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Dirty Harry

Man, I’ve watched DIRTY HARRY so many times since I’ve been writing about movies, and it is clearly one of the classics of Badass Cinema (the Loose Canon, I recently decided it should be called. Get it it is a pun I believe.) But I just figured out that I never wrote a review of it. Weird.

This time I watched it on the occasion of buying the new DIRTY HARRY ULTIMATE COLLECTION box set, which totally made my day and I did feel lucky punk and it is so good it would blow your head clean off and is the most powerful box set in the world. That is not really puns but you know what’s going on there, I think you get it.

Dirty HarryAnyway, I know I’m not talking to a bunch of rookies here so I’m not telling you anything you don’t know if I tell you this movie is awesome. Clint Eastwood is at his peak as far as just being a cool looking motherfucker, with his cocky hair do and his still handsome but already full of character early ’30s Clint face. There’s that shot when he’s eating the hot dog and just realizing that he’s gonna have to stop a bank robbery instead of finish lunch and he slowly turns around and it shows him in profile – you can tell that Don Siegel knew what a cool motherfucker he had in front of his camera there. The camera seems to be saying “holy shit, look at this guy!” Such an iconic profile. Put that fucker on the penny. Sorry Abe, you’re great, but look at this. I think you would agree.

That scene is one of my favorites, and obviously everybody in the world remembers that great “do you feel lucky” speech, but what I like best about it is definitely the hot dog. He foils a bank robbery while still chewing his hot dog. I do not know how you could be more casual about taking care of business. Maybe if he was wearing a bathrobe, or had curlers in his hair. Or was reading the newspaper, with bifocals.

This movie could easily be powered on the fuel of Eastwood alone, but Don Siegel is also smokin hot with his filmatism. He’s known as a workmanlike master of down and dirty b-movies, but the opening of this movie especially is the work of an artiste. That bright blue, rectangular swimming pool filling up the widescreen, the super fuckin cool stutter of funky Lalo Schifrin drums… you’re hooked into this movie way before they show Harry Callahan. And it all works especially well on this new DVD, the transfer is so much brighter and clearer. I didn’t know it looked this good.

Some of the extras on the DVD are pretty cool. I would like to see something even more in-depth, though. There’s no mention of the draft of the script Terence Malick supposedly wrote, no mention of the Zodiac killer or the cop they say Harry was partly based on (as seen in Dave Fincher’s ZODIAC). There is an interesting note that they considered setting the movie in Seattle, since it hadn’t been used in many movies. But they happened to scout Eastwood’s birth city of San Francisco first and couldn’t say no to it. Man, that would be so fuckin cool if Dirty Harry was a Seattle cop. Then maybe I would’ve felt better about getting pepper sprayed by SPD. Shit, we would have a statue of Dirty Harry I bet. We don’t have the best Jimi Hendrix statue, and no Bruce Lee, but I bet we could spring for a Dirty Harry in this alternate universe. Anyway, those guys dropped the ball but John Sturges and John Wayne picked it up and shot their DIRTY HARRY ripoff McQ in Seattle.

On some of the extras they talk about the politics. I guess Pauline Kael called the movie fascist, and some people get mad about that. Alot of talking heads mention that the movie was made shortly after the Miranda decision and there was “lots of talk about the rights of the criminals, but what about the rights of the victims?” Clint, being a class act, mentions that he does think the rights of the criminals are “very important” also. But what none of these people mention is that it’s not the rights of criminals that anybody is worried about, it’s the rights of suspects. People who do not always turn out to be criminals. That’s the whole point of it.

That’s why if you look at the message of the movie it’s pretty laughable, the deck is so obviously stacked. Watching this movie obviously we know that Scorpio is a serial killer and a sick bastard, we hate the fucker and love that Harry breaks his leg when he cries about “my rights, I have rights.” But that’s cheating, we have the omniscient power of movies. In reality we don’t have that power, so we don’t want cops to torture a guy they chased into a stadium. That guy might not be Scorpio, he might be you or your uncle who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In one of the more memorable jokes it’s mentioned that Harry got into trouble by shooting a guy he felt had the intent to rape. He felt this because the guy was chasing a girl while he was naked with a butcher knife and a hard-on. See, in a world where that could happen of course I trust Harry to shoot the guy. In the real world I’m afraid the cases are usually more complicated. So treating this as a serious argument against police accountability is pretty fuckin stupid. But that didn’t stop people.

