Clint Eastwood is Dirty Harry.
Despite his long and acclaimed career, Clint Eastwood will always be most remembered for his portrayal of Dirty Harry. He's won awards and had a long, distinguished career as a director, but this character will be his most famous legacy. It's hard to believe that other actors, from Frank Sinatra to Paul Newman, were ever even considered for the part since it is so iconically Eastwood's. The AFI named Harry the 17th greatest movie hero of all time and I doubt if Sinatra had taken the role that he would have received the same honor.
In this, the first of five films to feature San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan, the movie opens with a sniper shooting and killing a woman from the rooftop of a skyscraper. A note is found on the rooftop from the killer who calls himself Scorpio (in a nod to the then still active real-life Zodiac killer) stating that unless the city pays him $100,000, he will kill one person a day.
Harry is the no-nonsense detective assigned to the case. His tough-as-nails persona is one that has often been imitated. He bucks authority because he cares more about justice than he does about rules. He shoots first and he asks questions afterwards. ("Well, when an adult male is chasing a female with intent to commit rape, I shoot the bastard. That's my policy.") He gained his nickname "Dirty Harry" because he's given all the dirty jobs and he gets them done. Of his personal life, we learn very little. The only nugget of personal history we're given is that his wife was murdered by a drunk driver sometime in the past.
In perhaps the most famous scene in the movie, Harry foils an attempted bank robbery. Following the shoot-out he approaches one of the downed criminals. The bank robber is sprawled on the pavement, his gun just out of reach. As Harry gets closer, the robber strains to reach his weapon, but stops when Harry says, "I know what you're thinking. 'Did he fire six shots or only five?' Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?" The line that was named 51st greatest movie quote by the AFI and is echoed again at the film's climax. It is for lines like these that Harry is a cinematic immortal.
The film was a critical and financial success upon its release. It's both timeless and of its time. You can see the 1970s appeal when urban crime was on the rise and a movie hero who could just cut through the red tape and bring criminals to justice with simple, blunt force, must have seemed (and still seems) like a welcome relief.
With scenes shot all over San Francisco, the movie also acts as a time capsule of the city in the early 1970s. The gay culture is highlighted and not in a very complimentary fashion. Watching the boat-like cars of the time, it's hard to believe people used to maneuver such things around the city's famously hilly and narrow streets.
Some movie characters you can imagine being played by other actors. Every now and then though, a movie character comes along who is so closely tied to the actor who played them that they become inseparable. When that happens it usually generates movie magic. Dirty Harry and Clint Eastwood are the perfect example of that.
Clint Eastwood and Andrew Robinson in Dirty Harry.
My oldest movie going memories are from the year 1971. I was just 4 years old but I can vividly recall scenes from Dirty Harry and Diamonds are Forever (FYI, these two movies finished as the third and fourth biggest moneymakers of the year behind Fiddler on the Roof and The French Connection). Our father used to take the entire family to the local drive-in theater on Portage Road in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
I can still picture it like I was just there yesterday. It always seemed to take forever for the sun to set over the distant treetops and the dusk to settle over the assembled automobiles. The tinny sounding speaker right outside the open driver's side window. I would stay up as long as I could before falling asleep in the area behind the backseat of our station wagon.
The scene from this movie that stands out clearest in my 40+ year old memory is where Harry shoots Scorpio on the football field after the bright stadium lights are turned on. I remember how queasy the blood dripping from the stab wound in Scorpio's leg made me feel. And how shocked I was that he turned into such a quivering coward when approached by Dirty Harry. I must have fallen asleep shortly after this scene however, as the rest of the movie was completely unfamiliar to me. I had never actually watched it all the way through since that time.
I agree with Scott that Dirty Harry is both of its time and timeless. Visually it reeks of the early 1970s. The level of graphic violence in movies was evolving rapidly at the time. Sure the blood looks like ketchup but only a few years earlier you wouldn't have seen any blood at all. There is also quite a bit of gratuitous female nudity on display. The times they were a-changing. But at the same time the story is a gripping game of cat and mouse between cop and psycho killer that transcends the setting and time period.
Clint Eastwood is indeed perfect as Harry Callahan. Like his predecessor John Wayne, he made up for his lack of range by creating and cultivating an iconic image. Dirty Harry is really just an updated version of the strong, silent cowboy type Eastwood had already created in films like A Fistful of Dollars. Although Harry is technically on the opposite side of the law from the Man With No Name, they are both ruthlessly heroic.
Harry knows right from wrong and doesn't suffer fools or take any crap from anyone. His famous taunting speech, which he repeats at the climax of the movie, is actually kind of silly if you think about it, but given Eastwood's threatening growl of a voice, it sounds plausible coming out of a police detective's mouth.
Dirty Harry was hugely influential as well. Not only did it launch a successful franchise it inspired many other vigilante style movie cops. Even John Wayne, who, like Paul Newman and Frank Sinatra, had also been up for the part of Harry Callahan, jumped on the bandwagon with 1974's McQ where he played a tough-as-nails Seattle police detective. But there is only one Dirty Harry and he will always be Clint Eastwood.
Dirty Harry meets his new partner.
The "Do you feel lucky..." speech that Scott quoted, is as iconic as any in cinematic history. My personal favorite though, is when Callahan is told they have to let Scorpio go because his rights were violated, and Harry responds with just the right amount of sarcasm, "Well I'm all broken up about that man's rights."
Patrick mentioned the gratuitous female nudity and it did give me to pause. No, not for that reason you perverts. It made think, because one of the nude scenes is a full frontal nude corpse of a 14 year old girl. I have no idea what the age of the actress was playing the corpse, but showing nudity of a underage character in a movie is something long made taboo in American cinema, but was clearly acceptable at the time. Billy Jack, also made in 1971, features a 13 year old girl doing a full frontal nude scene.
Dirty Harry is remembered for the action, violence and the character of Harry Callahan, but it also has a bit of decent humor. At one point Harry gets mistaken for a peeping tom. Some guys from the neighborhood attack him and say, "He was peeking in on hot Mary." Unless he was using trailer park standards, Mary is anything but hot. While playing Scorpio's game of ransom delivery, he walks through a park late at night where he is approached by a young gay man looking for company, "My friends call me Alice and I will take a dare." He then finds out Callahan is a policeman. "You're vice? I'll kill myself." "Well do it at home." Harry remarks before moving on.
There is one thing about this otherwise great film, that I find fault with. The police let Scorpio go at one point because they say they do not have enough evidence to convict him. What! He just told Callahan where the girl was being held. Who, but the person who put her there would know that? I think that would stand up in court.
Harry Callahan, as well as many of Clint Eastwood's characters, were blunt, politically incorrect, no nonsense men of action and conviction. A type of character too often absent from todays "sensitive" Hollywood movies. Watching Dirty Harry is a trip back in time to a place where men were men and under aged girls did nude scenes.
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures (1971)