Dirty Harry was one of the more controversial Hollywood movies of the 1970s, and four decades later it can still provoke very heated responses. What made it controversial was not so much the subject matter, or even the stance taken by the movie, but the fact that the movie was clearly intended to be deliberately provocative.
I hardly think it’s necessary to spend too much time on a plot synopsis. This is a movie that is well and truly, for better or worse, part of our cultural fabric. But for those who may somehow have contrived to miss this movie, here goes. Inspector Harry Callahan of the San Francisco Homicide Squad is no stranger to unpleasant cases but he is about to face a case that will take him to the edge. A serial killer who calls himself Scorpio, has demanded $100,000 or he will kill a random victim every day. There are no obvious leads and all the police can do is to increase surveillance – the killer favours shooting his victims from the rooftops of tall buildings so the police are trying to cover as many rooftops as they can and are putting considerable reliance on helicopter patrols.
These routine precautions are very nearly successful, but this killer seems to have uncanny luck in being able to slip away from neatly impossible situations. After almost being killed by the police Scorpio decides to up the ante. He kidnaps a 14-year-old girl and doubles his demand for money. Callahan gets the very unpleasant, and very dangerous, job of acting as the bagman when the City decides to pay over the money. Callahan and his partner are almost killed, Callahan is viciously beaten, but Harry gets his man. Or at least he thinks he’s got his man, until the DA informs him that he infringed the suspect’s civil rights and that Scorpio will walk free. Harry knows that this is not the end of the case, that guys like Scorpio go on killing because they enjoy it, and that sooner or later he will get his chance to nail the killer. The question is, will more innocent lives be lost because the DA allowed Scorpio to walk free?
Dirty Harry was greeted by howls of outrage from liberals in general and from liberal film critics in particular. What really fueled the outrage was that the movie was a very deliberate and calculated assault on certain cherished liberal beliefs. Harry Callahan does not see criminals as victims and if he has to choose between the rights of a suspect and the rights of a victim he has no hesitation in ignoring the rights of the suspect. He is quite unapologetic about it, and the movie is equally unapologetic about it. It’s important to note however that the movie doesn’t suggest that the rights of suspects should be ignored; it merely suggests that it’s a delicate balance and that the balance may have shifted too far. The movie also points out the unpalatable truth that the rights of suspects and the rights of victims of crime are in some cases absolutely irreconcilable. Whether you agree or disagree with the movie’s stance there’s no doubt that it’s an effective statement of that stance.
What gives the issue particular bite is the fact that the bad guy, Scorpio, is very much aware that the legal system is stacked in his favour. He knows how to play the system and he does so ruthlessly. He uses this to taunt the police.
Some critics at the time took their opposition to the movie to remarkably silly extremes. When people (as Pauline Kael did) start throwing the word fascist around it’s always a bad sign.
I usually try to avoid becoming bogged down in overtly political interpretations of movies but in the case of Dirty Harry there’s really no way of dodging the issue.
There’s also a sense in which Dirty Harry can be read as film noir. The Scorpio case will plunge Harry Callahan into a nightmare world in which he scarcely knows which way to turn. He is both physically and psychologically beaten to a pulp. He tries his best but he always seems to be too late to save anyone. Whether his descent into the noir nightmare world is the result of his own character flaws is something that can be debated. Maybe he could have handled some situations more effectively, but the fact is that any police officer faced with a case such as this one would come up against the same problem, a criminal who knows how to use the system. Harry becomes increasingly obsessed and perhaps his sanity is even threatened. Harry has never questioned his own moral code but now it seems that knowing what’s right isn’t enough. By the end of the movie he’s an embittered man, his faith in the system hopelessly shaken.
This is an exceptionally well-crafted and stylish movie. Don Siegel was a great action director and he is in top form. The first half hour of the movie takes place mostly in bright California sunshine but then it all starts to get very dark, with lots of night shooting with absolutely minimal lighting.
This is the movie that made Clint Eastwood a true cultural icon. The role had been offered to various other actors, including Steve McQueen and Robert Mitchum. Frank Sinatra was actually signed to do it at one stage but had to back out.
Mention must be made of Andy Robinson as the psycho killer – it remains one of the most disturbing performances of its type.
Dirty Harry has lost little of its edge. It can still push people’s buttons and it’s still a stylish and effective crime thriller. And it’s one of those movies you just have to have seen. Highly recommended.