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The Dirty Harry series provoked, peeved, and transformed cop movies

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With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

“We couldn’t make this movie today” is a common refrain for veteran filmmakers, repeated like a mantra in commentary tracks and featurettes on DVDs and Blu-rays. It’s half boast and half dodge, meant to explain why the artists in questions haven’t produced any masterpieces lately. And most of the time, it’s complete bullshit. Hollywood studios may be less interested in certain kinds of stories here in the 2010s, but if the next Francis Ford Coppola showed up tomorrow, ready to make The Conversation? That picture would happen, someway, somehow—even if it was on the cheap, and under the shingle of some independent company. Art projects, character pieces, offbeat genre exercises… they all still find their way onto a screen.

The Dirty Harry series, though? We live in an age where, if a movie character uses the wrong pronoun, someone will bang out 1200 words about how the film is “problematic.” It’s hard to imagine these films getting a green-light from anyone in 2016. The five hard-boiled detective sagas that Clint Eastwood starred in between 1971 and 1988 are filled with racist and sexist stereotypes, and they openly sneer at soft-headed liberals for aiding and abetting society’s scum. Dirty Harry and its sequels are violent, condescending, and morally questionable. They’re also some of the best cop movies ever made.


Even if they weren’t terrifically entertaining, the Dirty Harrys would be essential viewing, because they explain where about 70 percent of the post-1971 guns-and-goons Hollywood action movies came from. Watching the first Dirty Harry for the first time today is like reading Marvel’s early ’60s Spider-Man comics, or listening to the first Van Halen album. So many of the fundamental genre codes and conventions are there, ready to be followed like a blueprint.

In the case of Dirty Harry, it’s astonishing how many movies and TV shows have copied key elements from that film: the loose cannon police detective, the crotchety superior officers, the cackling sleazeball criminals, the catchphrases, and more. At a time when “the New Hollywood” was bringing a new level of realism and maturity to the screen, Dirty Harry took advantage of the elevated tolerance for adult content to deliver a giddy adolescent fantasy. Roger Ebert would later describe the fourth film in the series, Sudden Impact, as “a Dirty Harry movie with only the good parts left in,” but really, that was all the Dirty Harry movies. They were like Bullitt with just the car chases, or The French Connection with just the tough-talking interrogations.

The series didn’t come out of nowhere. There’d been two-fisted policiers before, especially in the film noir era. And the Dirty Harry script—or, more accurately, scripts—had been kicking around for several years before Warner Bros. sent every available draft to Clint Eastwood, who agreed to star so long as his Malpaso Productions could hire Don Siegel to direct. Before Eastwood, the project had passed through the hands of Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen, Burt Lancaster, and Paul Newman (the latter two of whom reportedly passed because they found the story’s social message distasteful), and both Terrence Malick and John Milius had taken a crack at the screenplay. But the pairing of Eastwood and Siegel made sense, because they’d already collaborated on a gritty urban thriller: 1968’s Coogan’s Bluff, about a no-nonsense modern Western sheriff working a case in New York City.


Dirty Harry’s reactionary politics also seemed to be ever-present in the culture by 1971. Three years earlier, Richard Nixon had been elected president on a law and order platform, appealing to “the silent majority” by promising to crack down on the potheads, rioters, and revolutionaries who’d been hogging the media spotlight. In the summer of 1970, the movie Joe made a hero out of a psychopathic hippie-hating hardhat. And early in 1971, Norman Lear’s long-gestating All In The Family finally debuted, introducing lovable bigot Archie Bunker. Both Joe and All In The Family were meant to critique extreme right-wing attitudes toward the younger generation (though some fans ultimately interpreted them very differently). Dirty Harry didn’t equivocate. It laid the problems of the country squarely at the feet of leftist crackpots, and suggested that the only way to make America great again was to ignore the bureaucrats and to eradicate the monsters that bad laws protect.

