by Paul Batters
‘Now you know why they call me Dirty Harry…every dirty job that comes along’ Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood)
The depiction of the police on film is one that courts controversy and can rarely placate all and sundry in an audience. Certainly, the depiction of law enforcement has changed dramatically since the days of Breen Code but societal values and perceptions have also played an important role. Until the 1960s, the police on film were rarely depicted in a negative light and if there was corruption, it was only one or two bad apples not the police institution itself.
Yet the 1960s saw wholesale changes, with the collapse of the studio system, the new wave of film-makers and the obliteration of the Code. But perhaps most importantly, the 1960s was a time of change, challenging the status quo, Civil Rights, the anti-war movement and the birth and growth of the counter-cultural movement. For the first time, popular culture challenged traditional power and authority and the revelations of the time (Nixon, Watergate, assassinations of leaders, the Vietnam War) meant that people would never trust power and authority in the way they always had ever again.
But it was also a time of conservative backlash and a strong response to the perceived collapse of law and order. Nixon was elected to power, as Noel Murray points out, and reactionary politics was in the culture – think All In The Family and the film Joe (1970). Both spoke to the same platform that Nixon claimed; the silent majority who were tired of dirty hippies, long-hairs and smart-ass university types telling them how to live and what direction the country should go in.
Which is why Dirty Harry is both an anomaly and an understandable statement of its time.
Roger Ebert’s own review back in 1971 opened with a fascinating overview of criticism of the film being labelled ‘fascist’. He opines that the term had been overused and ‘best confined to a literal meaning’ rather than being used to label anything that is undesirable. In the context of the late 1960s/early 1970s, this is a fairly astute viewpoint, particularly as Ebert goes on to declare that the use of the term ‘fascist’ to describe Dirty Harry is actually quite justifiable. And there’s plenty of evidence in the film to fuel this criticism.
Directed by Don Siegel and released in 1971, Dirty Harry would be one of the highest grossing films of 1971. It would also assure Clint Eastwood as one of the top stars in Hollywood, with his directorial debut in Play Misty For Me already in the can and only just being released a couple of months earlier, also playing its’ part in assuring Eastwood’s currency in Hollywood. Emmanuel Levy points out that it outraged many liberals when it was released and you can see why.
Clint Eastwood plays Harry Callahan, a San Francisco cop who is after a dangerous psychopath named Scorpio (Andy Robinson). With an obvious nod to the real-life Zodiac killer, Scorpio taunts the SFPD that he will kill more unless his demands are met. From the get-go, the audience discovers that Callahan is not your average cop. Despite his dedication to the job, he has little regard for the authorities despite being a cop working to stamp his authority on the street. His first interaction with the Mayor (John Vernon) is both humorous and brazen in its feelings towards those in higher office. Indeed, it sets the tone for the zeitgeist of the times; a lack of respect or trust in authority. But it also establishes how Callahan deals with perps – and his ‘policy’ is direct and to the point:
Callahan runs his own show and the audience also discovers that he gets into trouble for crossing over the line. Yet his calm demeanour, perfect one-liners and fondness for his .44 Magnum create a persona that would permeate into many future roles for Eastwood. His character’s proclivity to use all three is discovered early in the film, when he deals with an attempted armed bank robbery.
His lack of desire to work with a new rookie partner, Inspector Chico Gonzalez (Reni Santoni), further suggests the ‘lone wolf’ who prefers to work alone without limitations and thus more effectively by his reckoning. Callahan cannot help but gently mock his new partner’s university education, further reflecting the right-wing ideology that critics suggested permeated throughout the film. But he has no choice, as ordered by his direct superior Lt. Bressler (Harry Guardino), and they embark on the search for Scorpio. Chico also discovers early on why Harry has the reputation that he does.
