Warner Bros. // 1971 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // April 27th, 2000
You've got to ask yourself one question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do you, punk?
The movie that launched a laconic, heavily armed screen icon, Dirty Harry still can pack a dramatic punch nearly thirty years later, thanks to powerful acting and the timeless quest for justice. Though less than the movie deserves, the disc is an acceptable effort from the good folks at Warner.
In his long and storied career as an actor, Clint Eastwood (Kelly's Heroes, In the Line of Fire, Absolute Power) has made a specialty of entertaining us with his portrayals of men who must overcome their own limitations as well as their enemies. Of all of those men, the flawed hero who has firmly wedged himself into our cultural consciousness is Inspector Harry Callahan of the San Francisco Police Department. Over the course of these films (from Dirty Harry to The Dead Pool), millions of people have cheered the straight talking, straight shooting Inspector and given these five films a special place in the history of modern cinema.
The enduring, memorable quality of Harry Callahan that so endears him to his legion of fans is his status as an unshakable image of truth and justice in a morally ambiguous criminal justice system. We, the audience, know and understand his contempt for criminals and for the often arcane and arbitrary rules that needlessly complicate his righteous quest, particularly if we, as untold millions of people are, have experienced the simmering rage and helpless insecurity of being a victim of crime. Harry Callahan personifies our wish, conscious or not, for swift and severe retribution upon the criminals and predators lurking in society, and therein lies the lasting appeal of the series.
Pretentious (liberal) critics have lambasted Dirty Harry and the namesake character as fascist, legitimizing police brutality and worse. This knee-jerk reaction is based primarily on the scene where Callahan shoots Scorpio in the leg and proceeds to painfully coerce him into revealing the location of a girl Scorpio has abducted and tortured. The critics fail to realize that when Callahan confronts Scorpio at Kezar Stadium, he can play by the rules and ensure that the girl dies, or force Scorpio to confess and try to save her. Which choice is worse? Is it really that obvious as some would believe? For extra credit, watch Magnum Force and think about how that film squares with his critical reputation.
Very little time is spent on sketching out the character of Dirty Harry, yet there are small clues sprinkled throughout the film that belie his reputation as a heartless fascist. The relatively recent death of his wife at the hands of a drunk driver has left Harry alone and emotionally drained, with only his job giving his life purpose and meaning. He frequents a local eatery for most of his meals, and is willing to suffer pain rather than have a $30 pair of slacks cut off during a trip to the emergency room. Even less time is spent on the details that make Scorpio tick, but considering his role as a paragon of evil (which is made quite clear when he murders a woman seconds after the film begins), further elaboration is unnecessary.
Despite the straightforward characterization, the compelling acting talents of Clint Eastwood and Andrew Robinson (Cobra, Hellraiser, "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine") breathe dramatic life into their roles. Harry Callahan's emotional distance slowly wears down over the course of the film, as Scorpio becomes a much more personal and hated antagonist than the average criminal. Scorpio parallels Callahan, becoming more agitated and psychotic at the relentless pursuit of the implacable Inspector. This is simply great acting and a treat to watch!
The drama begins with a brief, moving tribute to the slain police officers of San Francisco before suddenly cutting to a chilling rooftop sniper scene where Scorpio (Andrew Robinson) casually murders a woman. Homicide Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) is soon on the case, sifting through the evidence, when he finds a grim message left by Scorpio. Either the city coughs up $100,000, or he will kill again, this time a Catholic priest or an African-American. The Mayor (John Vernon -- The Outlaw Josey Wales, Animal House, Airplane II) is very concerned, and makes plain his desire for prompt apprehension of this killer.
Taking a break from the Scorpio case, Callahan tries to eat a spot of lunch only to be rudely interrupted by a bank robbery down the street. His direct action and cool nerves foil the robbery in suitably dramatic fashion. With hardly a pause, Callahan jumps back into the Scorpio case only to find that his superiors have saddled him with a college-boy partner, Chico (Reni Santoni -- Brewster's Millions, Cobra, Private Parts). They pound the streets when Scorpio is spotted on a San Francisco rooftop, but all they come up with is a case of mistaken identity and a suicide attempt (rescued by Callahan in his own unique fashion). Frustrated, the police decide to try to set a trap for Scorpio with Callahan and Chico lying in wait.
