Dirty Harry: Clint Eastwood created one of the most seminal and iconic characters in American film history

Dirty Harry(1971), directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood as SFPD Inspector Harry Callahan, is a terrific police-procedural\crime thriller, with Clint Eastwood updating his revisionist Western hero persona for the modern times to create one of the most iconic characters in films.

It’s a hot, sunny afternoon in San Francisco. SFPD Inspector, Harry Callahan, has just driven up to his favorite diner to have his regular lunch of hot dogs. Across the street, in front of the bank, he notices a car with just the driver on the wheel; the engine is running, and emitting too much smoke- meaning that it has been there for a long time; the number of cigarette butts dropped on the pavement by the driver definitely confirms this. Deducing that a bank robbery is in progress, and it’s a getaway car lay waiting outside, Harry, rather surprisingly, just sits down and tells the cook to dial a particular number and get other cops to the spot. This is his lunch hour, and he’s no going to get involved and will “ wait for the cavalry to arrive.” But no sooner has he taken the first bite out of the sandwich, the alarm bells go off at the bank, and the robbers starts running out one by one. Harry curses his luck- he knows he’s got to get back to work- and still chewing a mouthful of hotdog, whips out his handgun- well it’s less a gun more a hand-cannon, it’s the Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum– and strides out into the street and barks at one of the emerging robbers to “halt”. The robbers are, of course, in no mood to comply, and fires at Harry. Harry fires back in rapid succession. Robbers are felled one by one, and the getaway car crashes into fire hydrant and topples a florist stand. It’s only after all this is over that Harry notices he has been hurt in the gunfight: there are shotgun pellet wounds riddling his leg. But he’s still unfazed; and even as the world around him is in utter chaos; cars toppled, water gushing out, people screaming and running all over, vehicle horns blaring from all side; he just walks straight across the street carrying his gun and confronts one of the robbers, who is only wounded and seems to be contemplating grabbing his shotgun. What happens next can be termed a bit of “street theater”: Harry advances on him, lifts his gun slowly (and rather theatrically) and points it at his head and gives a lengthy monologue that can be characterized as pop-Shakespearean:

Uh uh. I know what you’re thinking. “Did he fire six shots or only five?” Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?

After listening to this speech, the punk looses his nerve and decides not to go for the gun. Harry picks up the shotgun and is about to walk away, when the Punk interrupts him, saying “I gots to know.” Harry turns back, once again points the gun at the punk and pulls the trigger; well, the gun is empty, he had indeed fired all the 6 shots. Harry smiles at him mischievously, and then, coolly walks away as the world around him is still plunged in chaos.

This scene from Don Siegel’s 1971 film, Dirty Harry, starring Clint Eastwood as Inspector Callahan, is what I’d call a character building scene. The scene stands apart from the main body-narrative of the film; the film is mainly concerned with the hunt for a serial killer named “Scorpio” who’s randomly killing people in the city and demanding ransom from the city authorities to desist from further killings. Harry is the SFPD detective tasked with apprehending Scorpio. But Scorpio is no ordinary killer; he’s psychotic and depraved; this is established in the opening scene of the film itself where we see Scorpio gunning down a women who’s just out for a swim in the hotel pool. It will take an extraordinary cop to bring him down, and Harry is a ‘one of a kind’ cop. So, to establish the unique qualities of Harry, we have a series of scenes in the beginning of the film that builds Harry’s character bit by bit; of which the above scene is the most pivotal. Before this scene, we already have an inkling of the kind of cop Harry is: we see his methods of investigation that helps him quickly zero in on the location and ammunition that the sniper used. We then see the first interaction between him and his superiors, the mayor, the police chief etc. We realize that Harry has the reputation of being a rebel-cop; kind of a George S. Patton of SFPD: a man extremely good at his job, but a permanent headache for his superiors due to the methods he uses to get the job done. An individualistic maverick- a “Howard Roark” among policemen, who “don’t work with collectives. don’t consult, don’t cooperate, don’t collaborate.” A man who has his own ideas of how justice should be meted out, or rather, a policeman who believes in justice and not the law, at least not the ones that benefits the bad guys. In the meeting, the mayor warns him to refrain from bad headline-making actions “like we had last year in the Fillmore district”. Harry replies that he was only stopping a “rape” from taking place; because “when a naked man is chasing a woman through an alley with a butcher knife and a hard-on, I figure he isn’t out collecting for the Red Cross.” So he shot the bastard, and his philosophy has always been: “There’s nothing wrong in shooting as long as the right people get shot“.

