The image of Clint Eastwood chewing on a cigar, wrapped in a poncho and squinting at his enemies from underneath a dusty cowboy hat is surely one of the most indelible images in cinematic history – however, equally (if not more) iconic is the sight of Hollywood’s most endearing tough guy casually remarking about the destructive stopping power of the 44. Magnum as Dirty Harry; the 1970’s poster boy for “exceptable” excessive force.
Viewed now in the era of BLM, where questionable behaviors of police officers are rightfully being placed under the microscope and called out, the trigger happy antics of SFPD Inspector Harry Callahan may seem on the surface problematic at best, but in actuality, Don Siegal’s action packed musing on criminals abusing their rights in order to evade justice is a far more thoughtful piece than the absurdly jacked up posters would have you believe.
A derranged sniper who refers to himself in his taunting letters as “Scorpio” has decided to murder a person a day until the city pays him his ransom of $100,000 and starts by putting a large hole through a young woman as she swims in her rooftop pool in the city of San Francisco. Soon on the scene is Det. Harry Callahan, a world weary cop his peers have nicknamed Dirty Harry due to the cynical officer’s habit of getting all the “dirty” jobs that come along and the case of the Scorpio killer is no exception. Immediately disgusted by his superior’s plan to agree to pay the madman in order to “buy a little time”, Harry is saddled with rookie partner Chico Gonzalez and sets out to to ensnare the killer by drawing him out with bait. However, after their various stings end up with an officer murdered, a 10 year old boy shot in the face and a 14 year old girl kidnapped, the Mayor relents and enlists Harry to bring the man his ransom which eventually ends up with the unorthodox cop viciously torturing Scorpio for the girl’s location.
Sadly, this isn’t the end of things; you see as Harry was brutally cavalier about Scorpio’s rights (or lack thereof), the murdering lunatic is allowed to walk scot free much to the inpector’s ire and Harry’s plan to harass his nemesis out of police hours results in the maniac framing the cop for a vicious beating.
As Harry’s superiors chew him out about his behavior and how Scorpio is outmanuvering them by using their own laws against them, the sniper makes one final play for his ransom by hijacking a fucking school bus at gun point.
Unbelievably, because presumably they apparently can’t read a fucking room, Harry’s bosses ask if he wants to once again be the bag man when they agree to try to give paying the ransom another shot. Harry declines, but that doesn’t mean he’s done and the long coming showdown between him and Scorpio seems increasingly likely with justice being served at the barrel of a freakin’ hand cannon.
Essentially the patron saint of movie cops who take the law into their own hands (Judge Dredd, Robocop and Stallone’s Cobra obviously worship at his cordite stained altar), it’s just as easy to write Harry off as a vicious thug as it is to hail him as an avenging anti-hero, but the beauty of Siegel’s brutal masterpiece is the intelligence the film has to nimbly walk that line between the two.
Take the scene where Harry thwarts a bunch of black guys robbing a bank – possibly one of the greatest scenes of it’s type that’s ever existed – where the action heroes who followed would smash their way in and annihilate everyone in sight who looks shifty, Callahan is nothing but professional, calling in his suspicion from the diner across the street while happily munching on a hotdog and only gets involved when the perpetrators start shooting first – he even calls a warning out to the first robber out the door and only pumps a hole through him after the guy puts buck shot into Harry’s leg. His speech in the aftermath about how many bullets he has left (possibly the most misquoted speech in movie history) may seem ghoulishly callous, but Harry presumably knows how many bullets he has left and only uses the speech to put the shits up a man who was firing his shotgun into the street not 60 seconds earlier. Admittedly that’s not exactly what you’d call professional conduct either, but it’s still better than pointing a loaded gun at an unarmed, wounded man instead… technically speaking, anyway.
Yes, Harry is positively swimming in toxic masculinity, but the film reveals that he’s only necessary thanks to people like the astoundingly vile Scorpio, a murdering, raping, torturing looney tune of the highest order who, thanks to Andrew Robinson’s astoundingly upsetting performance, would make even the most ardent defender of human life probably admit that a lead pill in the base of the skull is probably the best thing for him. It also helps that nothing Harry actually does on screen is lauded during the whole movie and is even criticized by the general public during a scene where he punches out a suicidal jumper in order to bring him down safely. It’s we, however, who are asked to be complicit in his attitude to crime: “When an adult male is chases a female with intent to commit rape, I shoot the bastard, that’s my policy.” is a typically flippant reply to an accusation of excessive force, while Harry’s boss announces: “It’s disgusting a police officer should even know how to use a weapon like that.” when he sees Callahan taping a switch blade to his leg before going to hand over Scorpio’s money.
But this is a movie, so Harry is only right because the movie says he’s right and everyone he goes up against is irrefutably guilty and virtually asking for him to blow a fist sized hole in their midsection – it’s real life that’s far more complicated. When that school bus turns that fateful bend in the freeway to reveal Harry astride an overpass looking like the Colossus Of Rhodes in brown slacks, it’s ok to cheer because not only will actual justice finally be done, but it’ll look damn fucking cool while it gets to business.
And that’s the magic of Dirty Harry and, by extension, the movies; it’s a film so expertly crafted by it’s on screen heroes and villians, not to mention an incredible script loaded with genius dialogue and a director with impeccable instincts that it transcends it’s cop thriller tropes into an surprisingly subtle fable on human society. There would simply be no need for a cop like Harry to even exist if there wasn’t men like the Scorpio Killer in this reality-adjacent, stylized world, where moral greys are mercilessly beaten into stark blacks and whites and true justice comes at the glare from the muzzle flash of “the most powerful handgun in the world”.
This isn’t real life, this is Dirty Harry’s world where bad guys are justifiably brought down with lethal force only after they’ve racked up terrible collateral damage; and when he flings his badge away at the end, tellingly there’s no sense of triumph. The only true winners here are the audience…