Dirty Harry: Revisited


Warner Bros. is celebrating its 85th anniversary with something they are calling the Dirty Harry Ultimate Collector’s Edition box set, which features all five Dirty Harry films, digitally remastered on DVD and Blu-ray, and including featurettes and Dirty Harry memorabilia. All of the films are available seperately, too, which is a good thing because the one you really want is Dirty Harry. With the 1971 movie, Clint Eastwood and director Don Siegel invented the modern cop antihero, which spawned Bruce Willis’ wisecracking John McClane, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s titanium-skinned Terminator and the lumpen, narcoleptic studs portrayed by the likes of Steven Seagal. But Eastwood and Siegel should get some credit (or blame) for establishing the profitable, frequently risible concept of the franchise film, too.

Harry Callahan, so cool, so confident, so utterly unconcerned with political correctness in Dirty Harry, sprouted a softer conscience and a keener grasp of cliché with each subsequent film. The second in the series, Magnum Force, is barely watchable, while the original holds up through repeated viewings.

The early charges of the film promoting a fascist solution to the nation’s ills, embodied in Callahan’s rogue pursuit of the serial killer known as “Scorpio,” are as ridiculous today as they were then. Callahan was no jack-booted functionary of the state; he was anti-system, anti-totalitarianism, anti-rule. He could enforce only one agenda: his own.

Even though nowadays his actions can be seen as a metaphor for the Bush administration’s illegal invasion of Iraq (see MM’s “2008 Future of Moviemaking” edition for an interview with Andy Robinson, who portrayed the Scorpio killer), Callahan’s response, throwing away his badge in disgust at a system that forced him to mete out illegal vengeance, seems like an act of guilty contrition that is beyond the moral grasp of our current regime.

Even so, the film remains a delight to watch. Cinematographer Bruce Surtees’ hard-edged daylight photography contrasts nicely with the seedy night exteriors; Lalo Schifrin’s exciting jazz score is subtle and exotic; and the pulpy aspects of the story are neatly folded into an urban milieu that reflects a national mood of unease not only with the war in Vietnam, but with the tensions of an increasingly diverse public. Gays, hippies, African Americans, Mexicans and Koreans are part of the societal stew director Siegel cooked up. It’s interesting to note that after Callahan blows away the black bank robbers in the first action scene, the next two black characters we see are a doctor and a police officer. Siegel was not so kind to his gay characters, and women remain clearly on the outside of Callahan’s world.

Dirty Harry was released in 1971, the same year Eastwood made his directorial debut with Play Misty For Me (the title showing up on a background marquee in a scene in Dirty Harry), and you can sense a new self-confidence in his acting. He is physically and verbally comfortable in his own skin, and in his appreciation of directing. Siegel was a master economist, and Eastwood learned how to reduce yards of exposition down to a single terse line, or how to establish the geometry of scenes through excellent camera placement and decisive cutting.

I first saw the film as a 13-year-old with my dad. I remember being shocked by the full frontal nudity of the dead teenager pulled from a hole where Scorpio had imprisoned her. That scene still shocks. Watching the film recently with my own 16-year-old son, we both commented on how a shot like that would probably not show up in a mainstream cop film today, and if it did, it would be gratuitous and exploitive. But in 1971, in a story about a cop hunting a killer, in a city that was like a pressure cooker and in a country roiling with discontent, it was just one more real-life moment. It made us hate the Scorpio Killer, but also hate a world that breeds that kind of malevolence.

Warner Bros. will release the Dirty Harry Ultimate Collector’s Edition box set on June 3, 2008.

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