Dirty Harry

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USA, 1971

Director: Don Siegel

Production: Warner Bros., Malpaso; Technicolor, Panavision; running time: 101 minutes. Released December 1971.

Executive producer: Robert Daley; producer: Don Siegel; screenplay: Harry Julian Fink, Rita M. Fink, Dean Riesner; assistant director: Robert Rubin; photography: Bruce Surtees; editor: Carl Pingitore; sound: William Randall; art director: Dale Hennesy; music: Lalo Schifrin.

Cast: Clint Eastwood (Harry Callahan); Harry Guardino (Lt. Bressler); Reni Santoni (Chico); John Vernon (The Mayor); Andy Robinson (Killer); John Larch (Chief); John Mitchum (De Georgio); Mae Mercer (Mrs. Russell); Lyn Edgington (Norma); Ruth Kobart (Bus Driver); Woodrow Parfey (Mr. Jaffe); Josef Sommer (Rothko); William Paterson (Bannerman); James Nolan (Liquor Proprietor); Maurice S.; Argent (Sid Kleinman); Jo de Winter (Miss Willis); Craig G. Kelly (Sgt. Reineke).



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* * *

"I know what you're thinking," says Harry Callahan, Inspector 71 of the San Francisco police, to the bank robber he's just shot. "Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell the truth, in all this excitement I 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?"' The humourless smile widens. "Well, do you, punk?"

For many, this speech is the most memorable thing about Dirty Harry. But while the film seems destined to be Siegel's masterpiece, it would be an error to confuse Callahan's challenge with the director's own ethic. A gibe in The Line Up (1958) is closer to his concerns. "Ordinary people of your class," says the killer Dancer, "you don't understand the criminal's need for violence."

What Siegel illustrates in his work is the implicit contract that exists between criminals and society. We need criminals to act out our own fantasies of violence. Siegel finds proof of this symbiosis in our legal system, an imperfect tool which we ourselves sabotage. His films mock its structures. The police force of Madigan is corrupt. Riot in Cell Block 11 and Escape from Alcatraz attack the prison system. Coogan's Bluff, like Dirty Harry, parodies sociology, legal procedure, and especially the concept of rehabilitation.

Siegel's special subject is killers, whichever side of the law they may work on. But his murderers and vigilantes are creatures of the imagination. In them, he encourages us to see mirrored our own urges for violence and anarchy. When they die, it is, in effect, for our sins.

By contrast with most real-life murderers, who usually kill loved ones in the heat of passion, Siegel's murderers are loners, conscienceless and mad. They kill for profit, as a profession, or for fun. Andy Robinson's Scorpio in Dirty Harry is his most malevolent creation, leering, anonymous, malign. We'd assume his weaponry had its genesis in Vietnam were it not for his twisted peace symbol belt buckle: evil has no pedigree, just as Scorpio has no biography.

Scorpio preys on innocence; a girl swimming in a penthouse pool, a 10-year-old boy, a teenager he rapes and buries alive. Other targets are a priest, an exaggeratedly effeminate homosexual, a much-robbed liquor store owner, and finally a bus filled with schoolchildren. All that stands between Scorpio and these, the helpless, is Harry Callahan— "Dirty" Harry, because he draws every dirty job, but equally dirty because he does not flinch from violence in doing them.

Harry's methods are endorsed when he tracks the wounded killer to a football stadium. Ignoring gibbering appeals for a lawyer and a doctor, he grinds a heel into the bleeding leg until Scorpio reveals the location of the buried girl. Bruce Surtees's camera pulls back in a vertiginous helicopter shot, losing hunter and prey in night-time mist and the glare of the floodlights. This nightmare image dissolves into a blue dawn above the Golden Gate bridge as a nude corpse is hauled out of her grave and carried away. Birdsong shows nature indifferent to her death, as is the sleeping city. Only Callahan cares.

Harry has flouted every legal procedure, so the murderer goes free, and hijacks a school bus. Taking justice into his own hands, Callahan kills Scorpio, and, as the body sinks into a sump like a slaughtered horror movie monster, flings his police badge after it.

Thus Dirty Harry's first and last images are of this badge. The film opens on a marble honour roll of dead cops. A gold inspector's star, superimposed over a list of the dead, dissolves into the silenced barrel of Scorpio's rifle, fair warning of a significant visual subtext.

Neutral behind dark glasses, Callahan initially appears almost disdainful of his duty. Over the credits, he climbs a building to find the place where Scorpio shot from, the first of many ascents in the film. From that moment, he appears in charge of the city, its avenging angel—a role for which the satanic Scorpio challenges him. (The first word heard in the film is Callahan's expletive when he finds Scorpio's extortion note—"Jesus.") The film thereafter is filled with Christian imagery. The square where Scorpio sets up his second killing is dominated by a church, and Callahan stakes it out from a rooftop where a revolving neon sign announces "Jesus Saves." For the payoff of the ransom, Scorpio chooses a hilltop park dominated by a gigantic cross.

Critics, especially The New Yorker's Pauline Kael, thought Dirty Harry fascistic. Others blamed it for the Death Wish/Walking Tall vigilante films which followed, ignoring the fact that, without exception, they lacked Dirty Harry's moral and psychological dimensions. To classify Harry Callahan as just another right-wing hard-hat was to miss the point of the film as surely as those who call him "Dirty" Harry miss the irony of his nickname. Given the spread of urban violence and the resulting change in public opinion in favour of law and order, vigilantes, gun control, and the death penalty, it must be acknowledged that, while they did not create the New York, Washington and Los Angeles of the 1980s, Siegel and his writers anticipated them with a special prescience.

—John Baxter