October 6th, 2008

DIRTY HARRY (1971) ****

Clint Eastwood was a big movie star after the enormous popularity of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy but it was his role as “Dirty” Harry Callahan that made him a superstar.  Everyone knows the story:  Harry is after the psychotic “Scorpio” (Andrew Robinson) who is holding the city of San Francisco at ransom by threatening to kill one citizen a day using his high powered sniper rifle.  Harry isn’t your ordinary cop though.  He doesn’t play by the rules and is willing to step on the Constitution (not to mention a few kneecaps) in order to get his man. 

 

The reasons audiences responded so well to the film are numerous.  You could say it was because the flick was partially based on the Zodiac killings which happened where the film was set and Harry did what their police force couldn’t do:  blow the scumbag away.  Also, the film dealt with an anti-hero who didn’t play by the rules to get the job done. The vigilantism of Death Wish was still a few years away, but Dirty Harry captured audience’s disgruntlement with criminals who hid behind the law.  While Harry didn’t go out and straight up murder criminals like Charles Bronson would later do, he still isn’t above bending the rules and cutting through the “innocent until proven guilty” malarkey to blow away the scum of the earth. 

 

I think the real reason the film was a sensation though was Eastwood himself.  He’s never been better (and that’s saying something) than in this flick.  He’s excellent at showing the embittered rage of his character (“Well I’m all broken up over that man’s rights!”) and is pretty hilarious in the film’s lighter moments.  (“When a naked man is chasing a woman through an alley with a butcher knife and a hard-on, I figure he isn’t out collecting for the Red Cross!”) 

 

And then of course there’s the scene.  You know the one.  The “Do you feel lucky?” scene.  Before Arnold Schwarzenegger was saying cheesy shit before killing someone, Eastwood had the speech that makes all the one-liners in the world pale in comparison.  Not only that but it’s the way Eastwood delivers it that’s so amazing.  And he does it twice.  In the beginning he says it playfully to a perp he’s wounded while committing a robbery.  In this scene, he’s just being a bad ass; saying cold-blooded shit to psyche out a low level hood.  The second time he recites it is to Scorpio and he delivers it through clenched teeth in a seething rage.  The first time it’s for laughs, the second time it’s for keeps.  You almost get a sense that he would have blown Scorpio away with his trademark .44 Magnum even if he didn’t go for his gun.  Especially since when after Harry kills him, he gets so disenchanted with himself that he throws his badge into the river.  That didn’t stop him from coming back in four sequels though. 

 

The film also defined the cop genre for the entire millennium.  While Bullitt may have been the first movie about a badass cop, it was Dirty Harry that spawned the most imitations.  The scene where the seasoned Harry grudgingly takes on a wet behind the ears partner has been played out thousands of times.  (Heck even Clint recycled it in The Rookie.)  The scene where Scorpio makes Harry run around from phone booth to phone booth is not unlike the games Jeremy Irons constructed for Bruce Willis in Die Hard With a Vengeance.  And the scene where Harry saves a suicide jumper by verbally abusing him is awfully similar to the scene in Lethal Weapon.  Dirty Harry was the genesis for all of these scenes that are now commonplace in the genre.

 

While Bullitt may have had the spectacular chase scenes, Dirty Harry is all about the character which makes it that much cooler.  Unlike Bullitt, Harry is not a supercop.  He’s a human being.  He bleeds when he’s hurt, he gets winded when he runs and he’s not above checking out naked women through a pair of binoculars when he should be looking for his suspect.  He is after all, a man.

 

Speaking of naked women, I hadn’t watched this movie in a long time and was surprised just how much female flesh was in this flick.  Usually when I did catch the film it was on AMC or something (which means all the boobies are edited out) so I was taken a bit aback by just how many titties bounce up and down during the course of the film.  Whether the gals are chilling on rooftops topless or shaking their goodies in strip clubs, the movie features a good half dozen bare exposures, something I’m sure Eastwood is particularly proud of. 

 

Another strength the film has going for it is it’s villain.  Andrew Robinson makes for one memorably skeevy psychopath.  What made him great was he had no motive to kill his victims and his scream when Harry sticks him in the leg with switchblade is positively insane and will unnerve you no matter how many times you see the film.

