Everyone has seen, in some form or another, the bad-ass cop who crosses the line in pursuit of justice. It’s a cliché that’s been around for decades and somehow never gotten old. There are plenty of iconic characters that symbolize such a policeman like Frank Bullitt, Jimmy Doyle and John McClane, but there's one name that probably stands above them all: Harry Callahan, or as he’s better known, Dirty Harry.
The first movie was released in 1971 and solidified Clint Eastwood as a complete bad-ass whether he’s in a western or a modern drama. The plot's simple enough, following the San Francisco Police Department as they try to bring in a homicidal maniac calling himself Scorpio (Andrew Robinson). Harry Callahan is the police inspector in charge of bringing him in, and the two of them play cat-and-mouse while several people get killed in the process. At one point he even forces Harry to run all over the city answering pay-phones only to beat him up at the end. The plot gets especially interesting when Harry does finally bring him in and the killer is set free on a technicality.
Harry is a relentlessly determined cop who can best be described as having an aggressive moral integrity. He knows what’s bad, and it’s his job to stop it. He’s called Dirty Harry for a number of reasons, and all of them apply to the character. One of the reasons is that he does any “dirty job” that comes his way. This reason definitely proves true as he goes around doing just about everything. If there’s a man about to commit suicide, call Dirty Harry. Killer on the loose? Call Dirty Harry. Need someone to deliver ransom money with no back-up? Dirty Harry. Clint Eastwood is as flawless as always in a role like this. He plays these characters so effortlessly and you buy it without question. His squinted, beady eyes and cool voice command respect and bring attention to the fact that he’s not someone to be messed with. He’s placed in stark contrast to the world around him in this film, but it’s made all the more obvious when comparing him to the villain.
|Andrew Robinson as Scorpio. What a nut.|
Scorpio is a complete psychopath who's so unhinged that he can’t even wait until his body heals from its wounds before he commits another murder or kidnapping. His level of insanity is so over-the-top that in one instant he's a clever and threatening killer, outwitting the cops and eluding even Harry and his partner Chico Gonzalez (Reni Santoni), and in the next he's a giggling freak jumping around like he’s completely off his meds (which he probably is). By the end of the movie you want Harry to just flat out murder this guy, to hell with reading him his rights. Of course this is all done on purpose with one idea in mind. Dirty Harry is an incredibly right wing character, and the film’s morals seem to side with him. For the audience to sympathize and root for Harry (who's practically a fascist), the villain must be completely evil with no shades of grey. The higher ups, in this case the mayor (John Vernon) and district attorney, don’t support Harry because he doesn’t play by the rules as strictly as they do. For this, they are shown to be mostly incompetent or just ineffectual. The funny thing is: they’re right. When Harry arrests Scorpio, he does so by completely violating his rights, torturing him, and breaking into his home without a warrant. Does the guy deserve it? Sure, but that doesn’t make it right. And there’s always an excuse for his actions. Harry was working under a time limit, thinking that if he didn’t get the killer in time a young girl would soon be the next victim. Everything in the plot is so carefully arranged to make Harry and his methods the only real solution to the problem presented. The villain is two dimensional and everyone else can only think of ways to meet his demands in a pathetic attempt to appease him. If you don’t root for Dirty Harry to win, then you root for the bad guy. Simple as that.
Despite the simplicity of the narrative and the somewhat shallow attention given to the story’s themes, Dirty Harry is still an entertaining and exciting crime drama. The movie is shot in a fairly gritty style, showing off the darker side of San Francisco’s night life. While it’s not quite New York City in Taxi Driver, it’s still a place shown to have no shortage of lowlifes and gratuitous nudity. Some of the darkness is even a bit distracting on occasion as during several of the night scenes, which seem to have been shot using natural lighting, it’s difficult to tell what’s happening on-screen at all making it a relief when the characters wander into places with lights on. Despite some of my issues with this film, there's no denying the entertainment value. There are some great action scenes and the stunts are impressive, but the real highlight is Clint Eastwood. There's not one other actor in history who could deliver the famous line from this movie as well as he does, and he does it twice.