I’m interested in the politics because the fact that I could love this movie so much says something. I don’t like people who would take these ideas seriously. I can’t relate to right wingers. I think those rights that Scorpio whined about are a big part of the ideals our country was founded on, and are more important now than ever before. I hate cops who think they don’t have to follow the regulations. And yet I love this movie. Maybe it’s just that this is a fun movie and is not really a serious political argument. Or maybe it shows that if a movie is good enough you can brush off the politics. Awesomeness transcends politics.

I mean, remember that shot when Scorpio has the school bus full of children and he’s coming towards the bridge and he just sees Harry standing there on top of the bridge, and he just about shits himself? How can we argue about left vs. right when THAT is going on? We might disagree on some of this stuff but we can agree that that is some cold-blooded shit right there.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 10th, 2008 at 8:06 am and is filed under Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 Responses to “Dirty Harry”

  1. Somehow a review of Dirty Harry that takes an even-handed view of its troubling politics is even cooler when you read it on a website that exuberantly celebrates badass cinema.

    I love this movie, absolutely love it. The music, Harry’s cardigan, my favourite scene is the same as yours though for some reason in my mind it’s always a cheeseburger, not a hot dog.

    I think what you said about how the movie cheats by giving us moviegoer omniscience and thus making everything ok is incredibly well-observed, I’d never thought about it in those terms and it gets to the heart of the matter.

    Good review, man.

  2. It’s funny you mention his “early 30’s face”. He celebrated his 40th birthday during filming, but he doesn’t look a day over 30 in the whole thing.

  3. The Original Paul

    July 10th, 2015 at 6:23 pm

    Ok. DIRTY HARRY, the film that started the series. It’s been over twenty years since I’ve watched this one.

    After a sweeping shot of the wall commemorating San Francisco’s police officers who gave their lives in the line of duty, the movie opens with a shot of an out-of-focus Scorpio, on a rooftop, pointing an in-focus sniper rifle at a downward angle. We then see the view through the sniper scope – he’s (and we are) looking at a pretty girl swimming in a pool on a lower rooftop not far away. The camera shows us the pool from Scorpio’s point of view, starting in full voyeuristic close-up, before the “scope view” disappears and we see the pool in close-up shot. The camera pans backwards to show us the butt of the gun, and once again we’re looking at the scene from Scorpio’s point of view. There’s one more shot of the sniper rifle from in front of it, and then we watch helplessly as Scorpio “stalks” the oblivious girl through his sniper-scope. There’s a quick shot of Scorpio’s hand, pulling the trigger, and then we see the girl in full camera close-up, blood slowly starting to stain the water in the pool, breathing heavily (sounding almost aroused, which I can’t believe is an accident)… and then she sinks. All of this takes under forty seconds, and is shot to some of the best seventies scoring I’ve heard in years. (Yeah, Lalo Schifrin was on form in this one. A pity about the last two sequels.)

    And before we have time to take a breath, the music changes to Harry’s theme, and we see the police guarding the rooftop. Then Clint appears through the door.

    And that’s it. No filler. No panning shots to establish stuff about location that we don’t need to have established. The direction of this opening scene is fucking masterful. By putting us quickly in the position of the killer, the victim, a helpless onlooker, the killer once more, and finally the victim… very little is established in terms of character, yet, but unlike certain other DIRTY HARRY movies I may have reviewed recently, this scene doesn’t need that. We know nothing about the victim other than that she’s attractive, helpless, and oblivious. We can only watch as Scorpio follows her, unwillingly forced into the position of being voyeuristic with him, his cold black gun-muzzle contrasting to the yellow of her bathing suit. Nothing about this scene lacks impact. It’s quick, punchy, and pointed. And like the opening scene of SUDDEN IMPACT – which is almost four times as long and says so very little by comparison – my reaction to this one opening scene pretty much mirrors my reaction to the entire movie.

