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Dirty Harry
Tonight's Feature Presentation

DIRTY HARRY (1971)

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Andrew Robinson, John Vernon, Reni Santoni, Harry Guardino, John Mitchum

Written By: Harry Julian Fink, Rita M Fink, Dean Riesner, John Milius (uncredited) Directed By: Don Siegel

The Short Version

Dirty Harry is the cop flick that changed all the rules.

What Bruce Lee is to martial arts action, Dirty Harry Callahan is to action heroes with guns.

Clint Eastwood creates an icon in less than fifteen minutes.

Methodically directed and perfectly paced.

If you’re an action fan, you need to see Dirty Harry; I guarantee that your favorite action heroes already did.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEESE HOT DOG.

The perfect pick-me-up if you suddenly find yourself having to stop a bank robbery in progress while you’re trying to enjoy your lunch break.


Pairs Well With...

ANCHOR STEAM BEER.

Brewed in San Francisco since 1896.  (Also my personal favorite craft brew.)

“I know what you're thinking.  Did he fire six shots or only five?  Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself.  But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky?  Well, do ya, punk?”


If you love your modern action heroes, your lone wolf cops, your soldiers of fortune, your guys who just saw the system fail to work once too often and had to turn around and do something about it themselves, consequences be damned – in other words, if you love pretty much any mainstream action movie made since 1971 – you have a little thanks to give to Dirty Harry.  What Bruce Lee is to martial arts action, Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan is to the boys who carry guns.

This is, without question, one of the most influential movies ever made.  Without it, the action genre as we have come to know it over the forty years that followed just wouldn’t exist.

But before we get into that, let’s have a look at where it all begins, shall we?

As our story begins, a lovely woman is about to take a dip in a rooftop swimming pool in San Francisco.  What she doesn’t know is that there’s man watching her from the roof of another building… through a gun sight.  He calls himself Scorpio (Andrew Robinson, Hellraiser), and when he pulls the trigger, his game begins.  Knowing that the police will trace the origin of the rifle shot, he leaves a note for them to find.  In that note, he declares that unless he is paid a ransom of $100,000, he will kill a new victim every day.  Those are his rules.

What he doesn’t count on, though, is that the case will be assigned to ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood, Firefox), and Dirty Harry doesn’t play by the rules…

Dirty Harry is a movie that wastes no time, but also never rushes things.  Rather, just like its title character, the movie is methodical and relentless, getting to the point early and moving steadily along with an assurance befitting an unstoppable force.  Indeed, the adjective most often attached to director Don Siegel with regard to this movie is “efficient,” and it’s damn hard to argue against the point.  There’s no thought given to dramatic pauses, no need seen to set off random explosions or start racing motorcycles to keep the audience’s attention.  The killer does his job, Harry does his job, and when either one needs to put a period at the end of a sentence, it’s done with lead, and generally just in single bangs.  (At only one point is an automatic weapon used, and even then, it’s only a distraction tactic; automatic fire is not how either of these men operates.) 

Similarly, neither the screenplay nor Clint Eastwood himself sees a need to waste any time in getting Dirty Harry established as an iconic figure.  Indeed, it takes them barely fifteen minutes to do so.

The first part is straightforward enough: the audience sees Harry look over the crime scene and get his first clue at the shooter’s position.  This is the part that establishes that Harry Callahan does, in fact, know how to do the police procedure and investigation thing properly.  (This is actually important; how many “lone wolf” movies have you seen where the character is readily established as breaking all of the rules without ever having been seen to follow them in the first place?)

