Warner Bros. // 1971 // 104 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // June 3rd, 2008
This is a story about two killers:
Harry Callahan and a homicidal maniac.
The one with the badge is Harry.
If the films of the '60s were so much about angry, rebellious youth, it's somehow fitting that the films of the '70s were so much about angry, rebellious middle agers. As portrayed by actors such as Gene Hackman, George C. Scott, and Charles Bronson, these not-so-young rebels often bent, if not outright broke the law in their quests for justice.
Perhaps the angriest of these was Clint Eastwood's Inspector Harry Callahan of the San Francisco PD -- Dirty Harry they called him, here and in four sequels.
There's a killer on the loose, a particularly nasty one. Fortunately, on the killer's trail, is an even nastier cop.
The killer is called Scorpio -- that's how he signs the taunting notes he leaves at the crime scenes.
The cop is Harry Callahan, whose single-minded dedication to what he believes is fair and just makes him a fearless and formidable foe.
The victims could be anyone. Scorpio doesn't discriminate. As Harry points out, a little too knowingly, Scorpio kills because he likes it.
The battleground: San Francisco.
The playing field: More level than you would expect.
Dirty Harry was one of two significant police-action features released in 1971. The other one, The French Connection, ended up as the more honored, thanks in no small part to Gene Hackman's career-defining performance.
Dirty Harry, with its tight script, razor-sharp direction, heart-pounding action, and hackle-raising violence -- not to mention its skewed morality and the introduction of one of the most memorable anti-heroes in the history of film -- made a deeper impact on the public's consciousness and became a pop culture touchstone. Clint Eastwood fit the role so perfectly that actor and character are forever linked.
Eastwood was already a star when he played Harry Callahan, and this role turned him into a superstar. His terse delivery, imposing frame, square-jawed good looks, and squinty-eyed gaze serve him well here. Other actors were approached or expressed interest in the part -- notably, Frank Sinatra. But it's impossible to imagine anyone other than Eastwood; he owns it.
Among other things, Dirty Harry gave us one of the earliest depictions in a mainstream American film of a sociopath who had no real motive for killing. Andrew Robinson (Charley Varrick) was appearing in a play when he was spotted by Eastwood and cast as Scorpio, and he brings a great theatrical quality to the role -- important, because Scorpio is ultimately an actor. We never see a "real" person there, but we see him play the tough guy when he has the upper hand, we see him play the victim for the press, a manic clown for a bus-load of kidnapped children. Robinson is great here, using a variety of voices and inflections to play up the moments; this clever, conscienceless murderer is a terrifying and loathsome creation.
Of course, our hero is a pretty terrifying creation as well -- and there are certainly some who would find him loathsome. Two years before Serpico redefined the word "dirty" as it associates to cops, there was Eastwood's Harry, "dirty" not because he was on the take or corrupt, but because he always wound up with the crap jobs -- and, of course, his methods are not always in line with what a "good" cop would do. We rarely see him smile or joke (unless it's tight-lipped sarcasm), and his prized possession is his "big gun" -- a non-police issued .44 magnum.
Dirty Harry was the fourth time Eastwood had worked with director Don Siegel -- it was at Eastwood's suggestion that Siegel was hired for this film. Siegel's work here is outstanding; he keeps the action taut and the film moving. An early sequence, in which Harry foils a bank robbery (and gives the famous, "Feeling lucky, Punk?" speech), is a model of how action sequences should be done.
Siegel shot Dirty Harry on location in San Francisco, and he makes great use of the city, particularly during a sequence in which Harry has to run to various locales and landmarks to deliver ransom money to Scorpio, directed by the maniac through a series of calls to pre-appointed pay phones.
In previous releases, Bruce Surtees' night photography was murky and grainy, but it looks great on this disc. Evidently, remastering has been done on this, the third release of Dirty Harry on DVD. Overall, picture quality is remarkably clear and clean, with deep blacks and good looking colors. Audio is a solid 5.1 track (with several foreign-language mono dub options); Lalo Schifrin's dynamic urban jazz score sounds great.
The 2001 Special Edition included a short documentary on the Dirty Harry series ("Dirty Harry: The Original"), a promo piece shot in 1971 ("Dirty Harry's Way"), and interviews with Eastwood and some of his co-stars and contributors to the DH series. Dirty Harry: Two-Disc Special Edition contains all the extras from the earlier SE and adds some new, compelling ones.
First is an excellent, feature-length commentary by critic and Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel. Schickel offers a lot of insight and background on the making of this film and a good amount of interesting trivia. There is no dead air here; Schickel moves the commentary quite nicely. Disc Two offers a pair of documentaries. "Clint Eastwood: The Man from Malpaso" is a well-made 1993 TV documentary that traces the actor/director's life. "The Long Shadow of Dirty Harry" is a very cool, recently shot clip-and-interview piece with contemporary filmmakers such as Shane Black (Lethal Weapon), Joe Carnahan (Smokin' Aces), Tom Fontana (Oz), and George Gallo (who wrote Midnight Run), as well as Eastwood and others associated with the series, discussing the different aspects of the film and its influence.
