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Dirty Harry (1971)

by on 2011/03/27

“That’s one thing about our Harry, he doesn’t play any favorites. Harry hates everybody.”

* * *

Detective Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) lives in a disturbing universe.

Harry’s world is full of naked hippies, violent bank robbers, rapists wielding butcher knives and child killers. Punks one and all.

His wife is dead, killed by a drunk driver, and he’s kicked around at work. Harry is alone in a disgusting cesspool of corrupt humanity.

He has one thing he can count on: his huge service weapon.

Now, to be fair, I’ve been to San Francisco and it was really lovely. A charming homeless guy sold me a poem on a piece of parchment. There were pretty pink houses everywhere, and they made sense in San Francisco. I wandered around the downtown city streets for hours all alone with nary a nude man waving a cleaver coming after me.

Dirty Harry’s 1970’s San Francisco wasn’t so pleasant. First of all, there’s a crazed serial killer randomly sniping at pretty girls in bathing suits. The lunatic, who calls himself Scorpio (Andrew Robinson), is threatening to kill more people if he doesn’t receive $100,000 from the city.

The lousy suits in the police department’s top brass and the mealy mouth mayor (John Vernon) don’t get it. They want to bargain with the scum-bag to buy some time.

 Harry doesn’t like it one little bit.

Harry has a nickname, Dirty Harry, because he’s the guy who won’t bat a squinty eyelid in taking any dirty job he’s given. He’s also casually racist, prone to random acts of violence, and demonstrably fond of shooting first and asking questions later.

When Scorpio ups the ante and shoots a 10-year-old boy in the face, kidnaps a 14 year-old school girl and buries her alive, Harry kicks into high gear.

A word on this: one of the rules of film noir and neo noir is that children are rarely, if ever, present in the bleak, black fictional world. Dirty Harry has children by the screaming school bus load, being hit, terrorized and murdered.

Directed by Don Siegel, Dirty Harry has political gun to load and kids are a nice shorthand way of demonstrating how bad crime can be. Innocent children are exploited for all that they are worth in this film.

Clint Eastwood spits out racial epithets with a wink and blankets his immediate vicinity with red-hot lead killing the bad guys. The clear underlying message is we are at war in a world gone mad and it is every man for himself.

We learn that guns are good and so are vigilantes. Due process, the legal system and stiffs in suits are getting in the way of justice.

Won’t someone think of the children?

After Harry runs down Scorpio, he’s chewed out royally by the district attorney (Josef Sommer):

“Where the hell does it say that you’ve got a right to kick down doors, torture suspects, deny medical attention and legal counsel? Where have you been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? I mean, you must have heard of the Fourth Amendment. What I’m saying is that man had rights.”

Eastwood might as well have been staring into the camera saying to the audience, “Can you believe this guy?” Scorpio, played so horrifyingly by Robinson, is a one-dimensional, child-killing monster.

Don’t get me wrong, Dirty Harry is a solid crime melodrama. Clint Eastwood just can’t turn in a bad performance, the script is interesting, the Lalo Schifrin score takes me back to the crime dramas of my childhood.

I own the entire series and I like to think of it all as an entertaining, naive, over-the-top time capsule that spawned other viglante series like Death Wish.

But I like Dirty Harry, I don’t love him.

 * * *

102 minutes

Rated R for nudity, violence and Clint Eastwood eating a foot-long hot dog while firing a gun

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