Dirty Harry (1971) – Film Review

Featured Blog image: “Scorpios at the Helm” (c) Emma Topping
(c) Warner Bros

The first and arguably the best of a five-film franchise spanning some seventeen years, Clint Eastwood reunites with director Don Siegel in Dirty Harry (1971), their fifth film together. The success of this pairing and the mutual respect between Eastwood and Siegel is clear to see – including the tongue in cheek Easter Eggs: Siegel as a pedestrian in Dirty Harry and also as a bartender in Eastwood’s equally good Play Misty For Me, out earlier that year. Extra points for those who spot a reference to Play Misty in Dirty Harry.

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Eastwood and Siegel on set

Eastwood plays Inspector Harry Callahan who is, in the villain Scorpio’s words: a “big cop, works homicide” for San Francisco Police Department. This description barely scratches the surface to define who Harry Callahan is, but when Eastwood, all Ray-Ban Baloramas and nonchalantly chewing gum, saunters coolly over to Scorpio’s first victim at a roof top pool bathed in the heat of the late afternoon San Francisco sun, my immediate impression echoed Dirty Harry’s opening word: “Jesus!”

It’s been said that Dirty Harry was loosely based on the true crime and still open 1960s case of the US serial killer Zodiac. If this is true, then Eastwood’s Dirty Harry likely referenced that investigation’s lead detective Dave Toschi who died earlier this year, also portrayed by Mark Ruffalo in the 2007 film Zodiac and by Steve McQueen as the titular cop in his 1968 Bullitt.

Toschi has been described as “a colorful San Francisco police detective” and that certainly describes Inspector Callahan whose sheer stature and blatant disdain for authority dominates from his first frame. Dirty Harry is an authority figure with no respect for authority, a rule breaker with no time for those who break rules. A sure-footed, Magnum 44-wielding contradiction, until he encounters Scorpio, the latter brilliantly played by Andy Robinson. Of his experience on set, Robinson says: “A collaboration began…It was probably the most important and the most complete collaboration that I have ever had as an actor in film”[1]

Before Scorpio, Inspector Callahan is entirely confident of his righteousness and it’s initially compelling. When challenged by the Mayor and his superiors about how he can establish a rapist’s intent, for instance, Inspector Callahan’s casually blunt explanation remains one of my favourite deliveries of all time: “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”.

But Inspector Callahan also cuts a self-isolating figure, devoid of empathy and attachment after a string of failed work partnerships and the death of his wife, killed by a drunk driver. As one of Inspector Callahan’s cheery cohorts (that he unkindly nicknames “Fatso”) says: “That’s one thing about our Harry, he doesn’t play any favourites. Harry hates everybody”. When Scorpio, a serial killer who on the face of it shares our inspector’s disdain for the underbelly of San Francisco, directly challenges Inspector Callahan to a game of cat and mouse, the line between the protector and sociopath, hunted and hunter starts to blur. What results is a deliciously pacey and searing drama, punctuated superbly by composer Lalo Schifrin’s thumpingly bassy Scorpio’s View and Scorpio Takes the Bait and the oh-so-70s siren wailing in Prologue, all coming together in the climactic The School Bus. After you watch the film, you’ll want to get the soundtrack. Do it. You won’t regret it.

Dirty Harry ignited my love affair for the franchise, Clint Eastwood and the cop/serial killer genre. Years after its release, in our early teens my sister and I would sit for hours, watching this franchise open mouthed with pencils poised, whilst balancing wooden boards on our knees upon which sat our A3 sketch books: art class homework neglected as we watched transfixed until the VHS tape crackled in protest, or Mom summoned us for supper.

Dirty Harry showed us a visceral, dangerous, seedy, intolerant and divided America that sharply contrasted with those saccharine PG versions that Dynasty, Dallas and Knot’s Landing served us. The man didn’t even eat a hot dog with his mouth closed and spoke with his mouth full, for goodness’ sake!

Of the franchise, Robert Urich says[2]: “These weren’t fairy tales, these were depictions of gritty, ugly reality…In truth, Harry spoke to a rising anger out there.”

Dirty Harry exploded on to the big screen in December 1971, just eight days after I was born. Of course, although I would only come to understand this later, the country where I lived was also no stranger to violence. Internment was introduced in Northern Ireland just four months prior to Dirty Harry’s release with Brian Faulkner, then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, stating in so doing that we were: “quite simply, at war with the terrorist”. Operation Demetrius as it was known, involved in its first phase the arrest and imprisonment without trial of 342 detainees. The fact that internment was implemented by a government sympathetic to its Protestant majority and only two Protestants were detained in that first sweep did little to counter claims of arbitrariness. Division, resentment and anger intensified and atrocities were committed on all sides that year, including the Ballymurphy Massacre and the Balmoral Showroom Bombing.

And so in 1971 I set sail and the Baby Daze began. Lolloping and lurching with the sheer weight of attacks and counter attacks, my ship Belfast would carry me for the next eighteen years, with various deranged Scorpios at the helm maniacally singing “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream!”

It was inevitable, then, that I would dream of new unconquered shores and each weekend I would rush to our local cinema or switch on the VCR and TV at home (having collected my new release tapes from Xtra-Vision) and lose myself for hours in the countless possibilities.

 

 

 

[1] Jerry Hogrewe’s 2001 retrospective documentary on the Dirty Harry franchise: Dirty Harry: The Original hosted by Robert Urich, a bad cop in the second Dirty Harry film: Magnum Force (and remember detective TV series, Vega$?)

[2] Dirty Harry: The Original (2001) (see above for more detail)

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