Sudden Impact: The only ‘Dirty Harry’ film directed by Clint Eastwood is a slick neo-Noir Actioner that borrows elements from the ‘Death Wish’ films

Sudden Impact (1983) is the fourth film in the ‘Dirty Harry’ film franchise, which has Clint Eastwood portraying the iconic character of SFPD Inspector ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan. Apart from being the most lurid & action-packed of all the films in the franchise, this is also the only ‘Dirty Harry’ film directed by Eastwood.

Clint Eastwood returns as maverick San Francisco cop, Harry Callahan, for the fourth time in “Sudden Impact (1983)”. But this time he does not have an auspicious beginning: the film opens with Harry losing a trial (he brought against some punks) when a judge dismisses the case due to his illegal search & seizure. But that doesn’t deter Harry, who, even before exiting the court premises, violently grabs one of the punks by the collar and threatens him with the worst if the punk does not mend his ways. It’s more than confirmation – if it was even needed – that despite a seven years gap since his last cinematic outing, ‘Dirty’ Harry hasn’t changed a bit; his hair may be thinner now, but it only makes his vein-throbbing forehead all the more conspicuous; and this time around he’s more grumpier and violent (if that’s even possible). Next, we get the trademark ‘Diner’ scene: where we get to see Harry put his .44 Magnum to good use and wipe the floor with three more punks; and deliver the ‘punchline of the picture’- this time it’s “Go ahead, make my day.” Which kind of sums up the character of Harry: he’s challenging the punk, who has his gun to the head of the waitress, to go ahead and shoot her so he could get to shoot him down; that’s Harry for you in one sentence; a cop who’s itching to kill the criminals rather than go through lengthy court procedures, but he’s still a man bound by law, and he would exercise his license to kill only when it’s legally permitted; In his own cryptic way, he’s asking the crook to give him that permission. It’s a line perfect for ’80s America, and it’s no wonder that the line became iconic, the sixth most famous line in American film history, and was even appropriated by then president Ronald Reagan, who, like Harry, was itching to pull the ‘veto’ trigger on any legislation to raise taxes.

This sets up the stage for the introduction of the film’s main antagonist or anti-hero; this time it’s a female, Jennifer Spencer, an artist turned avenging angel- in the mold of Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey from “Death Wish” films. “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish” were the most crowd pleasing and controversial films\franchises from the ’70s, which portrayed its lead protagonists as vigilantes; the only difference being that while Harry was a cop, Kersey was a civilian. So, it was only a matter of time when ideas from one franchise seeps into the other. It finally happened with “Sudden Impact”: Jennifer and her sister were gang raped at a carnival (a decade before) by a bunch of thugs- leaving her sister catatonic. Having failed to get justice from courts, she has taken the law into her own hands and, now, started killing the people responsible for it. Her modus operandi is shooting her victims in their genitals and head. Harry is charged with investigating these killings, which eventually takes him to the tiny fishing town of ‘San Paulo.’ Harry doesn’t want to pursue this small case, nor does he wants to leave the city, but he is under attack from a crime-family- after accidentally causing the death of the family patriarch, Threlkis; Harry’s intimidation cum interrogation tactic goes horribly wrong, as it leads to the Mobster having a fatal heart attack. The mobster’s family swears revenge; they engage Harry in several violent confrontations turning the city into into a battlefield. To maintain some peace & quite in the city, Harry’s superiors has shipped him out of to the city.

In San Paulo, Harry runs into Jennifer, who seems to be in agreement with his method of ‘result-oriented’ law enforcement; though Harry makes it very clear that he does not condone any acts of violent retribution that breaks the law. As the corpses keep piling up, and Harry continues his investigations, he and Jennifer starts getting closer, and they spend a night together. Soon, Harry realizes that Jennifer is the serial killer he’s tracking, and one of the guys she’s hunting is local police chief Lester Jannings’ son, Alby. Jennifer arrives at the Jannings home with the intention of killing Alby. To her surprise, she finds Alby, like her sister, is also catatonic; a guilty conscience caused him to attempt suicide via a car crash that left him with permanent brain damage. Jannings admits that to protect his reputation and his only child, he “fixed” the crimes and failed to jail the guilty parties. He convinces Jennifer to spare Alby’s life and promises that Mick, the last of the rapists, will be punished. But Mick turns out o be a truly rough customer and a sicko; he kills Jannings with Jennifer’s gun, and then abducts Jennifer. He also has Harry brutally beaten up and thrown in the ocean. But Harry recovers, and takes down Mick and his henchmen in the violent finale set on the Boardwalk’s carousel.

