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DIRTY HARRY (director: Don Siegel; screenwriters: Harry Julian Fink/RM Fink/Dean Riesner; cinematographer: Bruce Surtees; editor: Carl Pingitore; music: Lalo Schifrin; cast: Clint Eastwood (Harry Callahan), Harry Guardino (Lt. Bressler), Reni Santoni (Chico Sanchez), John Vernon (Mayor), Andy Robinson (Scorpio), John Larch (Chief), John Mitchum (DeGeorgio); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Don Siegel; Warner Brothers; 1971)
“Clint Eastwood got the role of his life.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Frank Sinatra had other commitments, so Clint Eastwood got the role of his life as San Francisco Inspector Harry Callahan, which became his signature role and elevated him to superstar status. The hard-nosed loner policeman is known as Dirty Harry either because he always gets assigned the dirty jobs no one else wants or because of his rough no-nonsense approach to criminals, or because he hates every ethnic group with an equal passion. Don Siegal (“The Lineup”/”Invasion of the Body Snatchers”) directs this ambiguous reactionary fantasy crime thriller–that can be viewed in many different ways and not necessarily as a tribute to the fascist police methods attributed to the hero cop. It offers a chance for social commentary as it focuses on the rise in the crime rate and how the urban centers are caught in the dilemma of how to catch the criminals without violating the criminal’s guaranteed civil rights according to the Miranda Law (1966). Harry has been effective in getting criminals off the street, but his unethical methods have come under attack because of his disregard for the law and abuse of police power. To Harry one criminal is like another, and they all deserve his unorthodox roughhouse treatment.

The politically loaded screenplay from husband-and-wife team Harry Julian Fink & R.M. Fink and Dean Riesner (based on the Finks’ story) was also penned in part by an uncredited John Milius. It brought up issues about police bigotry, the liberal judicial court decisions that let criminals off the hook on the basis of loopholes in the law and it questions just how much power do we want our pressured police forces to have. It successfully points out the public’s fears and then refuses to accept easy answers, as it instead challenges the public to come up with reasonable and viable answers to the crime problem.

Warning: spoilers to follow in the next two paragraphs.

San Francisco is faced with a pathological sniper serial-killer known as the Scorpio (modeled after the real case of the Zodiak serial-killer). Scorpio (Andy Robinson, a pacifist who had never used a firearm before this pic) sends the police a ransom note that he wants $100,000 or he’ll kill a person every day until he gets the money, starting first with a priest and then a Negro. Inspector Callahan, not satisfied with the way his department arms him, carries his own personal weapon–the .44 Magnum. Harry is in charge of the case and is forced by his beleaguered boss Lt. Bressler (Harry Guardino) to take a new partner, a Mexican-American college grad, Chico Sanchez (Reni Santoni).

Harry is called into the mayor’s office and has the mayor who is caught in a dilemma of how to protect the public, tell Harry in no uncertain terms “We do not pay criminals not to commit crimes.” But the public fears have put political pressure on him to get results and when a 14-year-old girl is kidnapped and buried underground and threatened with suffocation, the mayor orders the ransom paid. Harry is assigned as the bagman and though instructed to go through with the deal without using force, he instead fights with Scorpio and wounds him in the leg with the illegal switchblade knife he carries. But the psycho escapes. When the psycho reports to a hospital to treat his wounds, the doctors tip Harry off that he’s a derelict living around Kezar Stadium. Harry easily locates his residence and does an illegal search of the psycho’s shack without a warrant, and then tracks him down to the empty football stadium where he repeatedly kicks the quivering psycho in the leg that now has also been shot and does so until he finds out where the girl was buried. The girl is brought to safety, but Harry instead of applauded as a hero is castigated for his unprofessional methods which allow the criminal responsible for at least four murders to go free on the technicality that his rights were violated because of the illegal search.

Harry disobeys the authorities orders to forget about it, and instead smokes the freed Scorpio out by harassing him to the point the psycho hires thugs to work him over and then charges Harry with assault. Neither that nor a restraining order against Harry having further contact with the psycho matters to the obsessed cop. It leads to the psycho commandeering a schoolbus full of children, with Harry in pursuit. Harry will catch up with the psycho, and ridicule and then kill him. Harry then tosses his badge in the swamp as his possible swan song from the force.

The film’s central scene is at the beginning of the pic when Harry is at a diner chomping down on a hot dog and notices that across the street there’s a bank robbery in progress, and after having the cook call the police Harry foils the crime while still eating his hot dog. Several robbers are killed and one wounded criminal is cornered and is taunted by a gun-toting Harry with the following: “I know what you’re thinking, punk. You’re thinking, Did he fire six shots or only five? Now to tell you the truth I’ve forgotten myself in all this excitement. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and will blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself a question, Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?” Though Harry caught all the suspects the carnage is heavy and his methods of taking such forceful action on a crowded street is questionable. In the process a number of citizens are cowering in the street from all the gunfire, a vendor’s business was destroyed, a car overturned, and a fire hydrant exploded causing a spewing out of water over this messy scene. The filmmaker is questioning not answering all the issues he raised about fighting crime. The exciting film hit an accord with a large audience and has registered as an all-time fave cult film by a public that rejoiced in the gratification they got from the criminals getting such instant justice. “Dirty Harry” has established itself as part of the American pop-culture scene, and after thirty years still holds up as a popular mythological film that is asking probing questions about a touchy subject. The film becomes bigger than its superficial story, as it zeroes in on the emotional climate of a country faced with a continual problem of violence, crime and societal upheavals and movements.

Dirty Harry generated four sequels, all of lesser quality: Magnum Force (1973), The Enforcer (1976), Sudden Impact (1983), and The Dead Pool (1988).


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”