The second part, though, is what makes shows Inspector Callahan off as Dirty Harry, and what makes him into the icon that he’s become.  He’s on his way to lunch at a local diner, and as he looks for a place to park (which is a far easier task in the San Francisco of 1971 than it would be forty years later), he notices an occupied car with its engine running outside of a nearby bank.  After he’s done ordering his hot dog, Harry casually asks the diner owner if the car is still there.  When told that the answer is yes, he asks the owner to please call the police department and inform them that the bank is being robbed.  Harry then tries to go back to his lunch, but at that moment, the audible bank alarm goes off, and he realizes that he’s just not going to be able to sit this one out.  However, that doesn’t mean that he’s about to abandon his hot dog, which he continues eating even as he gets up from his stool and leaves the diner to attend to the crime.  When the first robber runs outside and Harry tells him to freeze, the robber responds with gunfire.  He misses, and Harry pulls out what will in just a few seconds become his signature .44 Magnum.  Harry does not miss.  One down.  Another guy runs out of the bank and dives into the waiting car as Harry finishes cramming down his hot dog.  Harry calmly shoots at the car until he hits the driver and causes it to wreck.  He then walks over to the bank, where the first robber is lying on the sidewalk, shot but still alive.  The robber considers going for his gun when Harry issues the now-infamous challenge quoted above.  The robber considers, then gives up, but before he’s hauled away, he looks at Harry and says, “I gots to know.”  Harry smiles, and pulls the trigger on his .44 to reveal an empty gun.

That one scene is everything that you will ever need to know about Dirty Harry Callahan; indeed, that one scene essentially encapsulates the entirely of Dirty Harry as a film. 

First and foremost, it shows off Dirty Harry’s gun, and his willingness to use it.  It shows that Harry will never get so excited that he feels the need to raise his voice, save for that moment when he yells “Halt!” or “Freeze!”  It shows his dry wit and his hard stare.  It shows that once you’ve become a criminal, Harry will take no shit from you.  It also shows that nothing is going to stop Dirty Harry Callahan.

After its release, a police department in the Philippines requested a copy of the film to use as training material.

Could Dirty Harry truly operate as he does in modern society, even in 1971?  Of course not.  When the DA mentions two different pieces of fundamental case law and four Constitutional amendments that Harry cheerfully ignores during his first takedown of Scorpio, the man isn’t kidding.  But Dirty Harry is a play of extremes, with Harry as one extreme and Scorpio as the other, each resembling the other more than either would care to admit.  It’s a snapshot of a time when the rights of the accused in America – which had been cheerfully ignored since 1776 and even before – had come to the legal forefront, and when the protections that were suddenly being given to the accused resulted in a backlash from those who felt that victims of crimes were now being given the short end.  Dirty Harry is, indeed, a story torn from several different headlines (you can also call Scorpio “Zodiac” if you want), however, despite appearances, it doesn’t actually advocate one side or another.  It’s just a story given a backdrop that audiences of the day would be able to sink their teeth into.  Indeed, watch an interview with Eastwood today, and he laughs at the idea of political intent even as he acknowledges the points of view written into the characters.  Sometimes a story is just a story, a Magnum is just a Magnum, and a cigar is just a cigar.

Some stories, though, do change the world, and there can be no question that Dirty Harry changed the world of action movies forever.  Charles Bronson in Death Wish, Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, Bruce Willis in Die Hard, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando or Sly Stallone in Rambo; all of these characters, and all of the hundreds and thousands of others like them, can trace their lineage back to Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry Callahan.  Indeed, when all is said and done, it can be very defensibly argued that Dirty Harry and Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon are the two most influential action movies of the 20th Century.

Beyond its capacity to influence its own genre, however, Dirty Harry is also still a damn good piece of entertainment, even four decades on, and one that is rarely equaled.  Just because everyone wants to make them like this doesn’t mean that they succeed at it.

Bottom line, it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it five times or six; if you’re an action fan, you need to see Dirty Harry again, and if you’ve never seen it before, you owe it to yourself to make the first time happen as soon as possible.  Dirty Harry is one of those infinitely rewatchable action flicks that never gets old, and is a must-add to any action movie fan’s permanent collection.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011


More From The Bar! | Above the Law | RoboCop | Basic Instinct |



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