The first ‘Dirty Harry’ film, directed by Don Siegel, had SFPD Inspector Harry Callahan going up against the vicious serial killer, “Scorpio.” The second one, “Magnum Force,” directed by Ted Post, had Harry fighting a quartet of vigilante cops, who could be younger versions of himself. The third film, “The Enforcer,” directed by James Fargo, had Harry partnering with a female cop and taking down an urban terrorist outfit. All these films also had Harry wielding the most powerful .44 Magnum handgun and spitting out ‘punchlines’ at both friends & foes alike; he was also relentlessly fighting the bureaucracy, red tape and timid superiors who were all hell-bent on being hurdles in his path as he goes about enforcing the law by putting the rights of the victims ahead of the criminals. “Sudden Impact,” the fourth film in the series, directed by Clint himself, appears to be a mishmash of the most effective, crowd-pleasing elements from the first three films, all dialed up to eleven. This is more than obvious from the handgun that Harry carries in the film: Harry couldn’t get a bigger pistol because there aren’t anything bigger than the one he’s carrying now; so, while he’s still carrying the .44 mag, it is now automatic, .44 AutoMag. The same goes for the rest of the film as well; it’s far more violent and action-packed than any other film in the series; with a big action set-piece in almost every reel. Clint’s films are usually very subdued and classically made, but here the emphasis is on over-the-top shock effects, with an episodic narrative, where characters are added and discarded at will, and scenes that does not have a direct bearing on the main plot being added just for their entertainment\shock value. The film stands out from other Clint Eastwood directed films in the sense that it has the most ’80s, MTV music video like aesthetic to it; most prominently in its scoring, cinematography and editing. This is most obvious in the climactic gunfight, when Clint returns from the dead wielding the Automag. Lalo Schifrin, as usual, contributes a pulsating jazz funk score, with a killer musical cue for Clint’s big entrance. The entire action sequence, with its swirling camera moves and fast-paced editing, is cut to music, like a music video.

Being the only ‘Dirty Harry’ film directed by Clint Eastwood, and also being the last of the six films Clint made with his reel & (then) real-life partner, Sandra Locke, “Sudden Impact” should have been something really special. But despite being the biggest box office success among all the ‘Dirty Harry’ films, this one is a pretty formulaic & mediocre picture. Like the first ‘Dirty Harry’ film, this one also has Clint chasing a serial killer; the film also has him going up against mobsters and young punks, whose behavior borders on the psychotic. Instead of a female partner (as in “The Enforcer”), this film has a female antagonist for Harry; and like “Magnum Force,” she’s an ultraviolent version of Harry himself. The film is also very lurid, sleazy and sometimes downright crude: Audrie Neenan plays Ray Perkins, the women who betrays Jennifer and her sister to the rapists; she’s one of the most despicable, ugliest, unlikable, profane, disgusting female characters I have ever seen in films; she’s such a grotesque character\caricature that it’s impossible to tolerate even a single scene in which here character is present. Additionally, there’s also an ugly farting, pissing dog – named ‘Meathead’ – to keep Clint company. The bad guys here are your standard screeching, cackling cartoonish villains, who presents no real threat to Clint. Suffice to the say that this is an unabashed & unapologetic commercial potboiler from Clint, who was desperate for a box office hit at the time; his last few films had done middling to disappointing box office and he needed a big hit to reassert his superstardom. He got the big blockbuster he was looking for, with Clint himself earning close to $30 million from this film. But it’s a pity that he needed to go so lowbrow for achieving that.

