I don’t have to introduce police inspector Harry Callahan to many people. I am sure most people reading this review have seen one film in the series (or at least know the character I am talking about). I discovered Dirty Harry twice. The first time was when I was a young teenager, then later as an old teenager.
When I was thirteen, I went through a big Clint Eastwood phase. I hate to admit this, but this is probably because I was taken to see Every Which Way But Loose at the local drive-in. After that I tried to see every Eastwood movie I could. This is before video really took off in Australia. So, to see these films I had to rely on terrestrial television. Back in the early 1980’s television censorship in Australia was very severe. We had what they called AO MOD TV movies – standing for Adults Only Modified for Television. Well the censors worked overtime on Dirty Harry, cutting out whole scenes and great chunks on dialogue. It is a testament to the strength of the movie that despite the removal of the violence and swearing, it was still a bloody good film. The cuts obviously diluted Dirty Harry from how it was originally intended to be seen, but in others ways opened up the film to a new youthful audience.
Four or five years later and I finally got to see an uncut version of Dirty Harry, and if you’ll forgive the Harryesque wordplay, I was blown away. I couldn’t believe what a powerful and incredibly different movie viewing experience it was.
But that’s enough reminiscing. For the three people out there who haven’t seen it, Dirty Harry opens in the city of San Francisco, with a girl taking a swim in a roof top pool. On another adjacent rooftop, which overlooks the first, Scorpio (Andrew Robinson) takes aim at the girl with an assault riffle. He fires and she dies. It is not a revenge killing or the result of a relationship gone bad. Scorpio is a psychopath and has killed her, just because she was there.
As the titles run, police arrive at the crime scene. Inspector Harry Calahan (Clint Eastwood) scouts the vantage points from which the sniper could have fired. On one of the rooftops, attached to a television antenna is a note from Scorpio addressed to the Mayor of San Francisco.
Scorpio wants money. If he doesn’t get it, he will shoot a Catholic priest or a negro. After a meeting with the Mayor, a message is put in the newspaper agreeing to pay Scorpio, but it is merely a ploy to gain time.
But Scorpio never really appears that interested in the money. Sure he goes through the motions of trying to collect it, but for him it’s more about the killing. And he plans to kill again. And kill he does.
Soon after Scorpio kidnaps a young girl and demands a ransom. Harry agrees to take the money to Scorpio, but this only begins a cat and mouse game between the two protagonists.
Dirty Harry features an interesting bunch of characters, and actors to portray them. First is Clint Eastwood. At the time, Eastwood had some success with his trio of ‘Dollar’ Spaghetti Westerns and a few other films, but Dirty Harry really launched him into the stratosphere. Sure, there had been loner cops before, but had any of them had the impact of Dirty Harry? The character, with his droll sarcasm, and cool one-liners became a blueprint for so many action heroes that were to follow. It has been reported that the role of Harry Callahan had originally been offered to Frank Sinatra. While I have no doubt that Frank would have made a fine tough cop, I doubt the character would have gone on to become the cinematic icon that he has. It also must be mentioned, a lot of Harry’s success must be attributed to his choice of handgun, the 44 magnum. The gun is almost a character in itself. Harry’s determination to stop crime at any cost, is really symbolised by ‘the most powerful handgun in the world’.
The next character we have is Chico Gonzalez; portrayed by Reni Santoni. Films often have sacrificial victims to make the heroes journey seem more personal and perilous. Not that Chico dies, but he is the sacrificial victim in this movie. He gets shot up pretty good. As much as Clint and Harry became a template for the loner cop, Chico and Santoni set up the template for the unwanted junior partner in police films. The progeny of his character can be seen in the films of Chuck Norris, Steven Segal, and even in the sequels to Dirty Harry itself. By the time of the fourth sequel, The Dead Pool, the junior partner had almost become a joke. As an adjunct, it’s great to see Santoni went from unwanted partner in Dirty Harry, to experienced ‘wanted’ partner, Sergeant Gonzales in Cobra with Sylvester Stallone in 1986.
Andrew Robinson brings a totally new style to interpreting psychopathic characters. Compare Scorpio to James Cagney as Cody Jarret in White Heat. Both characters are unhinged, but Jarrett was only really a threat to the police and other criminals. But Scorpio’s victims were random. Robinson is absolutely unsettling and unpredictable in his characterisation. One minute he is laughing and cackling; the next he is ranting and raving. Again his portrayal was groundbreaking and many imitators followed. Since I have already mentioned Cobra, it is worth noting that Robinson changed over to the side of law and order, and plays Stallone’s superior, Detective Monte in that film.
Dirty Harry is an iconic film. The style it set dominated police films for the next twenty years. It wasn’t until the arrival of The Silence Of The Lambs that police thrillers moved off into different, more dark territory. The massive amount of imitators, including it’s own sequels, have slightly dimmed Harry’s impact. If it was a stand alone picture, I am sure it would be considered an all time classic. When they compile top 100 films of all time, Dirty Harry should always be in the top 10. But as it stands, it will have to settle for being one of the greatest cop thrillers of all time. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s a film I revisit again and again. Highly recommended.
The Dirty Harry sequels are:
• Magnum Force • The Enforcer • Sudden Impact • The Dead Pool
And Harry was a character who was too big to remain solely on the cinema screen. A series of book was written to capitalise on his notoriety. I must admit, I found these books a little too violent, and in places very distasteful – but still read a good handful of them.
I am pretty sure I downloaded these cover from the Pulp International website, but it has been a few years. My thanks to whoever originally uploaded them.