Dirty Harry (1971)

When it’s on: Saturday, 28 April 2012 (10.45 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

Time for something really seminal here – along The French Connection, Dirty Harry was a late 1971 release that changed the cop movie forever, to such emphatic extent that one can draw a line in the course of police thrillers from before and after Inspector Callahan’s first outing.

Harry and Rita Fink’s story, Don Siegel’s direction and Clint Eastwood’s hard as nails turn combined to absolutely devastating effect. It remains one of Clint’s finest performances, one consistent with many he’d put in previously, only instead of a rootless west from some distant past he was now putting modern San Francisco to rights, albeit ‘rights’ on his own terms. As Harry, he’s just brilliant. Inscrutable enough to ensure his motivations are never explicit. Fused with a sense of right and wrong, yet tired with procedural justice and jaded to the point it’s often something he takes into his own hands. And what hands they are. The famous ‘Do you feel lucky?’ scene happens early, and it’s a killer. The bank robber declares he has to know if Callahan fired six shots or just five, so Harry pulls the trigger. There’s no bullet, but did he shoot because he knew he’d emptied the clip? Or didn’t he care either way? It’s a moment that tells us everything we need to know about Eastwood’s cop. To him, criminals are scum. They deserve the same sort of treatment they dish out and he’s the man to deal it.

The plot was based around the real-life case of the Zodiac Killer, a North California serial murderer who notoriously taunted the police via a series of letters. In the film, Callahan is assigned to the ‘Scorpio’ case early and, after several killings, is informed by the mayor that they’re giving in to his ransom demands and he has to deliver the money. Scorpio (Andrew Robinson) leads him on a merry dance across the city, forcing him to visit a number of payphones at certain times, before the exchange ends brutally and Harry is left with vengeance as well as justice on his mind.

Dirty Harry marked a hard and less compromising direction in the genre. Its main character was appreciated for his tough approach, yet criticised by some for being bigoted and at times downright nasty, as evidenced in the film’s infamous Kezar Stadium scene, one so controversial that even the camera pulls discretely away as Callahan goes about his grisly business. Otherwise, its unflinching attitude to shooting blood and nudity gave the production a gritty and real edge that was so effective the genre has never really taken a step back since. Eastwood wasn’t the first choice to star (Frank Sinatra was offered the part initially, followed by John Wayne) yet it’s difficult to imagine anyone else filling Harry’s shoes quite as well. Certain scenes – the one that sticks in my mind features Scorpio on the school bus, his mood turning to panic as he spots Harry watching him whilst stood, alone and indomitable, on a bridge – are absolutely iconic.

Siegel, one of those perennially underrated directors whose tidy CV included Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Killers, brought more than 25 years in the ‘chair’ to bear when making Dirty Harry and turned it into his best work. Eastwood certainly copied his directing style, which is tribute enough. As for Harry Callahan, he would return in four sequels, whilst a number of Eastwood’s other roles riffed on the character template. I have a great deal of time for Magnum Force, which continued to explore Dirty Harry’s theme of the failing justice system, but by The Enforcer he was already turning into a Harry-shaped object, albeit an entertaining one.

Dirty Harry: *****

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