From this scene in the Mayor’s office, we get to know that Harry is an anti-authoritarian, renegade-cop, who battles his superiors and bureaucrats as much as the dregs of society. And in the above scene i mentioned, we get to see (for ourselves) Harry in action for the first time. So, what do we get to know about Harry?. For one, he’s not as belligerent a cop he’s made out to be. He would stay away from action if possible and enjoy a quite meal. He comes across as an ‘everyman’ cop in his conversations with the chef. It’s interesting to note that when his not in the middle of the action, his body language and speech patterns are of a man who’s suffering from an overwhelming sense of ennui.; he moves slowly, talks lazily, as if just woken up from sleep. But once thrown into action, the same everyman suddenly becomes a superman: he has miraculous precision with his shooting; he has great presence of mind; he does not buckle under pressure and shows a superhuman ability to judge, both the number of shots he’s fired (amidst all the chaos) and also the character of his opponent; that’s why he plays that little game with the punk, he knows that he will not go for his gun. He plays the same ‘do i feel lucky’ game with Scorpio at the end of the film as well; and there he’s sure that Scorpio will go for his gun, so he’s well prepared to shoot him down. He also enjoys this “power game”- the power of being the lawman, being right, and the power imparted by the most powerful handgun in his hands- and likes humiliating his opponents before he delivers the coup de grâce.

Now cut to the very next scene, where Harry is treated by a police surgeon Steve (Marc Hertsens) who sets about plucking the shot from his leg, Harry insists on removing his pricey trousers rather than let the doctor cut them off. The doctor warns him that it will hurt, but his response is “For $29.50, let it hurt.” Now once again he’s an everyman, an average middle class hero, who’s well dressed alright, but who can’t afford another pair of the same trousers. Speaking of Harry’s dressing, he wears an old-fashioned brown and yellow checked jacket; a sort of symbol for his old-fashioned values in crime fighting. We find this shift from everyman to superman (and back) throughout the film, and that maintains the audiences unbroken connection with this character. He’s one among us, and he’s also someone we want to be in a time of crisis. A man who is able to rise above all man-made rules and deliver justice purely based on his instinct that’s always right. Indeed, this is the most interesting, the most visceral, most heroic ‘mass appealing’ character that has adorned the movies up until that time. So the popularity of “Dirty Harry” is well earned. When we have a character like this in a mainstream commercial film, half the battle is won; now the other half is the film that surrounds the character, and here too Dirty Harry scores.

