A Law Unto Himself

Dirty Harry

Strange as it is to think, there's probably no action character more quoted than Dirty Harry. You can already hear his speech in your head, I'm sure. "Did I fire five shots or six? The question you have to ask yourself is: 'do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya, punk?!" That line comes up likely more than any other, randomly quoted by all kinds of other movies, shows, and cartoon all the time. It's an indelible part of the pop-culture lexicon, right up there with a gibbon wiping an arch over a drawing and saying, "Simba," or a very Keanu Reeves, "whoa!" We all just know this line, even if we don't know where it comes from.

Dirty Harry

Most people, though, don't really talk about Dirty Harry anymore. The film is very much of its era, a film made in 1971 that does, often enough, feel like a film made in 1971. It had bad politics, bad policing, and a whole lot of questionable takes on, well, everything. But the film was a hit when it came out, hauling in $36 Mil against a $4 Mil budget (a lot for its era), and it went on to spawn four sequels over the coming years. Hell, they were still making Dirty Harry films well into the late 1980s (with his last released the same year as Die Hard). The character was influential for over two decades, and then beyond, but his film has drifted off into obscurity. So what happened?

Going back and watching the film, you can see a number of reasons why this movie isn't really discussed at any length (not like in the past). It's a film built to capitalize on the sensational Zodiac Killings (with its main villain even named "Scorpio" to cement that connection). We're far enough removed from those murders that the sensational aspect of a "true crime" film about the killings (with "true crime" being a questionable descriptor here) doesn't really seem all that sensational anymore. That, coupled with frankly a weak story, and a lot of commentary in the film that simply hasn't aged well, makes this film a hard watch at this point. It wasn't necessarily bad for the era it was released in, but I doubt anyone born after, say, 1990 is really going to enjoy the adventures of Dirty Harry.

In the film, Inspector "Dirty" Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) is called to the scene of a murder. A woman was shot, by a sniper, while she swam in the pool at the top of a hotel. She instantly died from the expert shot, and it takes Harry some times, and a search of neighboring buildings, to find the perch the killer used. There he finds a casing for a .30-06, as well as a letter from the killer, Scorpio, demanding one hundred thousand dollars or he'd kill again. The mayor, naturally, doesn't want anyone else to die but the city can't be seen negotiating with terrorists, so Harry is set on tracking down this killer, whatever it takes.

A few sweeps of the city, and some smart baiting of the target, and Harry is able to get a bead on the killer. In one altercation Harry clips Scorpio (Andy Robinson), and this leads him on the path to tracking down the killer. We learn the villain works for a football stadium, taking care of the ground. Harry gets a hold of the man and beats a confession out of him, but naturally the evidence he gathers is inadmissible in court. Scorpio walks free and Callahan is left to figure out a way to catch the killer, one way or another. He'll put the "Dirty" in his name if he has to just to get the job done.

When it comes to the case at hand, Dirty Harry is little more than fantasy fiction and cop-aganda. "All it takes to catch a serial killer is a good cop with a gun." Bear in mind, of course, that the film gets the whole serial killing part wrong (as Scorpio is absolutely inconsistent in his kills) and also, of course, the real Zodiac killer was never caught and charged for his crimes (for a detailed rundown of the case, properly, see: Zodiac). This film is wish fulfillment, pablum for an audience still living in fear of Zodiac at the time. It played them because it made everyone think, "oh, the cops will get the guy," but they never actually did.

Beyond that, though, Harry isn't the kind of cop you really want working a case like this. Hell, realistically Harry shouldn't have been on the force at all considering his tendency to shoot first and never announce he actually was a cop. We see Harry, more than a few times, rush into a situation (or, really, slow walk his way in with a casual stride) gun drawn, ready to shoot. He never reads anyone their right. He doesn't even bother pulling out his badge when confronting suspects. He's more than happy to shoot anyone that commits a crime, even going to far as to proudly tell the story of how he shot a rapist in the back. That's the kind of police violence we're still struggling with now, four decades later, and it's hard not to look at Harry Callahan and think, "this depiction did us absolutely no favors."

Not helping matters is the fact that Harry is a racist prick. He uses racial slurs casually around the office (an office, of course, populated only by men) and automatically profiles suspects just because they're black, or brown, or anything other than white. He instantly suspects a black man in a car sitting down the street from a bank (in a sequence early in the film). Just because the man was, indeed, the wheelman for a robbery doesn't change the fact that the only thing Harry sees is a black man in a car. He just instantly suspects something is going on. That's profiling, my dude, and only shows the real you.

Of course, the film itself is also racist, and homophobic, and sexist, and just about every other descriptor you can think of. The criminals are all black men or an effete sniper coded as gay. The victims are all women, or gay men (again, the coding). There's casual nudity, but only of women. And, again, no one in any position of authority is a woman at all. Not even a single female officer in the precinct that I could spot. The film has a very clear perspective, and it's that of the white, straight, gruff man.

The movie does make a couple of nods towards the fact that Harry isn't a good guy, but I would call these half-hearted at best. Harry beats the suspect, of course, and Scorpio gets away. He's told to stay away from the man, to not interfere in the case. And yet he does, of course, because he's a one man army. He chases down the killer and coldly kills him. Are there any repercussions? Well, he throws his badge away in disgust at the time, but the character then comes back two years later for Magnum Force, so arguably no. He gets to do what everyone in the audience (at the time) wanted to do to the Zodiac Killer, and then gets away with it. Wish fulfillment, again, but also a bad message to send.

I don't know if I could have accepted any of this, really, but it's made worse that the film is a chore to get through. The pace is what I tend to consider "standard 1970s". Although svelte for the era at just 102 minutes, the film feels like a slog. It's long, it's meandering, and it just wanders from one scene to another. If you were hoping for a real mystery about the killer, or a proper story of detectives hunting a bad guy, that doesn't happen here. Harry is just called to once random scene after another, sometimes action happens, and then the movie moves on. It never really feels like anything of substance occurs, it just takes a shallow, slow wander through the case.

Plus, it's really poorly shot. The angles are too tight, or too loose, but the focus is never really where it should be. The gunfights feel spastic, with too many cuts happening for the audience to really follow the action. The chases, when they occur, as static and tedious, taking forever for people to run or drive around. As an action film, Dirty Harry is lacking, just as it is on every other front.

About the only thing this film really has going for it is Eastwood, who does a credible job as a gruff and angry detective. That said, gruff and angry was basically his default character in the 1970s, so I wouldn't put too much stock in this either. Everything about Dirty harry feels, well, quick and dirty. It was slapped together to give audiences of the era the kind of wish fulfillment they needed. Maybe that worked at the time but it doesn't work now, and you have to think that this film inspired an entire generation of cops to be "just like Harry," which is troubling to say the least. This film may have been a hit when it was released but it's nothing short of a disaster now.