Dirty Harry stacks its deck with the most over-the-top villain imaginable: a creep named Scorpio (played by Andy Robinson), who wears a warped peace symbol on his belt and is so irredeemably evil that his crimes wouldn’t make sense to an FBI profiler. Scorpio emulates the Zodiac Killer by sending threatening letters to the city of San Francisco. He’s also a sniper, like Lee Harvey Oswald and Charles Whitman. And at one point he kidnaps, rapes, and imprisons a young woman, in the spirit of Richard Speck. At the end of the movie, he hijacks a school bus full of kids. All the while, he demands ransom money. And when the SFPD’s meanest cop, Inspector Harry Callahan, tracks him down halfway through the film, Scorpio simpers, “I have rights!” just before Harry tortures him into a confession—which is then thrown out, along with the evidence, on a legal technicality.


Thanks to Siegel’s lean direction and Eastwood’s cooly laconic lead performance, Dirty Harry’s vision of a world gone mad is effective enough to make even a card-carrying ACLU member cheer for Harry’s vengeance. Critic Pauline Kael caused a stir when her The New Yorker review tossed around the words “fascist” and “immoral,” but she admitted that the reason the movie disturbed her so much is because it’s so well-made. “It’s hard to resist, because the most skillful suspense techniques are used on very primitive emotional levels,” she wrote. “You have but one desire: to see the maniac get it so it hurts. The movie lacks the zing and brute vitality of The French Connection, but it has such sustained drive toward this righteous conclusion that it is an almost perfect piece of propaganda for para-legal police power.”


Eventually, per Kael’s warnings, the simplistic “law versus justice” dichotomy in Dirty Harry did start creeping into high-profile political discussions about public policy. (See: Reagan, Ronald and Trump, Donald.) But that was more an indirect result of the movie being so successful that it inspired a wave of copycats—especially on television. Dirty Harry’s surfaces were easily imitable: the jazzy, funky Lalo Schifrin score; the emphasis on the crumbling ugliness of the modern American city; the worldly, macho hero who’s used to seeing dope fiends, pimps, and stone-cold killers down every alley; and the pointed inclusion of ethnic minorities as the hero’s friends, partners, and lovers, to mitigate against how often people of color are otherwise painted as brutish.

Even more than the main Scorpio plot, Dirty Harry endures in large part because one incidental sequence, where an off-duty Harry—eating a hot dog at a greasy diner next to an adult book store—witnesses a bank robbery in progress and stops it with his .44 Magnum, before pointing his gun at one of the criminals and asking, “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” The language, attitude, and spectacular violence of that scene soon crept into the likes of Kojak, Baretta, and Starsky And Hutch, and into movies like Walking Tall and Death Wish.

Eastwood himself, though, went in a slightly different direction with the first Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force. Malpaso bought John Milius’ idea for a story wherein Harry’s commitment to police power would be tested by a cadre of rookie cops who secretly assassinate mobsters, drug dealers, and murderers, along with people on the force who stand in their way. (On the Magnum Force Blu-ray commentary track, Milius growls approval for some of his bad guys’ methods, adding, “We need a special white collar crime death squad.”) Philosophically, the second Dirty Harry movie could be seen as a rebuke to the first. Or it could reinforce that vigilantism is okay when it’s practiced by someone who knows what he’s doing. Both readings are inherent in Magnum Force’s attempt at a “Do I feel lucky?”-style catch-phrase: “Man’s got to know his limitations.”


Whatever it means to say thematically, on an aesthetic and structural level, Magnum Force is ostensibly Dirty Harry redux—right down to a largely superfluous scene where Harry stumbles on a major crime and straightens everything out on his own. (In the sequel, it’s an airplane hijacking, which our man discovers when he stops off at his favorite hamburger stand.) Director Ted Post does introduce more stylistic fillips than Siegel would’ve allowed, from handheld cameras during a riot scene to cameras mounted to guns and motorcycles for screwy POV shots. Sometimes Post’s work is stellar, as in a snappy sequence where Harry practices in a “Hogan’s Alley” shooting range. But while he makes San Francisco look prettier than Siegel did, Post has a harder time downplaying the exploitative sadism in scenes like the one where a pimp pours drain-cleaner down the throat of his prostitutes.

