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The Most Powerful Handgun in the World

May 19th, 2010 · 5 Comments

Dirty Harry 1971 poster Dirty Harry DVD

Dirty Harry (1971)
Directed by Don Siegel
Written by Julian Fink & R.M. Fink and Dean Riesner
Produced by Don Siegel
102 minutes

Some movies are timeless. Others are time machines, and in the case of Dirty Harry, the Flex Capacitor is set to the summer of 1971. If the jazz soaked funk of Lalo Schifrin’s kinetic musical score or some of the haircuts didn’t transport you back, then the spectacle of Inspector Harry Callahan blowing away four black bank robbers might hip you that cultural sensitivity will not be a going concern. Or, maybe you’ll get to witness PC in its infancy. When another cop cracks that Callahan despises everyone — “Limeys, Micks, Hebes, Fat Dagos, Niggers, Honkies, Chinks” — Eastwood smirks as if parodying Archie Bunker as opposed to honoring him. But after 30 minutes, Dirty Harry puts politics in its rearview and floors it into a majestically made, immensely entertaining, classic cat and mouse game between a flawed good guy and a great bad guy.

While Pauline Kael spent years trying to divine Eastwood’s political agenda, Dirty Harry delivers intense audience appreciation for those in the mood for a damn good movie, from captivating action pieces, tasty one-liners, a crafty villain played by Andy Robinson as a hippie/Vietnam vet/Zodiac killer hybrid, and vivid use of the Bay Area as a location. In a testament to the brass tacks realism of director Don Siegel, Dirty Harry effectively documents a West Coast city undergoing epic social change during the Vietnam War. In the center is Eastwood, taking a role Paul Newman passed on and Frank Sinatra was perhaps welcomed to vacate by Warner Bros. Instead of looking burned out, Eastwood’s youth feels just right for a cop whose idealism for the law becomes cracked as it tilts away from victims to favor their assailant. Eastwood personifies just the type of anti-hero who knows how to respond.

31 Days of Eastwood

After a madman issuing the moniker of Scorpio (Andy Robinson) shoots a sunbather from a San Francisco highrise, Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) is put on the case. In a note addressed to The Mayor (John Vernon) Scorpio demands $100,000 and threatens to “kill a Catholic priest or a nigger” if ignored. Bristling at answering dumb questions at City Hall, Callahan is incredulous that the Mayor wants to play along with Scorpio in a bid to buy time. While on lunch break, Callahan foils a bank robbery with the help of his best friend, a .44 Magnum revolver — “the most powerful handgun in the world” — and while thankful, his lieutenant assigns Callahan a human partner, college boy Chico Gonzalez (Reni Santoni) who’s eager to find the meaning behind Callahan’s nickname “Dirty Harry”.

After a couple of detours through the nocturnal streets of San Francisco, Callahan and Gonzalez shoot it out with Scorpio on a rooftop. Their nemesis escapes and kidnaps a 14-year-old girl. Put in charge of the ransom delivery, Callahan wounds Scorpio and chases him to his hideout at Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park. Rather than give the punk his constitutional rights, Callahan attempts to beat the girl’s location out of him first. Discovering she was already dead, Callahan watches as Scorpio is set free due to police brutality. To ditch his surveillance, Scorpio contracts a thug to work him over with bruises, which the psycho blames on Callahan. For his next stunt, Scorpio hijacks a school bus and demands cash and a getaway jet from the Mayor. Callahan and his best friend take over negotiations.

Dirty Harry 1971

Dirty Harry 1971 Clint Eastwood

Dirty Harry 1971 John Vernon

Dirty Harry 1971 Clint Eastwood

Dirty Harry 1971 Clint Eastwood

Dirty Harry 1971 Andy Robinson

Dirty Harry 1971 Clint Eastwood Reni Santoni

Dirty Harry 1971 Reni Santoni Clint Eastwood

Dirty Harry 1971 Clint Eastwood

Dirty Harry 1971 Andy Robinson

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 38 users: 95% for Dirty Harry

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available

What do you say?

