussion did was highlight the schism in America over the issue. The real reaction to Dirty Harry wasn't so fair: generations of Americans influenced by the rigged stories and extreme arguments of films like this and Death Wish and many others, are convinced that government is corrupt, the Law is against the police and for the criminal, and that if you want justice (or to be a real man), you need to buy a gun.
And Dirty Harry is one ferocious movie, that upped the gore and cruelty quotient of the cop film. Scorpio slowly withdraws a stiletto from his foreleg in blood-oozing closeup. He pays a vicious black thug to beat his face to a pulp, so he can blame it on Harry Callahan. To make sure the job's done right, he taunts the thug with racial slurs. Harry does torment Scorpio when he can, but undergoes a torturous night himself when Scorpio plays with him like a cat with a mouse, taunting him with the imminent death of his kidnap victim. She's not spared either, and her horrible fate is shown in pitiful detail. Harry's position as the only thing between society and total chaos is underscored when Scorpio takes a whole busload of schoolkids on a death ride ... this is the kind of terror situation that only comicbook supervillains, or political terrorists, have the stomach for. Hollywood soon learned that by making its action films less realistic and more cartoonish, messy controversies can be avoided. Since many a Savant reader has been raised watching films like Death Wish, Die Hard, Rambo and Judge Dredd, the point-of-view Savant's trying to express here might seem very alien.
Direct and unflinching, Dirty Harry brought its director Don Siegel to light as the great filmmaker he'd quietly been for twenty years. A no-nonsense storyteller, Siegel came to prominence as a police-procedural specialist in films like The Lineup, even though his finest work had been the Science Fiction movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He'd previously teamed up with Eastwood in the equally right-wing Coogan's Bluff, that basically espoused the same ideas as Dirty Harry but couched them in a vaguely Capra-like "Mr. Earp Comes to Town" story of an Arizona cop loose in Manhattan. It's possible that neither Siegel nor Eastwood had personal ideologies to express in Dirty Harry, as both have been associated with much less conservative films before and after.
Shot in zoom-happy, grainy, ugly Panavision, Dirty Harry is efficient and cruel propaganda, and still has a hell of a macho kick. It's an irresponsible film, that claims a higher morality while making sadism and social vigilantism into a feel-good spectacle. "I know what you're thinking ... did I fire six shots, or only five? Well, to tell the truth, in all of this excitement, I kinda lost count myself."
Warner Bros. brought out Dirty Harry a few years back, in the same 'Clint Eastwood Collection' packaging, so you have to look carefully to see if you have the new disc or the old one. The new disc says "All new 2000 digital transfer" in the box on the back. The transfer is better, much better than the old one, which came out soon after the launch of DVD. Both were anamorphic 16:9, but this one is obviously from a much better element, for the colors are better and the picture sharper, cleaner and far less grainy. Now the grainy, dark night scenes look appropriately grainy - not just a sludge of black.
The feature has a bundle of goodies not present, including the original promo, Dirty Harry's Way, and a new and lengthy docu called Dirty Harry: The Original. It is hosted by Robert Urich, who reads a script that basically describes the movie as everything Savant has above, but concludes that Harry is just fighting for 'justice', and not the Law. Terrific. The numerous people interviewed for the new docu are also excerpted in a lengthy interview section. Eastwood dodges the responsibility issue, and John Milius embraces the film's philosophy (even though his followup The Enforcer goes out of its way to shift Harry's attitudes to other, Ba-ad cops). Arnold Schwartzenegger simply states what's so attractive about a hero who's a one-man vigilante, and comes off as more honest than either of them.
If you have the old disc, don't dump it if you want a Spanish language track or a pan'n scan version of the movie, as the new disc has neither.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. This is nothing new. At UCLA they showed us a 1933 depression-era
film by the Ultra-Right Wing Cecil B. DeMille called This Day and Age. When local gangster
Charles Bickford murders a beloved tailor and frames one of their own, the local frat boys form into
a terror squad. Using a sorority girl as bait, they kidnap Bickford and torture him over a pit full
of rats (no kidding) while singing patriotic songs. When the police arrive, there's congratulations
and approval all around. This appalling picture probably helped contribute to the upswing of lynchings
in the mid-30's; and it's a strong precursor to the college boys who take an active role in the
lynch mob in the subversive Try and Get Me!, much later. I think if you digitally replaced
Bickford's face with that of Osama Bin Laden, you'd have a potential big hit for the '01