First-time director James Fargo (previously an assistant on earlier Eastwood films) brings some of Siegel’s leanness back to 1976’s The Enforcer, which is also more like Dirty Harry in its choice of villains: a band of bomb-throwing leftists called the People’s Revolutionary Strike Force. Once again Harry finds himself fed up with the ass-covering ineptitude of his superiors, who are more concerned with teaching beat cops not to use deadly force than they are with cleaning up the city. The inspector’s mind gets opened a bit, though, when he’s paired with an inexperienced female partner, Kate Moore (played by Tyne Daly), who only got the assignment because she’s a woman, but proves herself more than capable. When the PRSF kidnap the mayor, Harry and Kate lead a daring raid on the group’s base at Alcatraz, with Harry trumping his own .44 by pulling out a rocket-launcher.


Besides the left-wing bad guys, The Enforcer brings back Harry’s casual prejudice. (He calls one swishy terrorist a “fucking fruit,” and responds to a boss’s concern for “the minority community” by asking, “You mean the hoods?”) The movie also gets back to exploring San Francisco’s seedy side, with Harry pursuing leads through massage parlors and porn-shoots. But while The Enforcer is plenty exciting, it’s also the slightest of the series, with very little plot and not much new to offer aside from Daly’s terrific performance. It’s no surprise that Eastwood decide to mothball Harry Callahan after the third film, despite the big box-office returns.

Even beyond any general exhaustion with Harry, Eastwood may have been ready to move on because his career options had become much more open since 1971. His well-received directorial efforts Play Misty For Me and High Plains Drifter showed a different side of Eastwood, proving that Dirty Harry and the “Man With No Name” that he’d played in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns were both just characters, not fully reflective of who he was an artist or the kinds of stories he could tell. In the years after The Enforcer, Eastwood directed some of his best films: The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Gauntlet, Bronco Billy, and Honkytonk Man. Each was very different than the other, and none could be easily read as fascist fantasies.


Then, in the blockbuster-happy early ’80s, when the studios were scrambling to find new franchises to compete with the likes of Star Wars and Raiders Of The Lost Ark, someone conducted a marketing survey which showed that if Eastwood were to make another Dirty Harry movie, audiences would come out in droves. Eastwood—who’s always liked to balance his artistic side with his commercial side—responded with Sudden Impact, which quickly became the most popular film in the series.

It’s the best of the bunch, too, just edging out Dirty Harry itself. The first film’s a true American original, and still has the power to provoke anger and to provide catharsis. But the Eastwood-directed Sudden Impact is subtler and more complex, taking all the most successful elements of the earlier movies and resolving them into something with a new maturity—more like a hardcover detective novel than a lurid paperback.


The first third of Sudden Impact plays like “Dirty Harry’s greatest hits,” marked by random scenes of bloody violence, bitter rants about how the government won’t properly equip its cops to survive the urban jungle, and an early set piece where Harry single-handedly ruins a band of criminals’ plans (while delivering a new catch-phrase: “Go ahead, make my day”). But then the inspector catches a case that sends him to a beachfront community being torn apart by a serial killer: a vengeful gang-rape victim named Jennifer Spencer, played by Sondra Locke. The story settles into a classic film noir mystery mode, as Harry pieces clues together that lead him to Jennifer’s potential victims, all of whom are awful people that probably deserve to die.

Lalo Schifrin’s distractingly synth-heavy score spoils the mood a bit, but otherwise Sudden Impact has a timeless quality, especially as it moves inevitably to a final three-way showdown—Jennifer versus her attackers versus Harry—on a shadowy boardwalk. The characters are just as broadly drawn and at times borderline offensive as in any other Dirty Harry picture—plus, for comic relief, Harry gets an ugly farting dog—but the stereotypes make sense when they resolve into a breathtaking scene of the hero emerging from the darkness with his long-ass gun silhouetted against the mist.