Tags: Crooked officer · Famous line · Forensic evidence · Gangsters and hoodlums · Interrogation · Psycho killer · Shootout

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Flickhead // May 22, 2010 at 6:38 am

    It’s an immensely entertaining picture, but also a devious and dishonest one. It would’ve taken a lot more balls than either Don Siegel or Clint had to do without the scenes of the killer at work. The audience is manipulated into rooting for Harry through these scenes. A more realistic picture would have us follow Harry without knowing if he’s tracking the right culprit. Then he’d be exposed as a Right Wing lunatic, drunk on the power of his phallic gun and tin star badge. But because Siegel cheats by justifying Harry’s illegal actions, he has his audience applauding a subjective interpretation of “law” bordering on fascism.

  • 2 Yojimbo_5 // May 22, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    I don’t think it’s “devious and dishonest” at all. There is still an investigation going on, but the piece is not an Agatha Christie whodunnit, it’s a tract on victim’s rights versus the rights of criminals. Siegel didn’t even want to do it (he was famously liberal) until that aspect of police sacrifice and the forgotten victim became his cornerstone. Harry’s actions are illegal—that’s acknowledged—which is one of the reasons he tosses his badge at the end (the sequels completely nullify the message) and the killer (based on the real-life “Zodiac” killer, and “Harry” is mentioned in Fincher’s film) exploits his reputation- and case-tarnishing procedures. The title of the film IS “Dirty Harry,” after all.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // May 22, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    Ray: Dirty Harry hits a nerve and that’s what movies should do. Opponents of corporal punishment pose the same questions you do: what if he got the wrong guy? True Crime may have been Eastwood’s response for the rights of the accused, but Dirty Harry is about the rights of the victim, who aren’t as interested in fascism, they just want the cops to get the SOB. Terrific observations as always.

    Jim: I was always amused at how little “inspecting” Dirty Harry ever did, especially in the sequels. “Gunslinger” fits his job description much better, or “garbage man”. Yeah, it doesn’t take much to upset liberals, of which I am one, but a movie is just a movie and I don’t think it can lead the public down any path they’re not already on. Thanks for commenting!

  • 4 Walt Coogan // Jul 23, 2013 at 2:06 am

    Flickhead, “fascism” has long constituted a fallacious rubric for interpreting this film. If Harry Callahan and “Dirty Harry” are guilty of anything, it’s “anarchism” or “anarchy.” The character and the movie are not intent on taking state powers to an extreme (a point that the first sequel, “Magnum Force,” makes clear), but on ignoring or overcoming the hindrances of modernity, namely law and bureaucracy. Paradoxically, “Dirty Harry” is a thoroughly modern film with Western instincts and imperatives, a point that Joe Valdez effectively makes.

    Also, I’d say that Siegel is (as usual) remarkably objective and neutral in his presentation. Siegel and Eastwood portray Callahan not as an overtly sympathetic, sentimental figure, woven into the community. Rather, they depict him as a mysterious and morose outsider, as a morally ambiguous misanthrope not above taunting or even torturing a suspect. Yet he is acting not out of right-wing police doctrine, but a sense of instinct that is essentially anarchic.

  • 5 Walt Coogan // Jul 24, 2013 at 3:10 am

    And Flickhead, regarding the scenes that show the killer at work and the alleged impropriety of such scenes, “Dirty Harry” is fundamentally a thriller and an action movie (by the the standards of the day), not a political or legal case study. The film is primarily concerned with a duel between doppelgangers, and if you don’t show the scenes of the killer at work, then you fail to establish that duel. “Dirty Harry” is not a murder mystery at heart, and it’s a work of entertainment first, a matter of social commentary only second.

    Also, showing the killer at work establishes him as an alienated voyeur, a point that Siegel also makes about Callahan. The sniper and the cop are virtually doubles, two isolated loners, two misanthropes and iconoclasts who sport longish brown hair and astounding accuracy with a firearm, two men for whom the law and civic institutions are nothing except a hindrance.

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