Possibly the anti-hero-ist cop to ever anti-hero, Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) isn’t afraid to step over the line of good cop behavior as long as it puts criminals in the pen or in the dirt. Lovingly referred to as “DIRTY HARRY” by colleagues and criminals alike due to his methods and beliefs, Inspector Callahan skips over the Miranda rights and lets his sharp glower and huge .44 Magnum do all the talking. Sure, the man may be a tad bit racist and definitely filled with a strange kind of justified bloodlust but damn if he doesn’t bring the bad guys to justice in the end.
So it’s no surprise that when a madman by the name of “The Scorpio Killer” (Andrew Robinson) starts going around San Francisco sniping random civilians and demanding money from the city that the San Francisco Police Department lets their angry, volatile cop out onto the streets. Begrudgingly (and forcefully) paired up with a comparatively by-the-book partner (Reni Santoni), Inspector Callahan utilizes both violence and strategy (but mostly violence) on his quest to bring down the increasingly deranged serial killer. Throughout this journey, director Don Siegel and his stable of writers (including the credited Harry Julian Fink, Rita M. Fink, and Dean Riesner and the uncredited Terrence Malick (?!) and John Milius (?!)) confidently establish a cop character that will live on in cinematic history based purely on looks and attitude.
With Inspector Callahan, Eastwood continues his monopolization of the “stoic, ruggedly handsome anti-hero” archetype that he first nurtured in Sergio Leone’s MAN WITH NO NAME trilogy. While this San Francisco cop is more talkative than his silent cowboy, Eastwood once again finds more brutal efficiency in stone cold stares and grunts than in his character’s cocky, hard-nosed dialogue. Indeed, as with his performance in those Leone films, Eastwood’s actual dialogue performance and delivery takes a bit to get used to as the actor has a surprisingly higher voice than I expected (which doesn’t mesh with actor’s gravelly and gruff look) but even so, as DIRTY HARRY races along to a final confrontation that juts from a stolen school bus full of children to a busy dirt mill, I found myself slowly getting into the groove with Eastwood’s edgy cop. And what edge! Now, I can’t tell if it’s because of the times (probably) or a reflection of the creators (also probable) but DIRTY HARRY, the cop and the film, earns its moniker as both revel in violent police interventions and dips into casual racism.
That being said, the film never becomes overwhelmed by those characteristics as Siegel and his writers create what feels like a surprisingly accurate picture of flawed law enforcement in the 1970’s. While Harry himself obviously stands out as an exaggerated violent protector of justice (racist, possibly psychotic cop aside, the man usually doles it out to only bad guys who ask for it), the rest of the film resides in a somewhat gritty and authentic space thanks in large part to Bruce Surtees’ wonderfully crisp cinematography which captures the vibrant days and shadowed nights of San Francisco. While it never reaches the grimy levels of the fantastic THE FRENCH CONNECTION in raw and rough character, DIRTY HARRY still makes the 70’s proud as a mainstream film release that nevertheless takes some risks. In the Scorpio’s introductory scene alone, DIRTY HARRY establishes its solid production sense as the serial killer ruthlessly strikes amid the beautiful sunshine of San Francisco backed by Lalo Schifrin’s groovy and smooth score. Despite solid production values, the story of a dirty cop facing off against a deranged madman feels at times a bit too broad even as the actual action set pieces make for seriously entertaining viewing. The first installment in the surprisingly durable DIRTY HARRY franchise, this film manages to feel like a sequel moreso than a starting point as audiences are thrown into what feels like a story that they should already be hip with, leading to a movie that lacks any emotional investment. Additionally, it’s a shame that outside of his general bad boy actions, the main character of the film feels exactly like an ideal moreso than a living, breathing character as Harry is simply just a cop with an edge with no other motivating factor being that he hates criminals. Even Harry’s partner, Chico, played by a straight faced Mr. Santoni, gets more depth in the few scenes he’s in despite the film literally wheeling him off to the side midway through.
But hey, this is a movie where Clint Eastwood plays a tough talking cop who kills bad guys that deserve it. There’s no room for character development in here! Going in with that mindset, one can easily appreciate the great action put on display from Mr. Siegel. From Harry’s violent encounter with a group of would-be bank robbers to his increasingly exciting cat and mouse chase with The Scorpio Killer, Siegel shows a deft hand at shifting from high octane action scenes(always cool to see the actual Eastwood jump onto a fast moving school bus) to scenes filled with creeping tension as Harry contends with an increasingly off balance antagonist. In The Scorpio Killer, Mr. Robinson puts in a dynamite performance as the psychotic killer wreaking havoc on San Fran. With boyish looks and a demented as hell smile, Robinson fully commits to portraying a whacked out psychopath at nothing less than 110% energy (truly, Mr. Robinson puts himself into contention for “most blood curdling scream put on film”). While the performance is at first off-putting for the wrong reasons, Robinson’s game commitment to his characters increasing derangement never fails to keep the audience in the palm of his hand.
In all, DIRTY HARRY is a very solid genre flick. While some of the politics have aged like milk and the film as a whole can feel a bit broad, Siegel and Eastwood succeed in creating a character that is not only memorable but also, despite his own flaws, a character you’d like to hang out with again. While the criminals he runs into may not be so lucky, audiences themselves can count their lucky stars to be in the presence of an entertaining popcorn flick.