“Dirty Harry” is by no means the first of his kind in movies. The character of Dirty Harry takes inspiration from two other iconic rogue-heroes from the 1960s. First is Clint Eastwood’s own “Man with no name” from Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” Westerns. It’s no coincidence that Dirty Harry has the look and feel of an urban-western: the lawman taking on the bank robbers; the mano a mano duel between the hero and the villain that closes the film, which takes place in a quarry resembling the arid western landscape are all signifiers of this. Also, the iconic Eastwood entry scene in the climax of “A fistful of Dollars”- where he emerges from the dust as some kind of a god is duplicated here in another iconic form: Clint standing on top of the bridge and then jumping onto the top of the bus hijacked by Scorpio. The final scene, in which Harry throws his badge into the water after killing Scorpio, is a homage to a similar scene from the classic Gary Cooper Western High Noon(1952). The second inspiration for the character is James Bond: A well dressed anti-hero, spouting glib witticism and possessing an insouciant attitude towards violence, with a special gun at his disposal; Walther PPK for Bond, .44 Magnum for Harry. Only difference being, Bond is licensed to kill by the powers that be, Harry has no such license, but he shoots to kill anyway. Like Bond, Harry is a widower: his wife died needlessly (as he says) because a drunk jumped her car. Don Siegel himself has tried mild variations of this character earlier; with Richard Widmark in Madigan(1968) and Eastwood himself in Coogan’s Bluff(1968). But the real prototype for Harry is Steve McQueen’s Bullitt(1968). But Bullitt was very much a character-driven or a star-driven film, where if we take away McQueen, what’s left is an over-extended, illogical TV movie. Also, “The French Connection” that came out in 1971 had a nasty cop, ‘Popeye’ Doyle(played by Gene Hackman) at its center, but that was a plot-driven film where the character worked within the confines of the overall story. “Dirty Harry” lies somewhere between Bullit and The French Connection; it is an extremely well-made detective thriller that’s driven by the presence of such a mass-appealing character and such a charismatic, stylish star at the center. As an actor, Eastwood is closer to a pure movie-star actor like McQueen than a character actor like Hackman. “Dirty Harry” is not a character, it’s an archetype- with modern elements; that’s where it gets its anti-heroic traits, and an actor is supposed to embody it rather than act it out. The actor transforms his traits into the character, and Clint’s style, attitude, cool quotient, physicality are all perfect for this character. That big gun will look funny in anybody else’s hands, but not in Clint’s, where it feels it’s born to be there. His history as the gunslinger in “Rawhide” and Leone’s Westerns, his subtle, laconic acting style, the rugged sensuality he so effortlessly projects, his nonchalant, unflappable attitude in general and his undisputable screen presence and star charisma, all builds up this character to mythic levels. With the massive success of this film, Clint not only cemented his status as a superstar (perhaps the biggest star of his times), but also established the “rogue-cop” or the “renegade-cop” as the modern movie (anti) hero archetype. It’s impossible to imagine any other star succeeding so well in this role; and to think that Clint was the fifth or sixth choice for this role. Can anybody imagine actors like Frank Sinatra or Robert Mitchum (who were approached before Clint) in this role. It’s also to be noted that a character as iconic and popular as this would have typecast anybody, but not Clint- perhaps it did, just for a while there; but he managed to break out of this mold and was able to do different stuff like comedies, romances, even an art-Western like Unforgiven. Goes to show that Clint was much bigger than the character, and he made “Dirty Harry” and not vice versa.

As for the film itself, director, Don Siegel does his career-best work as a director; he had graduated from the lowest rungs of studio filmmaking- shooting documentaries and second unit, then graduated to directing low-budget crime thrillers, Noirs and Westerns. He had already worked with Clint on three films before this, and was sort of his second mentor (after Leone), and they had similar philosophies on what kind of films to make and how to make them. The preferred very lean and spare films, made very quickly and economically. “Dirty Harry” reflects the height of their collaboration. Siegel uses all the tricks he had learned over the years as a studio employee to construct this film; without much ado, he plunges the viewers directly into the middle of the narrative, as he introduces the main villain “Scorpio” right at the beginning; his crazed state of mind, the pleasure he extracts in killing people are all revealed in a short pre-credit sequence reminiscent of a low-key Bond film. Siegel uses lenses of different focal lengths to distort our view, by expanding the size of the killer’s rifle barrel and limiting the space between buildings. Then Clint gets his introduction as the Inspector investigating the case, and here again, Siegel uses Noir-style camera angles and movements to define the action. As the film moves episodically from one killing to the next, and Scorpio escaping one police dragnet after another, Siegel ensures that the pace never flags. He keeps things interesting by cooking up new settings with its own unique flavor. So, in one instance we have a pure film-noir like interlude that takes place at night, where Scorpio tries to kill a priest, with Harry standing guard in front of a giant cross with lurid colors lighting up the darkness; and in another one, where Scorpio has Harry running around all over town with bag of ransom money, Siegel splits the lengthy action by showing Harry having weird encounters with weird people. The plot is also enlivened with a (supposedly) racist Harry having a Hispanic partner with whom he’s at odds all the time, but who saves Harry’s life (by almost sacrificing his own) at a critical juncture in the story when Scorpio is about to kill him. The character of “Scorpio” was based on the notorious real-life “Zodiac” killer who was stalking the streets of San Francisco, and Robinson, wo was a pacifist in real-life, had a hard time getting hold of the character. Siegel had to shut down production and send Robinson for special weapons-training to help him master the role. The performance of Andy Robinson as Scorpio is another highlight of the film; his unkempt appearance perfectly fits the bill for a psychologically unbalanced hippie. He plays the character as a raging maniac who transforms into a sniveling coward the moment Harry gets an upper-hand in their battle. It’s to his credit that in the pivotal scene, where Harry tortures him to get information about the whereabouts of a kidnapped teenage girl, our sympathies go to him.