    Other great things about this movie… the city is practically a character in it. There’s a piece of religious imagery that I didn’t spot in my naive younger days but fills me with joy today (Scorpio is quite literally nailed to a giant cross in this movie!) The shots of the city at night, in particular, are fantastic. Added to a pulsating score by Lalo Schifrin, it almost feels as though the city has its own heartbeat.

    I’d like to talk about the politics of the movie; re-watching it today, I think I’d previously misinterprited it.

    Arguably the key scene in the movie comes after Harry’s “arrest” and subsequent torture of Scorpio in the stadium. (A brilliant scene, by the way… the floodlights, the camera slowly pulling back, Scorpio’s screams echoing around the stadium, Lalo Schifrin’s superb scoring.) The DA points out that all of the evidence linking Scorpio to his crimes is inadmissible in court. Harry’s response to this: “The law is wrong”. Not “Cops should be able to torture whoever they want.” Harry is saying that there’s no law to cover the situation that he’s put in. He doesn’t have time to get a warrant. If there’s any chance the kidnapped girl is still alive, well, she’ll be dead by the time the law takes its course.

    I think it’s an important distinction because it’s not arguing that the police should act outside of the law – even Harry himself, when confronted by the DA, doesn’t argue this. I think that this point is reinforced by Harry’s partner, Chico, leaving the force. I completely forgot about the arc this character goes through, or how well Reny Santoni plays it. When he first meets Harry he’s a young and enthusiastic idealist; after seeing what the job does to you, he can’t handle it. It’s literally broken him, physically and psychologically. From start to finish, this movie is putting forward the argument that the police officers it represents are good men, but the job tortures them and their families. It’s a plea for us to support the police and give them the means to do their jobs effectively without being hamstrung. And that’s a far cry from “let the police break the law as they please.”

    Look, you guys know that I’m a liberal. I think the police should have every inch of power they need to do their jobs effectively, and not a single millimetre more. I expected to be repulsed by the politics of this movie. And there’s certainly an element of that; I kinda hate that in the first four DIRTY HARRY films, the person espousing “liberal” views is always a murderous hypocrite. As Vern said, in this one the decks are stacked towards Harry the stiff-necked enforcer of the law, and against Scorpio the obviously psychotic liar, rapist and murderer. It’s a very black-and-white portrayal of a very grey issue indeed. But I still have to give it more credit than I used to for at least not trying to glamourise police vigilantism. ‘Cause that scene in the stadium is fucking horrifying.

    So now I’ve seen every DIRTY HARRY movie from beginning to end. Here’s how I’d rank ’em.

    *

    1) DIRTY HARRY. I mean, c’mon. This one’s surely a given, right?

    2) THE DEAD POOL. Sorry guys. This has always been my DIRTY HARRY “guilty pleasure”, and that remains the case. I don’t think it’s as well-made as MAGNUM FORCE and THE ENFORCER, but in many ways it’s more enjoyable. It has more bizarre moments. It also has the second best Harry Callahan portrayal (after DIRTY HARRY), the most likeable partner (after DIRTY HARRY and THE ENFORCER), and Callahan’s most likeable love-interest. I also give it credit for a “liberal” character that’s not a murderous hypocrite, although I don’t think Peter Swan is a great character – at the start he seems like a complete asshole, whereas later on he seems almost like a completely different person, a change that isn’t really justified at all. In many ways this is less memorable than the other DH movies – it’s got less of a “point” to it and Callahan is a lot less “extreme” than he’s previously been. But the Callahan of SUDDEN IMPACT and THE ENFORCER was pretty much a charicature of the one from the original DIRTY HARRY so I think this is a positive change.