Overall, this is a terrific package of a wildly entertaining, must-see movie.
At its heart, Dirty Harry is a police-action film, one of the best; in its soul, it's a shameless piece of propaganda, a right-wing sop that condemns the protections afforded by the Constitution, as well as SCotUS rulings such as Miranda and Escobedo, as serving no other purpose than to stop the police from doing their job of keeping the scum off the streets.
The real villain here is "the system." In a twist on the hippie screeds of the '60s, "the man" is no longer synonymous with "the establishment," but is oppressing it -- instead of peaceful protests and free love, the target here is the safety of the citizenry. By affording the killer rights, the state becomes complicit in his depraved acts.
When the film opened in 1971, it caused a bit of a controversy. "Liberal" critics, led by the ever-entertaining Pauline Kael, attacked the film's politics and peppered their reviews with words like "fascist." (Apparently, 1971 was a banner year for fascist filmmaking: in addition to Dirty Harry, the "f" word was also lobbed at Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange.)
Dirty Harry crosses over from high-gloss, yet gritty, police actioner to ersatz political message movie through a pair of sequences.
The first and most memorable -- arguably one of the most memorable action sequences ever put to film -- features Harry, working on instinct and a flimsy tip, barging (warrantless) into a locked stadium where the killer (he assumes) lives and chasing him (without identifying himself as a cop). When the killer stops, puts his hands in the air, and surrenders, Harry shoots him, then interrogates him while the killer whimpers and demands his rights. By the time Harry gets around to denying this guy his rights to an attorney and medical treatment, the cop has already violated so many other legal and ethical statutes, that the whole Miranda point is really moot. Siegel's direction here is astonishing, starting with the tight, labyrinth-like chase and ending with a myth-making pull-away of white knight and vanquished monster.
But the real controversy is not in this violent and exhilarating sequence, but its follow-up, wherein Harry is stunned to learn that his unorthodox, from-the-gut, pursuit-of-justice-his-way techniques aren't only frowned upon by the department, they're downright illegal. This is explained to the incredulous cop by a pencil-necked DA and an old lefty law professor (who epitomizes the effete corps of impudent snobs Spiro Agnew once famously railed against). The killer not only goes off scot-free, the entire department is warned to leave him alone!
After so expertly setting Harry up as the conquering hero, Siegel pulls the rug out not because of the cop's frankly harebrained actions (how could he not know procedure and law?), but because of a liberal plot to make sure that even the lowest scum are afforded rights -- including this shrill, sniveling, long-haired white boy, who'd earlier had a smiling, interracial pair of ice cream-eating gay guys in his rifle's crosshairs.
And therein lies the controversy: Not the notion that by affording rights to everyone, the law sometimes protects no one, but the way Siegel rubs the liberal sensibility's nose in it. This killer -- now, victim who's been denied his rights -- is a worst-case scenario. It's not enough to give us a homicidal maniac, we get a homicidal maniac with no human qualities, no family, no friends, not even the clichéd cat that so many movie psychopaths keep; hell, this guy doesn't even have a name. On top of this, he's a racist, a rapist, and a child molester. He is indefensible on every conceivable level, yet the liberal coda says we must defend him -- or at least give him the opportunity to defend himself.
But this is also why it seems ridiculous that there was any controversy at all. Siegel and the writers frame all this so extravagantly and so one sidedly, that it's as political as the "dangers of (sex, drugs, drinking)" films you might have seen in high school. Like any obvious propaganda film, it ignores whatever doesn't fit into the agenda -- like the fact that society is not awash with maniacs because of the presumption of innocence and the reading of rights. It also short-changes logic for hysterics: surely, the SFPD could have found something to charge this guy with or at least put him under surveillance. And let's not get into the question of how easily this guy obtains guns, because Siegel certainly doesn't go there.
Does this make Dirty Harry a bad movie? No, it's a great movie, and the question of what constitutes rights violations is particularly relevant today, in the era of the Patriot Act and debates about the use of torture against suspected enemies, at a time when people who want the police to have more power are often those who oppose gun control legislation.
But Siegel and Eastwood approach their politics too simplistically, and the mythos of super-cop-stymied-by-rules dates the film more than Clint's blow-dried 'do. Enjoy Dirty Harry for what it is -- a first-rate, classic action movie -- and try to ignore the ham-fisted manipulations and moralizing.
Politics aside (or included, depending on your bent), Dirty Harry: Two-Disc Special Edition is an outstanding release. The features, new and old, are excellent, tech quality is very good, and much to their credit, Warner Bros. has priced this competitively -- $20.98 srp. If you already have the Special Edition, it might be worth the upgrade for the new features, particularly Schickel's commentary.
Not guilty, Punk.
Review content copyright © 2008 Tom Becker; 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 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by critic and author Richard Schickel
* "Dirty Harry's Way"
* "Dirty Harry: The Original"
* Interview Gallery
* "The Long Shadow of Dirty Harry"
* "Clint Eastwood: The Man from Malpaso"
* IMDb: Dirty Harry
* IMDb: Clint Eastwood: The Man from Malpaso
* IMDb: Dirty Harry, the Original
* DVD Verdict Review - Special Edition