Now, about the more controversial aspect of the film; what critics like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert described as the fascist nature of the film: Harry becoming a one-man judge, jury and executioner at several points in the film, and the film finding ways to justify these actions; on closer observation, we realize that there are only few scenes where the film intentionally tries to manipulate the audience into toeing this line. In the whole film, Harry kills only one person, that’s Scorpio, and he does it only after he’s left with no choice; where he was legally wrong is in directly engaging with the killer\hijacker while endangering a bus full of school children. The scene where Harry tortures Scorpio in the Kezar stadium results directly from the scene where Harry is brutally beaten up by Scorpio, after he had confessed (or bragged) to kidnapping and burying the girl alive. It’s very interesting how Siegel stages this torturing scene, the camera keeps moving up and up in a helicopter shot, until it disappears into darkness, as if the camera itself can’t bear to see the torture. The one truly manipulative scene is the one right after this, when Harry is reprimanded by the district attorney; because Harry obtained his evidence against Scorpio (namely a sniper rifle in Scorpio’s possession) illegally, all of it is inadmissible in court and Scorpio is to be released as a free man. Harry is stunned and outraged, which is a totally improbable reaction, because it’s impossible to believe that a cop of Harry’s experience does not know the law. The pitch at which this scene is played, especially Josef Sommer’s performance as the Attorney is so over the top, so excessive that it is intentionally designed to drive the audiences crazy to root for Harry and against these sissy bureaucrats. which makes me wonder if there’s a certain absurdist tone to the whole film. Sure, it’s very much a straightforward police thriller, but there are layers like these: the exaggerated punchlines and stand-offs, the display of these huge-sized weapons, caricaturing of the politicians and bureaucrats, even the serial killer in question sometimes comes across as cartoon, that makes it appear as if the film was more like Chester Gould’s “Dick Tracy“, with a square-jawed, stoic, archetypal cop hero at the center, surrounded by all these caricatures. The caricaturing of everyone around Harry bolsters Harry’s humanism or super-humanism and makes him much more cooler than he is. Clint was once courted to play Dick Tracy in a movie version of the comic strip before Warren Beatty made it in 1990. Maybe the different layers is also due to the number of writers who worked on the film; after the husband & wife duo of ‘Finks’ wrote the original drafts, it was heavily revised by Dean Reisner, and then again by two new-Hollywood mavericks, John Milius- a self-confessed gun-nut and the guy behind Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn– and Terrence Mallick- the maker of Badlands and Days of Heaven. So the screenplay is a mix and match of widely varying talents with very different political beliefs, and the film may have become more layered by their differing point of views. In the end, the film is more than the sum of its parts, thanks mainly to the great work that Clint and Siegel did in front and behind the camera respectively, and not to forget, Lalo Schifrin’s pulsating score that ties the film together brilliantly.

The film was a big hit when it was released in 1971. The film resonated with the anti-authoritarian, counterculture audience, as well as the general public that had become weary and frustrated with the increasing violent urban crime that was characteristic of the time. It was a time when the “law” was losing many of its battles with the “outlaws”, and the audiences immediately took to a hero like “Dirty Harry.” The film proved influential in setting the template for the vigilante-thriller- the “Death Wish” films, Taxi Driver etc. as well as the renegade-cop movie; every 80s action hero owes a debt to Clint and Dirty Harry; whether it’s Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon series (the scene where Harry brings down a suicide jumper from the rooftop is as it is replicated in the first Lethal Weapon film), Stallone in Cobra, Bruce Willis in Die Hard films or Schwarzenegger in Red Heat, they are all variations of Dirty Harry. The film itself went on to spawn 4 sequels, all of them very successful, but with each iteration, Harry seems to loose his hard-edge, and by the time of the final film, The Dead Pool, Harry had become just another ordinary cop. After all the criticism of Harry’s fascist attitude, there was an attempt in subsequent films to tone down Harry’s character and also balance it with villains who are more extremist and grotesque, and this affected the overall nature of these films. The fact that none of the subsequent films were directed by Don Siegel may have also played a role in the diminishing quality of these pictures. Anyway, the original “Dirty Harry” stands tall and continue to be a great example of how the perfect marriage of an iconic character, a legendary star-actor, a great director and a punchy subject, can result in movie magic whose influence last decades.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s