Dirty Harry (1971)


*. Talk about an opening shot setting the tone. After a quick pan down a memorial to fallen San Francisco police officers, there’s Scorpio’s black rifle barrel: almost a silhouette against a bright blue sky. Pointed right at our face. Then a cut to a girl in a swimsuit, targeted in the rifle’s crosshairs.
*. It’s a visual motif that will be repeated numerous times, especially with Harry behind his cannon-like Magnum .44, a gun so long it’s hard to keep in focus. Two things stand out: (1) We edit seamlessly from the killer’s to the victim’s point of view, as though they’re interchangeable. Does this tell us something about the relationship between Harry and Scorpio? The director and the audience? (2) Death almost always comes from above: Scorpio or Harry on a rooftop, or Harry looming above a wounded malefactor. The man with the gun is the scourge of God.


*. Looking down the barrel of a gun (from either direction) is more than just a visual motif in this film and its sequels. They symbolize an entire world view. You either shoot or get shot at. In the first Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force, we’ll see Harry on a combat shooting course, a mock street with pop-up targets of bad guys, cops, and civilians. It might be the same street that hosts the bank robbery at the beginning of this film. It is Harry’s world. Hell, even the liquor store owner draws on us so we can look down another barrel. It never ends.


*. A reductive world view leads to a reductive politics. Not surprisingly, this is the angle on the movie that has had the most purchase. It was most famously raised by Pauline Kael, who found Harry to be a fascist, but clearly this was conceived as a political film from the get-go. The backlash against the Summer of Love was under way, and Harry’s assault on liberal values wasn’t part of some subtle subtext. We’re in San Francisco, after all. Scorpio is a hippie gone bad, with a peace symbol for a belt buckle (that the camera zooms in on so we won’t miss it) and whining about his “rights.” Harry doesn’t care for pettifogging lawyers and constitutional clutter. He represents justice, not the law.
*. We can’t get away from that word “fascist” in a discussion of this film. Kael made the charge and Roger Ebert wholeheartedly endorsed it in his review: “The movie’s moral position is fascist. No doubt about it.” I’m reluctant to lean on this too heavily, but Harry does stand for a backlash against the excesses of liberalism and any talk of rights and freedom. Liberty leads to licence, licence leads to chaos, and chaos pleads for an end to liberty. So fascism, even just as a shorthand for authoritarianism, isn’t an inappropriate concept to introduce.


*. Kael makes the point as part of a broader critique, saying that the “action genre has always had a fascist potential.” Why? Because it speaks a language of force and violence, but also because action films are impatient in their drive for closure. As Richard Schickel remarks in his DVD commentary, Dirty Harry proceeds by way of a “steady build-up of frustration,” but I think this is typical of the way a lot of action films work. Indeed, when you think about it, a steady build-up of frustration that is purged in an orgy of violence is a staple of the action genre going back to the Odyssey.
*. Eastwood/Harry would get his revenge on Kael, by the way, in The Dead Pool. A bit crude, but the best way to strike back at a critic.
*. What does it mean when Harry is accused by the men in the alley of being a “pie hawker”? I understand them calling him a peeping Tom, but a pie hawker is one of those guys (we see one of them earlier) who stands outside of strip clubs and XXX stores trying to entice passers-by to come in. It is also, however, listed in some slang dictionaries as a synonym for a peeping Tom, though I don’t know why. Where does the hawking come in?
*. An earlier film about a psycho-sniper terrorizing San Francisco was The Sniper. That movie was written by the husband-and-wife team of Edna and Edward Anhalt. Dirty Harry was written by the husband-and-wife team of of Harry and Rita Fink. Coincidence? Yes, but it’s interesting isn’t it?
*. The screenplay itself is simple to the point of being crude. According to John Milius (who did uncredited work on it) Eastwood didn’t want a lot of lines because he felt he didn’t say words as well as he stared. Reticence is a pretty consistent attribute of action heroes.


*. Then there is the plot. It’s hard to believe that Scorpio is out in broad daylight taking shots at people. Or that he will actually go back to the exact same building he was just caught on. As Roger Greenspun remarked in his contemporary New York Times review: “Dirty Harry fails in simple credibility so often and on so many levels that it cannot even succeed (as I think it wants to succeed) as a study in perversely complimentary psychoses.” I wonder if complimentary is the word he meant. I would have thought he meant “complementary,” like Batman and the Joker, but it’s possible he thought Harry and Scorpio were somehow complimenting each other.
*. Perhaps we’re just not meant to take the story very seriously. I don’t think it likely, for example, that Scorpio would be allowed to walk after being apprehended despite all of Harry’s rough-housing. A good D.A. would be able to get around a lot of that. What we’re presented with is really a caricature of the legal process.
*. There’s certainly a comic touch present throughout. I love the way Harry is chawing on a “lonely and ridiculous hot dog” (Schickel) during the bank robbery sequence. When he yells out “Halt!” you can even see pieces of it fly out of his mouth.
*. I wonder if there’s any significance to Harry being placed at the foot of the cross when he meets Scorpio with the money, or the base of the neon Jesus Saves sign when he stakes him out. Then, when Scorpio sees Harry waiting for him on the railway overpass the school bus has to drive under he exclaims “Jesus.” Was all this a conscious part of building Harry up as a martyr, suffering for our sins?
*. What a great score by Lalo Schifrin (a friend of Eastwood’s, but the logical choice anyway after scoring Bullitt). I’m not even a fan of the jazzy style, but it really works here. You can feel it setting an edge.


*. Andy Robinson gives a terrific performance as Scorpio, making what must have seemed like a nothing character on the page instantly memorable. Siegel probably told him that he couldn’t overplay the part so he just dove in, all manic giggles and an unruly mop of hair. I also like that his leg injury has him skipping through the second half of the film like he’s some kind of demented imp. I wonder if he even cares at the end how many shots Harry has fired. He just crouches with his mouth hanging open like a guppy while Harry delivers his deathless lines, and then starts giggling again and going for his own pistol. It’s all part of the fun.


*. There was some argument between Eastwood and Siegel about Harry throwing away his badge at the end. It’s a nod to High Noon, but I think Eastwood was right to object. Obviously it didn’t take because Harry was back in Magnum Force without any mention of this gesture, but more than that it just doesn’t seem like the kind of thing he’d do. He may be fed up with the system, but he’s a cop all the way through and isn’t going anywhere.
*. Even critics of its politics granted the film was an effective action vehicle. And remarkably it still holds up in this regard. There’s something in the way Harry and Scorpio play off against each other — the conflict between hot and cold, emotion and reserve, frantic movement and fluid grace — that keeps the energy high. More than anything else, it’s Scorpio I miss in the later films. Without him, Harry seemed to lose a part of himself.


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