 

And I cannot praise Don Siegel’s direction enough.  I don’t think the man ever really got the credit he deserved for his prowess behind the camera.  Siegel’s style is invisible which makes his contribution to the film that much more important.  When you think Dirty Harry, you don’t necessarily think of it in terms of “shots”, you think of it as a good fucking movie.  That’s the way it should be.  His style never interferes with the film and he’s content on just letting you enjoy the flick instead of drawing attention to himself.  Watch the movie again and you’ll be amazed just how tightly constructed each scene is.  Siegel lets all of the scenes play out as they should.  He never hurries them along and always gives them a payoff.  The “Do you feel lucky?” scenes in particular are masterworks of manly machismo movie making.

 

The sequels that followed all have their merits but some of them unwisely watered down Harry’s near fascist brutality, making them a notch or two below the first one.  It doesn’t matter how many sequels or imitators come and go though, the original is still the best. 

 

Dirty Harry is Number 2 on the Video Vacuum Top Ten List of 1971, right below A Clockwork Orange and ahead of Diamonds Are Forever.

MAGNUM FORCE (1973) ***

Dirty Harry is back and this time out he has to contend with a group of vigilante rookie cops who go riding around on motorcycles cleaning up the scum of the universe that manage to slip through the cracks in the justice system. 

 

The fact that Harry’s nemeses in this movie dish out a slightly skewed brand of justice that Harry himself is used to dealing out is an interesting jumping off point for this sequel.  Unfortunately nothing is ever really done with this concept other than Harry tries to stop them.  It would’ve been a lot more interesting if Harry had joined up with the killer cops temporarily and explored some sort of grey area in Harry’s criminal bashing philosophy.  The filmmakers don’t really go that route though, but the fact that the villains in this one are similar to Harry himself is still pretty cool.

 

On the glass-is-half-empty side though, having the villains be vigilantes kinda neuters Harry’s rule-breaking tendencies.  If anything it seems more like the studio’s attempt to somehow dilute Harry’s more fascist leanings and make him more “accessible”.  The problem with that is that it was Harry’s willingness to sidestep the law to get the bad guy that made him who he was.  Since Harry is no longer willing to toss the Constitution aside to nab his man, it makes him more of a cookie cutter good guy and less like an anti-hero, which was pretty much the whole point of the first movie.  He WILL however car bomb the shit out of you if you double cross him though.

 

The film also suffers from some superfluous nonsense involving Harry’s dalliance with an Oriental woman who lives in his building.  This fling adds nothing to the story or to his character and only succeeds in slowing things down.  Also, Harry’s motto in this one, “A man’s got to know his limitations” is pretty weak.  It’ll have to do I guess. 

 

Although Magnum Force is nowhere near as dynamic a film as its predecessor, it does have some memorable scenes.  The opening sequence when one of the cops pulls over a Mafioso and murders him in cold blood has a kick to it and the throwaway scene where Harry poses as a pilot to stop some hijackers is a lot of fun.  There’s also a disturbing scene where a vicious pimp forces a no-good hooker to gulp down a can of Drano.  The film’s centerpiece though is the shooting alley sequence where Harry and one of the recruits try to outshoot one another.  While Ted Post’s direction tends to be a little flat and his pacing is fairly pedestrian, I have to give him his due on this scene.  Not many directors can make shooting at cardboard cutouts seem suspenseful. 

 

Clint does a good job here although (like the movie itself) he seems to be playing a watered down version of the Callahan of the first film.  The supporting cast really helps to anchor the flick and compliment Eastwood nicely.  As Harry’s boss and ringleader of the rookie vigilantes, the usual nice guy Hal Holbrook makes for an excellent villain.  We also get some solid performances by the trio of young soon-to-be famous stars (David Soul, Tim Matheson and Robert Urich), all of whom provide a good foil to Squinty Eye Clint.  The flick also carries on Harry’s tradition of having an ill-fated minority partner in Felton Perry, who does an admirable job with his limited screen time.

 

Magnum Force doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the original Dirty Harry but hey, very few sequels ever manage to top their predecessors, so who can really complain?  There’s a lot more action than the first movie and the film features a fairly high body count to boot, making it a good piece of slam bang entertainment. 

 

Whatever shortcomings the film has, it’s still a fucking Dirty Harry movie and there’s no such thing as a bad Dirty Harry movie.  Just like there are no bad James Bond movies.  Sure one movie may be a little bit better than the others, or one of them doesn’t quite live up to that one, but at the end of the day, as long as it features Dirty Harry with his .44 Magnum cleaning up the streets of San Francisco, it’s damned good times.  

 

Future directors Michael (The Deer Hunter) Cimino and John (Conan the Barbarian) Milius (who did uncredited rewrites on the original) wrote the screenplay.  Harry returned three years later with The Enforcer.