By the end of the ’80s, Eastwood was set to evolve past movies like Dirty Harry. He’d made his Charlie Parker biopic Bird, and would soon follow it up with a remarkably diverse slate of ’90s projects, including White Hunter Black Heart, Unforgiven, A Perfect World, The Bridges Of Madison County, and Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil. But the public still liked Harry Callahan. President Reagan quoted him. Warner Bros.’ publishing division pumped out new adventures in book form. The character inspired a video game, and a pinball machine. Dirty Harry stood for something.

So in part to pay Warner Bros. back for some of his less commercial ’80s projects, Eastwood strapped on the .44 one last time for The Dead Pool, a middling actioner that’s the shortest and the weirdest of the Dirty Harry series—though still perfectly watchable for anyone who doesn’t mind law-and-order stories mixed with cocked-eyebrow social commentary. The Dead Pool’s big hobbyhorse isn’t namby-pamby liberalism, but rather the media’s glorification of crime and criminals, represented by a director of gruesome horror films (played by Liam Neeson) and a tabloid TV reporter (played by Patricia Clarkson). The public’s fascination with death manifests in the titular game, where people bet on which celebrity will die next—unaware that the contest has been rigged by a serial killer.

The Dead Pool is serviceable as a thriller, but a little off-brand for a Dirty Harry movie. It’s loaded with future stars, including Clarkson, Neeson, Jim Carrey as a junkie rock star, and the members of Guns N’ Roses as themselves—which today ends up stealing attention from the hero. And aside from the scene where a Kael-like film critic gets murdered and a climactic sequence where Harry skewers an evil son-of-a-bitch with a harpoon, the movie lacks the daring outrageousness that distinguished so much of the series. The best bit in The Dead Pool (and honestly, one of the best in all the Dirty Harrys) is an offbeat chase, where Harry’s pursued by a toy car packed with explosives. In the hands of a better director—as opposed to Eastwood’s longtime stunt coordinator Buddy Van Horn—that scene might’ve underscored the dangers of mixing playful fantasy with deadly reality. Instead, it’s just one super-cool set piece in a move that’s otherwise pretty bland.

The Dirty Harry series ended with a whimper. But in the nearly three decades since, Eastwood’s become one of the world’s most respected filmmakers, winning Best Director and Best Picture Oscars twice (for 1992’s Unforgiven and 2004’s Million Dollar Baby) and seeing three of his other films nominated for the top prize (2004’s Mystic River, 2007’s Letters From Iwo Jima, and 2015’s American Sniper). He’s helmed other movies about violent men, and has starred in a few, but none have worked in the same thick strokes of black and white. Even Sudden Impact, while hardly anti-violence, is more persuasively ambivalent about its use than Magnum Force was—and tellingly, that’s the one Dirty Harry that Eastwood directed.


Given all that, how are we supposed to take the Dirty Harry movies in 2016? In interviews for the DVD and Blu-ray editions, Eastwood has downplayed the political message of the films, saying he was “just trying to make a good detective story.” He even adds that while the first Dirty Harry sprung from the courts being overly concerned with the rights of the accused, in his opinion that’s “as they should be.” Ultimately, Harry Callahan is just a hardboiled action-adventure character, in the tradition of the heroes of Donald Westlake or Jim Thompson novels. However the public and the politicians received Dirty Harry, when it comes to the films themselves, there’s no reason to think that retweets equal endorsements (so to speak).

That’s not to dismiss any of the potential danger from people taking these movies seriously. Pauline Kael was right, to an extent: If viewers buy into the fiction of a culture sliding into criminal chaos, and they accept the fantasy that one man can be trusted more than “the system” to decide what’s right and what’s wrong, and they vote for leaders accordingly, then yeah, that could be a problem. But that doesn’t make Dirty Harry and Sudden Impact any less excellent, or the other three films any less enjoyable. Nor does it diminish the real social value to be had in arguing about what they’re saying. Besides, if Dirty Harry makes someone angry enough to want to respond, then the best thing to do would be to make another movie that argues something different. After all, that’s what Eastwood’s been doing, over and over, for 45 years now.


Final ranking:

1. Sudden Impact (1983)
2. Dirty Harry (1971)
3. Magnum Force (1973)
4. The Enforcer (1976)
5. The Dead Pool (1988)