Untimely Movie Review: Dirty Harry

Going from Willy Wonka to Dirty Harry practically gave me the bends.

But Clint Eastwood’s signature performance was next up in the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection.  Like Bullitt, this is a movie about police officers in San Francisco.  Unlike Bullitt, this is a much more in-your-face, blood-and-guts cop flick, complete with wildly unrealistic criminal and procedural scenarios.

If you’re looking for nuance, this isn’t the movie for you.

The movie pits Eastwood’s gruff, rogue Callahan up against Andy Robinson’s “Scorpio,” a wild-haired, wilder-eyed cartoon character of a serial killer.

This is one of those examples of a movie that works better if you turn your brain off.  Well, maybe not off, but at least down.

The film, and Eastwood’s character, serves as a counter-counter-culture piece, at a time (and in a place) in which things seemed to be swinging too far in one direction for much of the country’s tastes.  Debauchery, criminality, and a justice system that seemed to be realigning to help criminals combine to form the backdrop of Harry Callahan’s San Francisco, much darker and more dangerous even than Bullitt‘s San Francisco of just three years prior.

As I said, the plot doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny.  The biggest issue is the notion that Scorpio would somehow get off scot free because Callahan beats a confession out of him while frantically searching for a girl who’s been buried alive.  The DA and an appellate judge(!) both conclude that Scorpio has to be set free, even though the girl has been found dead, with the DA admonishing Callahan and saying that he couldn’t even get a conviction “for spitting on the sidewalk” in light of the illegal search and interrogation.

Even to a layman, this is patently absurd, given that there have already been multiple prior murders, as well as multiple eyewitnesses who saw Scorpio firing a machine gun at two policeman, and killing a third.  Not to mention the fact that he also shot Callahan’s partner, all of which occurs before the illegal search and illegally-obtained confession.

This follows the right-wing exaggeration of the effects of Miranda and its cousins from the late 1960s forward.  This notion that even a mis-typed police report allows mass murders to go free makes for a fun piece of fiction, but it’s just that—fiction.  Throw in a meddling, appeasing mayor (played by John Vernon, who also played Dean Wormer in Animal House), and you have the makings of a mini-culture war.  Or at least a skirmish.

But that’s not the point of this movie.  The point is to have a latter-day cowboy hero going up against a selectively-insane opponent, played by an actor whose only direction during the making of Dirty Harry must have been, “BROADER!”

And, boy, does it work.

You won’t get a deep character study, and you won’t get anything plot-wise that isn’t a 95-mile-per-hour fastball right down the pipe, but that’s ok.  As a straight-up action film with a vicarious vigilante edge to it, it works.  The only disappointment is the revelation in the film’s final scene that Callahan re-uses his “clever” perp taunts.

Oh, and the recurring theme that Callahan is quite obviously (yet quietly) a peeping Tom.

But, other than that, you’ll enjoy yourself!  I know I did.

In fact, I liked this one enough to purchase the whole collection on blu-ray.  I wound up watching them all within a week of Dirty Harry.  They’re all fine-to-good, with the first obviously being the best.  But I think The Dead Pool gets some undeserved scorn as being mediocre.  I enjoyed it more than Sudden Impact or The Enforcer (with apologies to Tyne Daly—her performance was very good).

In any event, Harry Callahan is a culturally relevant character whose impact transcended the screen.  The first of these films is a near-must-see.

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