When Scorpio fights his way clear of the ambush, he is so agitated that he raises the stakes. A note announces the abduction of a young girl and demanding $200,000 or Scorpio will kill her. This time, the decision is made to play along with the demand in the hopes of getting the girl back alive, though Harry thinks it is likely she's already dead. Picked as the ransom bagman, Callahan is run ragged by Scorpio, but eventually the pair meet in the dead of night in a lonely park (with Chico lurking in the background). The psychotic Scorpio takes the money and turns on Callahan, prevented from killing him only due to the Chico's timely intervention (and Callahan's well-placed switchblade). Chico is shot (but only wounded) and Callahan is bruised and bleeding, but Dirty Harry is not about to give up!
Limping back out on to the streets, Callahan takes along Det. De Georgio (John Mitchum) and traces Scorpio to a cramped groundskeeper's apartment at Kezar Stadium (where the San Francisco 49ers once played their games). Desperate for a chance to save the girl, Callahan busts in (finding Scorpio's sniper rifle), and runs Scorpio to ground in the middle of the stadium. Shooting him in the leg, Callahan mercilessly exploits the wound to extract the location of the kidnapped girl. As Callahan feared, the girl is found dead. Worse, the D.A. refuses to prosecute Scorpio when it is evident that the rifle, the corpse, and all related evidence will be barred from evidence due to Callahan's warrantless search and coercive interrogation.
Callahan refuses to give up, following Scorpio's every move, waiting for him to make a mistake. Dirty Harry stops only when Scorpio procures his own beating and publicly accuses Harry of police brutality. With a respite from prying eyes, Scorpio goes off the deep end, hijacking a whole school bus of kids and phoning in a demand for $200,000 and a plane ready to take him out of the country. The Mayor surrenders to Scorpio's demands, but Callahan has other ideas. The stage is set for a thrilling one-on-one confrontation between the frantic Scorpio and the icy Callahan, and you will not be disappointed.
The anamorphic video transfer is remarkable given the age of the film. If there was no restoration work for one of the previous laserdisc releases, then someone has been treating the Dirty Harry master tapes with kid gloves. The worst that can be said about the video is a light degree of film grain and intermittent bits of dirt and film defects. Blacks are good except in some night scenes where the picture pulses from black to gray several times. Otherwise, the picture is reasonably sharp, colors saturated though a tad muted, and digital enhancement artifacts kept to a very low level. Flesh tones are generally okay, but in a couple scenes they have a notable purplish tinge.
The audio has been remastered into a 5.1 mix, which can be a very tricky thing to do. A badly remixed track can be far worse than the original (mono) sound, but Dirty Harry is blessed with skilled sound engineers who have improved the listening experience. The soundfield is narrow and not very deep, due to an over emphasis of the center channel, but despite this unmistakable reminder of the film's mono origin, this is still an improvement. The mains give the front soundstage a decent ambiance and sense of directionality, and even the rear surrounds are appropriately used with restraint (with one or two modest rear to front effects). The strongest improvement is in the bass support from the LFE channel, which is (naturally) wholly absent in any mono mix. Gunfire, explosions, and the jazzy Lalo Schifrin score are nicely solid and deep thanks to the remix.
Extra content is tragically limited for such a cinematic landmark. There are only commendably extensive of production notes, a cast & crew bio/filmography section and the theatrical trailer. Even the menus are disappointingly bland! While it does not appear that Clint Eastwood has done a commentary track for any of his films, making a commentary for Dirty Harry harder to obtain, Warner should pull together the funds and do whatever Mr. Eastwood wants for a proper Special Edition. Clint's not getting any younger! At a minimum, the documentary "Clint Eastwood: The Man from Malpaso" (included on a prior laserdisc release) would be a prime candidate for inclusion.
Furthermore, putting all of the Dirty Harry films together in a box set would be just treatment for these films. If MGM can polish the Bond films so well, Warner should do the same for its jewels!
With strong acting and riveting drama, Dirty Harry is a worthy candidate for any film library ($25 retail). Shame on you if you haven't at least given it a rental!
The prosecution having declined to file any charges in this matter, the Grand Jury is discharged with the thanks of the Court. Warner is ordered to commence Special Edition preparations forthwith. Now where did I put the popcorn?
Review content copyright © 2000 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Production Notes
* Theatrical Trailer
* Clint Eastwood.net