    3) MAGNUM FORCE. This was surprisingly close with #4, which I really didn’t expect to be the case. MAGNUM FORCE was probably the biggest disappointment for me in the DIRTY HARRY series. I thought for sure I’d be ranking it above DEAD POOL just because of general competence, but I can’t. It contains the second-worst portrayal of Harry himself. There are still memorable scenes, but I kinda hate how much everybody, especially Callahan himself, acts like a moron in this one. This is a very far cry from the badass Callahan of the first movie. It has some memorable scenes, but a couple of the most memorable are uncomfortably close to scenes I remember from other, better movies that came out not long before MAGNUM FORCE did (and by “uncomfortably close to” I mean “straight ripped-off from”.) It’s still decent, but it’s not as good as I remember it being.

    4) THE ENFORCER. And on the other side of the coin, this is a lot better than I remember it being. What makes it watchable is Tyne Daly’s character arc. What stops it from being great, though, is an overall “cheapness” to the feel of it that hadn’t been there in the previous two movies. The city no longer feels alive, the scenes frequently look like they’ve been shot on a budget (the Alcatraz finale in particular), and Callahan definitely crosses the line into self-parody on occasions – he’s an asshole because that’s what Harry’s supposed to be, not because there’s some injustice somewhere that the bureaucrats are getting in his way of resolving. This one definitely hasn’t aged well, and at times feels like a “cop movie cliche highlight reel” – even though it probably created most of those cliches. Still there’s a reason why people laugh at those kinds of things nowadays.

    Which means that, in a shocking twist, my choice for the fifth best DIRTY HARRY movie is, of course…

    5) THE ROOKIE. Yep, the fake sixth Dirty Harry movie is still better than the fourth “real” one.

    6) NOTHING. Because fucken SUDDEN IMPACT does not deserve the number six.

    Oh, alright then…

    7) SUDDEN IMPACT. More like zero impact. It’s slow, it’s monotonous, it’s unpleasant, it’s racist; and Callahan has gone from desperately torturing a guy to find out where a dying hostage is kept, to giving an old man a heart attack at his granddaughter’s wedding because Harry thought he might have killed somebody but couldn’t prove it. Yeah, those of you who think the original DIRTY HARRY “justifies” police brutality should really cop a load of this one. The only good thing about this movie is the return of Albert Popwell from the previous movies (I didn’t realise that he was the “Do you feel lucky?” guy from the first movie), and even that’s botched by introducing him coming up menacingly behind Callahan. ‘Cause he’s black. Look, it seems like 80% of the Internet thinks this film is a stain upon the DIRTY HARRY franchise. I agree with them wholeheartedly**.

    *

    Well that’s been my DIRTY HARRY retrospective. I’ve enjoyed it – well, four-fifths of it – for the most part. But there’s no doubt that the only really classic film is the first one. The rest are, I think, curiosities at best. I don’t think anybody would claim nowadays that even MAGNUM FORCE is a classic film, and certainly none of the others are. But that’s ok. DIRTY HARRY is a great movie. And y’know what, having seen it, I really do feel lucky. Peace!

    *

    **Oh, but there are positive reviews out there. Here’s a sample:

    Callahan’s character at his best. Anyone witness to our justice system – or lack thereof – will find this film truly satisfying. There weren’t too many shades of gray with regard to characters or plot. Virtually every character in this film epitomized what is best and worst about our society. The popularity of this film is probably due to the fact that most of us at one time or another have had to deal with scumbags along with the namby-pamby, lily-livered, melee-mouthed bureaucrats that empower them in the name of “political correctness”.

    I should for the sake of fairness point out that while not every positive review is like this, a lot of them are. In these people’s minds, not letting a police officer literally scare an old man to death at a wedding, or sleep with a multiple-murderer and then let her go, is a huge injustice and a case of honest hard-working cops being stifled from doing their jobs effectively by bureaucracy. I cannot agree with these sentiments.

  4. For extra enjoyment I definitely recommend Razorfist’s loving tribute:

    He has one for each in the series and they’re all fun.

    I love THE DEAD POOL as well. Sometimes I double bill it with NEXT OF KIN for a Liam-Neeson-Slumming-It night.

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