Dirty Harry

As a general rule, I try not to lug too much extratextual baggage into the movie theater. Sometimes it’s inevitable: Nobody watching Husbands And Wives when it opened back in 1992 could avoid projecting Woody Allen’s ugly split with Mia Farrow onto the narrative, no matter how fervently the director insisted that there was no connection. But I don’t pay much attention to stories that a film had a troubled production, or that its lead actor was coked out of his mind half the time, or that the ending was reshot at the last minute after test audiences balked. Because none of that stuff, even if it’s true, should matter at all unless it somehow makes its presence felt in the actual film. And the thing is, if you’re on the lookout for something, there’s a tendency (known as confirmation bias) to see it whether it’s there or not.

All the same, something I read about Clint Eastwood 10 or so years ago has never left my head, and now tends to inform my view of his movies—both new and old, as director and as star—to an almost alarming degree. In Which Lie Did I Tell?, screenwriter William Goldman, recounting his experience adapting Absolute Power, mentions in passing that Eastwood was nine days ahead of schedule at one point, and then adds, without a hint of disapproval, “partially because what he wants more than anything on Earth is to finish and get out to the golf course.” I disapproved, though. Others had noted the unusual speed with which Eastwood works—he’s known for moving right along after the first take—but the suggestion that he’s simply in a rush to go do something he actually enjoys rankled. Lesser Eastwood films began to seem to me not just shoddy but lazy. When screenwriter Peter Morgan expressed amazement last year that The Man With No Patience had shot his first draft of Hereafter exactly as written, without so much as a note or a question, much less a script conference, I was just nodding my head: Figures.

And then the other day I rewatched Dirty Harry for the first time in forever. Here’s the big scene, you all know the words, rasp along with Clint.

I know what you’re thinking, punks: Eastwood didn’t direct Dirty Harry. Very true. And the first half of this sequence, prior to the much-quoted monologue, is vintage Don Siegel, casually chaotic and dispassionately brutal. I strongly suspect that the stunt in which the thieves’ car mows down a fire hydrant and flips onto its side exists not for its own sake, but in order to create the oddly lyrical shot of Harry Callahan walking toward us through the hydrant’s spray as if it were his own personal cleansing rainstorm, still chewing the single huge bite of hot dog he’d managed before the bank’s alarm went off. That’s the detail from this scene I’ve always treasured, if only because Hollywood is so obsessed with narrative economy that characters virtually never experience the petty inconveniences of everyday life. Yeah, it establishes Callahan as a badass, but it’s also at least a fleeting acknowledgement of how inopportune the real world can be, catching you at a crucial moment with your pants down or your mouth full.

But then we come to what the AFI once reckoned was the No. 51 movie quotation of all time (sandwiched between “Houston, we have a problem” and “You had me at hello”). John Milius reportedly wrote it, uncredited, and it does have the awkwardly convoluted syntax typical of his dialogue. “But being [as?] this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off”—poor Nick Nolte spends all of Farewell To The King talking like that. But note that “[as?]” in my transcription. I can’t be sure because Eastwood races through this classic monologue like the goddamn links are about to close! Or at least that’s how it hits me now. Rhythmically, his delivery is a complete disaster, never even remotely approximating any natural human cadence. It took me a while to identify where I’d heard that kind of halting, stop-start pattern before, but realization finally dawned: He sounds a lot like guest hosts on Saturday Night Live reading their lines off of cue cards. He knows all the words, but he hasn’t apparently bothered to register their meaning. “Do I feel lucky?” follows “ask yourself one question” so instantly that it more or less gets swallowed.

Now, there’s an argument to be made that this is intentional, though I’m not sure I buy it. Because what I’d completely forgotten, until I saw the movie again, is that Harry gives this speech twice, repeating it almost verbatim to Scorpio at the climax. (Let’s set aside for now the question of whether a cop like Harry Callahan would really memorize long passages of smack talk to recite at various cornered criminals, in the manner of Jules misquoting Ezekiel 25:17.) And Eastwood totally nails it the second time, with a genuinely pantheon-worthy reading. “Do I feel lucky?” not only gets some necessary room to breathe but also a far more menacing undercurrent, paradoxically provided by what can only be described as a very slight lilt. Take a look (provided you already know how the movie ends; spoiler ahoy), and see how much more powerful Eastwood can be when he puts just a little elbow grease into his performance. 

Again, I can easily rationalize the difference. In the first scene, Callahan’s talking to some random thug who’s committed a random felony; in the second, he’s talking to a sociopath who’s spent the entire movie making Harry’s life hell. This time it’s personal, etc. Perhaps the sheer disgust and contempt of the reprise wouldn’t hit so hard were the original delivery not at least somewhat flippant. And yet every time I rewatch this scene, I can’t shake the feeling that Eastwood had some important phone call to make once they got it in the can. Let’s get this done, people! It plays like a rehearsal, as if they were just trying to set the sound levels and then forgot to do an actual take. But I doubt that thought would ever have occurred to me had I not been cued by Goldman to assume that Eastwood is perpetually waiting to tee off. The objection doesn’t even make sense, really—Eastwood is filthy rich, achieved legend status decades ago, has no need to keep making a movie per year, sometimes two. He must find some pleasure in the process, or he’d have long since permanently retired to Carmel. And yet so many of his films throughout his career are so ramshackle and half-assed that it’s easy to believe that minimal energy went into them. This is what happens when your good faith becomes forever poisoned.