This is a review of the Dirty Harry boxset set I did for the excellent ‘The Quietus’ (http://www.thequietus.com/) website last year…
‘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?’
Perhaps one of the most iconic film quotes of all time, that thirty seconds of spiel from Clint Eastwood playing maverick cop Detective ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan from the first Dirty Harry film defined the character instantly.
He had a gun. A big gun. And he was prepared to use it. He was operating beyond the law and he wasn’t afraid who got shot. He was wiping the scum from the streets without a rule book and he was darkly funny as well.
Dirty Harry was the scowling anti hero- the misanthropic misfit, the monosyllabic outlaw cop,.Dirty Harry was a lot of things to a lot of people. He was irreverent, gritty, rude and witty in a granite jawed kind of way. He would shoot criminals in the back, beat the shit out of them and antagonize everyone, and so what! He got the job done!
His gratuitously un-PC personae would make 21st century filmmakers twitch uncomfortably and there is something uncomfortably conservative about his personae.
These days there are few actors left as good as Eastwood. They would also find the ugly side to his characters hard to deal with in goody two shoes modern Hollywood. Dirty Harry seems to celebrate the macho gun law of America and at the same time also parody the cowboy myth updating it to modern USA.
What would Dirty Harry make of those cowardly chavs who kicked the Goth girl, Sophie Lancaster to death in a Colne Park last year? You can only imagine that famous lip twitching into a curl of disgust when he learned of the appeals from the bullies who battered a defenceless girl and then smirk at their response when he turns up to chat to them about their kick to kill night in the park.
Dirty Harry was certainly the anti-hero but there was something there that registers with everybody. He was a mean motherfucker but he was fighting for the good guys and that’s why his personae resonates strongly through the decades. This is why this timely box set of 5 DVDs has never dated. As tough as Eastwood himself these films also easily transcend the decades.
The first film was made in 1971 and directed by Eastwood buddie Don Siegel. It saw Clint Eastwood’s debut as the iconic cop – although Frank Sinatra was originally mooted for the role! Callahan was the San Francisco cop who was tired of the rules and regulations. He would seethe at the too soft judges and the office bound bosses who had no idea what things were like on the streets. They wanted things done by the book and they would throw that book at Callahan when he stepped too far out of line.
Like Judge Dread who was basically a carton strip rip off of the character Dirty Harry quite happily took the law into his own hands as he dealt with the real crime in a real way. Like a biblical crime and punishment mercenary the Dirty Harry series was the western come to town. This was the man with no name on the streets of modern San Francisco. He didn’t speak much but one squint spoke a thousand lines. He cared more about justice than the rules; a few terse and witty one-liners spat from his chisel jaw were enough.
Eastwood’s sheer presence dominated the films. At the time people derided his acting- claiming that Eastwood didn’t do anything, that it was all one-liners. The acting, though, was superb- it was what was not said combined with sheer presence that made the films. To have that kind of presence is an X factor- a real x factor- not some puppy dog, baby fat, flat singing sappy karaoke goon but a genuine charisma that conveyed all the dark hearted qualities of a crime fighter going too far to get results. Results that those who live on the streets and put up with the shit, the knives and the crack heads crave.
The first Dirty Harry film saw Callahan track down a serial killer called Scorpio in a tense and gripping plot . It also found time for the maverick cop to take part in foiling a bank raid with a spaghetti western style shoot out, fallout with his fat and lazy bosses and offend just about everyone from the Mayor to his colleagues in the process. When he finally shoots Scorpio and unflinchingly watches the serial killers’ corpse drop in the water he chucks his badge in to the murky lake in disgust with the law. It looks like the end but with a character as darkly compelling as this there had to be more films.
Infact there were four more. 1973’s ‘Magnum Force’ saw Callahan take on organised crime and corrupt bike cops whilst spitting out the classic ‘a mans got to know his limitations’ line. There was lots of gritty violence and some more deadpan sneering from the anti hero as well as more shoot outs. 1976’s ‘The Enforcer’ sees Callahan saving the Mayor and loads more shootouts. 1983’s Sudden Impact’ sees Eastwood himself direct the dirtiest and most violent film of the series which comes with yet another classic line ‘Go Ahead make my day’ in a roadside café stand off. There was lots of shootouts again whilst Callahan is on the trail of a rape revenge serial killer who he lets off at the end with a mutual respect and a typically weird hint at the maverick loner cops respect for women’s lib especially if the women are just like him! 1988’s ‘the Dead Pool’ saw Callahan now a celebrity cop embroiled in a film that looked at the power and the vulnerability of fame with added love interest as the gritty old cop falls for a woman reporter. There are plenty of digs at the media and critics with a movie reviewer one of the victims. There are also plenty of shootouts and deeply dark violence.
The reviewers may have hated the series but Dirty Harry resonates in popular culture. He cuts through the bullshit. He goes from A to B whilst shooting C. He was the man of action, a loose canon who had had enough. Dirty Harry is the great American outsider. The lone gunman on the high plains of modern America.
Dirty Harry is so imbued in American culture that he is almost become its foreign policy. When George Bush does his funny macho walk he thinks he’s Dirty Harry taking its magnum to far-flung oil rich lands looking for ‘bad guys’. Dirty Harry would have hated Bush though- a smooth handed office boy coward with rich parents who made him the president- Bush is more like one of Dirty Harry’s detested bosses.
In America gritty good guys defy the law and tough talking cowboys haunt the psyche. Arnie made millions reworking this role under several different guises and whole host of other lesser action heroes have milked it dry but these DVDS remind you of where the power really lies.
No wonder the general public love Dirty Harry. He doest trust the authorities. He’s tough, he’s cynical and he doesn’t like those ‘lily livered liberals’ who are giving the bad guys too much space. He not only struck a chord with the gun loving Americans but also the city dwellers who see fear and crime in every shadow. The man with no name had come to town in the urban unrest of the seventies like some kind of superhero in a cheap suit and found a solution to all the problems of the world with his steely stare and .44 magnum. And while in the real world violence only makes everything worse, Dirty harry plays out the urban fantasy over and over whilst deconstructing the myth of the lone saviour and the male archtype.