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Dirty Harry

Dirty Harry(1971)

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teaser Dirty Harry (1971)

Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns made Clint Eastwood a star. Dirty Harry (1971) and its four sequels made him an icon. Eastwood's Harry Callahan still stands tall as Hollywood's dominant lone wolf cop. Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and their heavily armed ilk walk in his shadow. With his cannon-barreled .44 Magnum bookending the film, pointed first at a bank robber and finally at a psychopathic serial killer, Eastwood's loose-cannon homicide inspector snarls, "You've gotta be asking yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?" Bang! An archetype!

Dirty Harry is more than a cop film. It's a zeitgeist phenomenon. It resonates as few films of its genre do, crystallizing an era when a Vietnam-scarred nation, disquieted by drugs, crime, urban decay, more and more public manifestations of franker and franker sex and language and fewer and fewer restraints, reverted to what we historically do in times of collective stress and a sense that things are unraveling - look to a vigilante with a cool exterior and a steady trigger finger to put things right.

Strictly speaking, Harry Callahan is a civil servant, a working cop from the working class. Beneath his full head of '70s hair, he always wears a collar and tie, neatly knotted, usually with a v-neck sweater, slacks and obviously off-the-rack wool sport jackets ranging from herringbone to horse blanket patterns. He lunches on hot dogs -- when he doesn't have to interrupt lunch to foil a bank robbery in progress. He doesn't say much. "I don't say words well," Eastwood has said. "I stare well." He stares a lot here, often in frustrated incredulity at the way a system the film sees as excessively liberal puts back on the street criminals he and his fellow cops had put themselves at risk to put away.

He has no life outside his job and what, for him, is its ongoing conflict. His job is to administer the law. In his view, this is not the same as administering justice. If this means bending, or breaking, rules, he will. For most of its length, Dirty Harry is a conventional enough cop drama, with frank, sarcastic Callahan and his colleagues hunting a serial sniper who pulls the trigger from this or that rooftop on victims lined up in his crosshairs. The film opens with an unsuspecting woman gunned down in a hotel's rooftop swimming pool. More die, one to the visual counterpoint of the killer's bullets strafing a neon-lit JESUS SAVES sign. The killer signs his taunting notes Scorpio (shades of Northern California's Zodiac Killer!) and the film leaves no argument against taking this guy off the streets.

Harry and his fellow cops come close to catching him before Harry finally does. In an interview accompanying the film's DVD release, actor Andy Robinson, who played Scorpio, recalls director Don Siegel casting him because, in Robinson's words, "he wanted someone with the face of a choir boy." The killer's appearance is just as shrewdly calculated as Harry's was. With his Harpo Marx hair, high-pitched, almost childish voice, taunting phone calls, crazed laugh and peace-symbol belt buckle, he suggests a hippie stereotype gone ballistic. Curiously, we see where the killer lives, when Harry tracks him to his lair in the bowels of Kezar Stadium, onetime home of the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders. But we never see where Harry lives.

We do know Harry's interior is a dark place. He enjoys pointing the gun. The first time we see him do it, in the bank robbery scene, there's something playful, yet more than a bit sadistic, when he waves that phallic barrel in the downed robber's face, then winks and smiles. (Much has been written, all probably with reason, about the sexual symbolism of Harry's .44 Magnum - no mere standard-issue police .38 for him!) The second time he uses it, the edgy playfulness is gone. Harry is seething with rage, partly because he sees the so-called criminal justice system, with what he views as its insane leniency, as complicit in the crime. Before storming out, he asks, "When are you people gonna stop messin' around with this guy?"

The reason a case can't be made against the killer is that Harry entered the guy's digs without a warrant to find the lethal rifle. It doesn't matter that he did it because he thought time was running out for a victim a teenaged girl buried alive. In a brilliantly devised scene, we see Harry drop the sadistic killer at midfield, then torture the torturer to learn the girl's whereabouts. The moral cloudiness of the moment is expressed as the camera draws back and the grassy gridiron is engulfed in fog.

The message is clear: Harry fights violence and craziness with violence and craziness because sometimes that's what it takes. His soft voice and matter-of-fact manner contrast with his bold, outrageous actions. That there's something of the Peeping Tom in him is suggested when Harry's gaze lingers longer than necessary on a couple of nude women while trying to scope out the killer. Just as Harry's voice is deceptively soft, to go with his taciturn manner, the sex, even when bathed in garish red light as Harry enters a topless bar on the killer's trail, is presented matter-of-factly, not salaciously. Ditto for the language. You never feel it's there for shock effect. Most of the lines are delivered in almost throwaway fashion. But the operative word to describe the world of the film is dark. It begins and ends in daylight. In between, it's almost always night as the film descends into Dantean circle after Dantean circle of a moral hell. Dirty Harry is a soul brother of Taxi Driver (1976).

Dirty Harry was the fourth of five films Eastwood shot with Siegel. With Leone, Siegel was the great influence on Eastwood's directing (Eastwood dedicated his 1985 Pale Rider to both). Siegel's career was mostly forged at the helm of cop, action and Western movies, usually on tight budgets, often favoring night shots. Possibly by temperament, certainly by necessity, he learned to shoot quickly and efficiently, with very few retakes. Eastwood has said he found Siegel's directness, economy and decisiveness congenial, learning from him and emulating these qualities. Eastwood's penchant for scenes shot in virtual darkness was also part of the Siegel legacy. Darkness, literal and metaphorical, is no small part of Dirty Harry.

As in the case of many landmark movies, Eastwood was not the first actor wooed for the role. Paul Newman turned it down. Steve McQueen and Frank Sinatra expressed interest, but never made it to the starting gate. Eastwood, whose own directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, was released in November, 1971, a month before Dirty Harry, actually made his own (uncredited) directing debut when Siegel was sidelined by flu and Eastwood directed a scene in which Harry rides a fire truck's cherry-picker up several stories to thwart a would-be jumper's suicide. Eastwood enjoyed two small pieces of payback. When Harry is running down some subway steps, a piece of spray-painted graffiti on a wall says KYLE -- the name of Eastwood's son. Earlier, around the corner from the hot dog joint Harry favors, Play Misty for Me is emblazoned across a theater marquee.

Producer: Don Siegel
Director: Don Siegel
Screenplay: Harry Julian Fink, Rita M. Fink (Screenplay (credited) and story (uncredited)); Dean Riesner (screenplay); John Milius (screenplay (uncredited)); Jo Heims (story (uncredited))
Cinematography: Bruce Surtees
Art Direction: Dale Hennessey
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Film Editing: Carl Pingitore
Cast: Clint Eastwood (Harry Callahan), Harry Guardino (Al Bressler), Reni Santoni (Chico Gonzalez), John Vernon (The Mayor), Andrew Robinson (Charles Davis), John Larch (The Chief), John Mitchum (Frank DiGiorgio), Mae Mercer (Mrs. Russell), Lyn Edgington (Norma), Ruth Kobart (Bus Driver).
C-102m.

by Jay Carr

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