On the plus side, the central conflict in the film: a vigilante lawman tracking down a civilian female vigilante, who’s a rape-victim hell-bent on revenge, presents a novel spin on the basic theme of the ‘Dirty Harry’ films. These two characters are also a modern take on the classical cop\detective hero and femme fatale archetypes of Film Noir. This rich & interesting moral conflict is not exploited to the fullest, because the film constantly wavers between two extremes: standard masculine action flick and a feminist rape & revenge exploitation flick. But when the film manages to find a middle ground between the two,, it works really well as a sort of dark, hard-edged Neo-Noir thriller, with Bruce Surtees’ underlit, Noir-inspired cinematography providing an eerie, unsettling mood to the film. The film seems to have been an attempt by Clint to do to the ‘Dirty Harry’ film what he did to ‘Man with no Name’ films in “High Plains Drifter”; that’s to add Noir\horror\exploitation elements to one of his well established genre templates. The recurring flashback scenes of brutal violence, shot in a rough, gritty manner with handheld cameras and lurid lighting is a definite throwback to “High Plains Drifter.” So is the climactic gunfight which takes place in pitch darkness. Usually, the ‘Dirty Harry’ films opens and closes in bright sunlight, here it’s exactly the opposite. I guess the amplified sleaziness and crudeness of the film was also part of the same strategy. Clint really wanted to make this the dirtiest of all ‘Dirty Harry’ films; the previous two movies in the franchise were rather lighthearted and even Comic-Book-style affairs, this was an attempt to take it back to the gritty, neo-Noir roots of the Don Siegel original. Clint would have been fully successful in this if he was not burdened by the pressures of creating a sure shot box office hit. The action scenes in the film, though very entertaining, are rather cartoonish in nature, and goes against the tone of the more intimate, Noir-style movie evolving elsewhere.

It also doesn’t help that Sondra Locke is miscast as the cool avenging angel. The character deserved a more powerful actress, and perhaps someone with more star power who could match up to Clint’s superstar onscreen persona. . Also, though she and Clint were lovers for a long time, they hardly had much screen chemistry, except maybe in “The Gauntlet.” The rest of the cast features returning Clint-film regulars like Bradford Dillman, Albert Popwell and Pat Hingle. Dillman is , of course, playing Harry’s boss, who looks always close to bursting a few blood vessels while relentlessly giving him a tongue-lashing. It’s interesting his name is “Briggs” in the film, which was Hal Holbrook’s name in “Magnum Force.” Popwell, who was at the receiving end of Clint’s iconic “Do I feel Lucky” speech in “Dirty Harry” and has played bit parts in every ‘Dirty Hary’ film up to that time, plays Clint’s friend, Horace; the one who gifts him that ugly dog. Pat Hingle had co-starred with Clint in his first American Western feature, “Hang ‘Em High (1968),” and here he plays a role very similar to that film; though here he is a much more irritating character, who is fighting and taunting Harry at every turn; one has to wait till the appearance of his apoplectic son to make some sense of his behavior.

Then there’s Clint Eastwood himself, the star-Icon, the reason why this film even exists. Clint, by this time, had started to show age. He had lost a lot of hair, and a lot more lines had started forming on his face, though physically he was as fit as he ever was. He snarls a lot more in this film, but he still gets the mixture of seriousness and dry humor just right; with his line-readings still spot on. His steady walk, his steely gaze his lazy, detached attitude; it’s all there. He’s not doing anything new here, but that’s’ what we expect from him in these films. Clint had also directed Nine feature film by this time, and this was his tenth film as director. So the confidence generated from being in total control of his film is reflected in his performance; in the previous ‘Dirty Harry’ movies, he had some unpleasant conflicts with the respective directors, so that might have also driven him to direct this one. Ever since he turned director, Clint had been attempting to subtly send-up or critique his very popular violent, gun toting action hero persona; you can see this is very explicit in films like “High Plains Drifter” and “The Gauntlet.” with its mixture of brutal, exaggerated violence and detached, ironic humor. The same mixture can be seen in this film too, but it does not come off all that well because of the pressure to adhere to the genre\franchise template and deliver a more conventional, crowd-pleaser. Clint had originally intended Dirty Harry only to be a trilogy, but as I already said, he was not having a good time at the box office at the time; with ‘labors of love’ like “Bronco Billy” and “Honkytonk Man” turning out to be commercial disappointments. So, he succumbed to the pressure to make more films in the lucrative franchise. Also, the studio, Warner Bros, had conducted a survey among the audiences as to which iconic character they wanted to see brought back to screen, and Clint as Dirty Harry was the overwhelming public choice. This is reflected in the box office success of this film, which, despite being one of the weakest in the franchise, became the most successful of them all. The film is also became the most successful fourth chapter in any film franchise up to that time, topping even the James Bond film “Thunderball”- not adjusted to inflation.

One thought on “Sudden Impact: The only ‘Dirty Harry’ film directed by Clint Eastwood is a slick neo-Noir Actioner that borrows elements from the ‘Death Wish’ films

  1. Well said!
    Always felt the film had Clint coasting and pandering. Although, I enjoyed the staging of the final confrontation. Good and perceptive piece. Thanks again.

    Liked by 2 people

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