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
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.