Initially, there’s a humorous ‘wrong number’ when they track the wrong guy and Chico jokes now he knows why he’s called ‘Dirty’ Harry. Even Eastwood is stumped for a retort.But things get serious and tragic when a 10 year old African-American boy is shot in the face by Scorpio, meeting his earlier evil prophecy in his letter to the SFPD that he will shoot a ‘Catholic priest or a n…..”. As Callahan correctly surmises, the next victim could very well be a priest as Scorpio ‘may think he owes himself a padre’ and they set up an operation to get their man during a late night Novena at a Catholic Church. The operation does not go to plan and a cop going undercover as the priest gets killed. Not only does the killings heighten the sense of tension and terror but the desire for Callahan to finally get Scorpio. It’s a perfect emotional manipulation of the audience by Siegel and has become part and parcel of ‘law and order’ films ever since.
The use of dark humour and Callahan’s seemingly casual demeanour in dealing with problems is perhaps a facade for his coping mechanism. Take in point the ‘suicide scene’ where he has to deal with a jumper that is first mistaken for Scorpio. Whilst he handles the jumper with casual indifference, it’s a ply to get him down but his face is tired and his voice loaded with cynicism, betraying the truth behind the facade. Later, when he is speaking to Chico’s wife, she asks ‘why do you do it?’ and Callahan can only respond that he really doesn’t know. The two moments link as evidence that Harry Callahan is a man who is tired and jaded with the whole of society and the damned institutions that run it.
Finally, Scorpio abducts a teenage girl and threatens all manner of horrors if his demands are not met. To show his intent, he includes in a package sent with a letter of his demands, the girl’s panties, a lock of hair and a tooth pulled out with pliers. Callahan believes she’s probably dead but agrees to be the bagman taking a bag filled with money to Scorpio, in the hope that the girl will be saved. What follows is a cat and mouse game where Scorpio sends Callahan all over town, from phone box to phone box until the final confrontation in the city park at night. Of course on the way there, there’s a dash of homophobic reference thrown in for good measure when Callahan comes across ‘Alice’ who will ‘do anything for a dare’.
The masked Scorpio meets with Callahan, who forces him to disarm and give him the bag of money, after which Scorpio brutally beats him. But Chico has been following and after a gunfight, Scorpio gives an animalistic and terrifying howl as Callahan plunges a hidden switchblade deep into Scorpio’s thigh. Scorpio gets away but is injured, as is Chico in the exchange of gunfire.
The following scene is perhaps the most infamous in the film, where Callahan tracks Scorpio down to a football stadium. The arrogant Scorpio is now a simpering coward, begging for mercy but Callahan will not relent. Repeating over and over in tears ‘I have rights, I want a lawyer…’, Callahan demands to know where the girl is and begins to torture Scorpio by standing on his badly injured leg as he points his gun at him. The camera, obviously placed on a helicopter, hovers back into the blackness as Scorpio’s howls fade out as well into the backdrop of the city at night. It’s a jarring and terrifying scene and one of the most memorable.
It feels like the story has come to an end. As the sun rises, a tired and hurting Callahan watched from afar as the missing girl’s dead naked body is pulled out from a grave. The sombre music reflects everyone’s mood and it’s also a Pyrrhic victory for Harry Callahan.
Here the shift to audience outrage takes form as Callahan is informed that Scorpio will walk because his rights have been violated, including key Amendments in the Constitution, as well as the Miranda and Escobedo rulings. It touched a raw nerve with audiences in an America torn by civil strife and riots, as well as the fear and terror of urban decay and the proliferation of the serial killer (in all manner of forms – here manifested in all those forms by Scorpio). In the D.A’s office, Callahan’s incredulity and anger mirrors an audience who, like Callahan are also ‘all broken up about (Scorpio’s) rights’. Callahan declares that ‘the law’s crazy’ and also assures that he will stay on Scorpio’s tail (no pun intended by this reviewer).
Callahan starts following Scorpio, whose wearing of a twisted peace sign as a belt buckle as he stares at kids in a playground, is highly suggestive of a constant underlying tone in the film; that America’s failings are a result of bleeding heart liberals whose progressive ideas are causing its’ societal and political woes. Now if only the police could do their job without being held back by ridiculous laws seems to be the sentiment.
