Dirty Harry (1971)
Release Date: December 23rd, 1971 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Don Siegel Actors: Clint Eastwood, Harry Guardino, Reni Santoni, John Vernon, Andy Robinson, John Mitchum, Lyn Edgington
ut 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?” He’s one of the coolest unethical cops around, sporting a mean hand-cannon, an attitude of proportional size, and witty dialogue that consistently sizzles. Dirty Harry is an unforgettable anti-hero with unknown motivations and an unquestionable dedication to nabbing crooks – whether or not it takes skirting on the boundaries of corruption, abuse of power, and vigilantism. Director Don Siegel’s nail-biting masterpiece went on to critical and commercial success and spawned four theatrical sequels, with star Clint Eastwood amusingly returning for all of them.
Gum-chewing, sunglasses-wearing, sarcasm-spewing, unflinching, borderline vigilante policeman Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) is assigned to the case of the self-named “Scorpio” killer (Andy Robinson), an assassin who chooses targets at random and taunts the San Francisco Police Department with notes and phone calls. The chief of police and the mayor are reluctant to hand the case to Callahan, who has a reputation for employing extreme measures – but he’s the most capable inspector at their disposal. Sure enough, even as his investigation leads him to more victims and clues, “Dirty” Harry can’t avoid going to his usual spot for a hotdog and incidentally foiling a bank robbery mid-bite, or casually negotiating with a panicky suicide jumper.
Although Callahan’s partners always end up wounded or dead, rookie cop Chico Gonzalez (Reni Santoni) joins him on the hunt for the reclusive serial murderer. Scorpio initially starts as a rooftop sniper, but the ambushes and traps set up by law enforcement always seem to fail, merely irritating the executioner, who resorts to a higher monetary demand and the kidnapping of a young woman. Harry winds up with the unpalatable job of being the bagman for the ransoming of Ann Mary Deacon (Debralee Scott), a girl buried alive with only enough oxygen to live through the night. The killer bounces Harry around town to make sure he isn’t followed – a device that serves to keep the hero playing solo, and one that would later be memorably reused in “Die Hard with a Vengeance.” But playing by the city’s rules, regulations, procedures, and the rights of suspects – and especially Scorpio’s devious games – are not part of Harry’s unforgiving agenda.
Smooth jazz, pounding bass, haunting female vocals, and tricky percussion riffs by composer Lalo Schifrin perfectly guide Callahan through the darkly lit streets, parks, and subways of San Francisco, hunting for a criminal loosely based on the real-life Zodiac killer – an unsolved mystery that would later receive many more film adaptations. All the while, the detective remains a cool, calm, and collected cop, never raising his voice and only rarely changing his expression. He’s just crooked enough to torture information out of a suspect and barge into places without a warrant (“Well then the law’s crazy!”), and just upright enough not to walk off with the large chunk of ransom money gathered together by the city.
Entertainingly, Callahan provides both the badass, larger-than-life protagonist and the deadpan comic relief. It’s up to the very maniacal villain (who is just begging to meet a spectacularly horrible demise) and the innocent victims to provide the seriousness – along with a splendid mixture of tense interactions, thrillingly choreographed stunts, and diabolical mayhem (including an exhilarating bus chase finale). Harry, a particularly uncomplicated antihero and a loner (devoid even of a love interest) with a sense of selfless purpose for enforcing the law, becomes one of the first movie icons to break all the rules, with the audience’s support and sense of fairness still unwaveringly on his side, accompanied by uncommon righteousness for motivation and focused vengeance as guidance. It’s undoubtedly fun to see wickedness get stamped out by an unflinching man of action, even if – or perhaps especially because – he has to take the law into his own hands to ensure justice.
– Mike Massie