The eventual showdown will results after Scorpio hijacks a school bus and takes the children hostage. It is a terrifyingly cruel scene as Scorpio manically terrorises the children on the bus. Somehow, Callahan is on the ready and as the bus goes under an overpass, he leaps onto the bus and makes chase after the bus comes to a halt.
WARNING! Be prepared for spoilers!
As Callahan chases Scorpio through a processing mill, the psychopathic killer comes across a boy fishing at a nearby pond and uses him as a human shield. It seems there’s nothing Callahan can do. But with all the flash and cool that he possesses, Callahan wounds Scorpio with a lightning fast shot, freeing the boy who runs away and leaving the two to face each other. It’s what the audience has been waiting for, with the coup de grace yet to come.
Callahan repeats with controlled aggression, the now famous line he used at the start of the film with the failed bank robber. This time – Scorpio will test his luck and Callahan blasts him to kingdom come.
In the background, a faint police siren can be heard and it’s easy to imagine what Callahan is thinking – why do I need to justify my actions against this maniac? His disgust can be felt as he holsters his weapon, looks into the distance and takes out his badge. A moment’s pause sees him throw into the water and then the credits begin to roll. According to Peter van Gelder, Eastwood was not too keen to toss the badge, seeing it as a gesture of abdication. But Siegel made him see that it was more an act of protest and disgust than anything else.
Legendary critics like Ebert called the film ‘morally fascist’, as did Pauline Kael. But Kael adds an important assessment of the film:
“It’s hard to resist, because the most skilful suspense techniques are used on very primitive emotional levels…You have but one desire: to see the maniac get it so it hurts”.
And there’s the rub. Whatever elements of fascism one wishes to find, it’s impossible to deny that it’s a damn good cop thriller and perhaps one of the best. Noel Murray puts it perfectly:
“Thanks to Siegel’s lean direction and Eastwood’s cooly laconic lead performance, Dirty Harry’s vision of a world gone mad is effective enough to make even a card-carrying ACLU member cheer for Harry’s vengeance”.
Siegel keeps the film tight and any fat has been trimmed off to keep the story moving and the dialogue drives the story without wasting words. As a director, Siegel has an instinct for pacing and it’s what makes the film such a solid thriller as much as a cop film. Interestingly enough, for all the charges of fascism, Siegel declared himself to be very much a left-leaning liberal who just wanted to make a commercially successful cop-thriller. Despite speculation that both Siegel and right-wing Eastwood must have clashed on the film, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Both were aiming to make a successful film and ultimately as Siegel stated, his making a film about a ‘hard-nosed cop doesn’t mean I condone hard-nosed cops’.
Many of the tropes we find in later cop films and even vigilante-type stories such as the Death Wish series find their origins in Dirty Harry, particularly when it comes to the bad guy. Whilst Scorpio is without a doubt based on the real-life Zodiac Killer who plagued California during the same period of time, Scorpio does incorporate characteristics of numerous psycho-types that would terrify anyone. Andy Robinson is perhaps one of the most disturbing creeps ever brought to the screen and time has not diminished his outstanding performance. By all reports, Robinson struggled with key aspects of the performance, particularly in two areas – the use of guns (which he personally hated and needed intensive training with) and the school bus scene. According to Peter van Gelder, Robinson could not stomach the violent cruelty he was supposed to dish out to the children and only relented when Siegel himself started dishing it out, just to get the scene over and done with. If Robinson was struggling with it, there’s a challenge to spot it because it’s one of the most disturbing and manic moments in the film and difficult to watch.
Eastwood was not the first choice for the role but he turned out to be the best. Like the lone gunman or the man with no name, Harry Callahan stands alone in the SFPD and in the pantheon of cops on film. The role would deliver a franchise of successful films, with Sudden Impact (1983) perhaps being the most successful. But the original is still the best and whatever one thinks of the film’s politics, it is impossible to deny it’s one of the greatest cop films ever made.
This article is an entry into the 2019 Cops Blogathon kindly hosted by Dubism. Many thanks for letting me take part! To all readers and visitors, please click on the above link for more great articles!
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.