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Home » Culture and Criticism

Dirty Harry

Submitted by on December 13, 2007 – 12:25 PM12 Comments


Motivational Techniques In Holiday-Shopping Completion: A Seminar By H. Callahan

I wonder how many people actually sit down to watch Dirty Harry anymore — it seems like one of those movies people don’t bother seeing, because culturally, they already know what it is.They know the big line.(Although they misquote it, usually.He may have modified it in one of the seventillion sequels, but in the original, it’s not “Do you feel lucky, punk?”.)They know it’s the first of its kind, that it created an entire genus of renegade cops who bucked the system.

You’ve seen it a million times by now, of course — you’ve seen variations on it in just about every episode of Law & Order and CSI.The tension between justice and the law is addressed on a nightly basis in procedural television, and in hundreds of movies, and no doubt other movies and shows did it before Dirty Harry, but you can tell it’s sort of a new concept because of the draggy scene in the middle where the DA and the judge have to explain to Callahan at laborious length that the rules of evidence and the fact that he violated Scorpio’s Miranda rights mean the case is getting thrown out.Seriously, it goes on for ten minutes, and Clint Eastwood is doing his best with lines like, “Well then, the law is crazy!”, which you admire him for until you realize that, as of 1971, lines like that actually hadn’t been uttered a thousand times.The audience in 2007 knows that shit, just like we all know what a rib spreader is from medical dramas, but in ’71, the movie needed to walk viewers through it.


It’s a credit to the movie, then, that with the exception of a few scenes like the one I just mentioned, which boil down to an educational filmstrip on Miranda, it’s still quite good.It moves right along; except for the Suspects’ Rights 101 business, it doesn’t do too much work for you, and the darkness of the print and the wocka-wocka soundtrack give you a good sense of the place and time (as does the rendition of the Zodiac, still active at that time, as Scorpio).Eastwood is looking foxy with his poofy seventies-antihero hairdo, and the guy who plays Scorpio is so musical-theater over the top, it’s fun to watch, especially when he’s in the liquor store and on the bus with the kids.It’s no surprise to see on his IMDb entry that he played Liberace in a TV movie.Hee.


Overall, a solid rental for a slow weekend afternoon, and while it does have those slow bits (and some of the fakest fake blood I’ve seen — it’s this neon/candy red, which, after all the speechifying Callahan does about his .44 Magnum, isn’t the paintballishly unserious note they probably meant to strike), it’s definitely worth a look.And did you know that he’s called “Dirty Harry” because he gets sent out on all the dirty jobs, like talking jumpers down from ledges?I didn’t either.




  • Grace says:

    I think Dirty Harry is a great movie, and it’s unfortunate more people don’t really know what it’s about. The first time I saw the entire movie was when I watched it as part of a class on Film and the Law. That meant coming to the movie with a critical eye and having to dissect the issues in the movie, but it also made me watch a film that I had dismissed unseen.

    One of the best qualities of the movie is that except for the infamous “do you feel lucky” sequence, the entire film was shot on location in San Francisco and Marin. In most recent productions, “San Francisco” is often “San Vancouver” or “San Toronto”, with one token shot of the Golden Gate or a cable car. Watching Dirty Harry makes me wish more movies and television shows were made in San Franciso – it’s a beautiful city, and it really shines on film. Even when the film is dark.

    Thanks for reviewing this one!

  • Rebecca says:

    I caught a Clint Eastwood marathon back in college and got totally sucked into Dirty Harry. They are seriously interesting movies — I love the one where Tyne Daly plays his female partner. His movies of the ’70s are pretty fascinating. I’d recommend Play Misty for Me too, even if it is a little sexist.

  • RJ says:

    I didn’t get interested in Dirty Harry until some time this year, so while it’s dated, I still enjoy it. I guess it took me this long to appreciate Clint Eastwood in his earlier days!

  • rootlesscosmo says:

    I’d venture that in earlier film versions of the “law vs. justice” theme–I’m thinking particularly of Fritz Lang’s “The Big Heat” (1949)–the hero cop is bucking a corrupt legal system, not one that’s seen as over-scrupulous because it tries to follow Constitutional requirements. That was a big shift, and is I think why Pauline Kael–no knee-jerk Lefty–called “Dirty Harry” the first out-and-out Fascist Hollywood feature.

  • Hanov3r says:

    “the guy who plays Scorpio is so musical-theater over the top, it’s fun to watch”

    Hard to believe that’s Andrew Robinson, best known (to millions of Star Trek fans) as Garak, the Cardassian tailor/spy from Deep Space 9.

  • Lisa says:

    “it seems like one of those movies people don’t bother seeing, because culturally, they already know what it is. They know the big line.”

    Hah, that’s how I feel about Star Wars (which, no, I have never seen, despite being a 23 year old sci-fi nerd) but nobody accepts that argument- they all just want to know why my parents raised me to be such a weirdo.

  • Elizabeth says:

    What a lot of the people you’re talking about don’t realize is that it’s actually a pretty brutal, serious movie — this isn’t Die Hard we’re talking about here. There’s a levity to the Magnum speech the first time it appears, and in the way it’s usually delivered by people quoting it, that doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie. The outlook is bleak, the depiction of society is unflattering, and there’s a definite undercurrent of reactionary distrust of liberalism — “forget protecting people’s rights, let’s just have our cops shoot people they think are guilty.” I like the movie too, but it’s different than you might expect.

  • Helen says:

    The scorpio killer is GARAK?!!!?! You have blown my mind….

  • Sars says:

    @Elizabeth: “There’s a levity to the Magnum speech the first time it appears, and in the way it’s usually delivered by people quoting it, that doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie.” Agreed. There’s a difference tonally between ’70s cop flicks like Dirty Harry and Parallax View — which isn’t really a “cop” movie, but it shares that bleak outlook with DH — and the ones from the ’80s. It could be a sign-of-the-times thing; I’m not a historian of film, so I’m just talking here, but as much as I like Die Hard and its ilk when it’s done well, it’s like apples and oranges — “the good guys win and blow things up, like in cartoons”-ness of the ’80s, vs. the “if there *were* even any good guys, they don’t exactly ‘win'”-ness of the ’70s.

    Nixon-Watergate hangover vs. the Reagan era (if you’re old enough to remember Bernie Goetz, you remember how many comparisons were made to Callahan — many of them favorable).

    At least in the original, Callahan isn’t drawn as this Rambo-ian monolith of bad-ass. It’s greyer than that, which is part of what I liked about it.

  • Georgia says:

    Haven’t seen this one, but as Rebecca mentioned, Play Misty for Me is another good Eastwood ’70s film. (Much of it is also filmed in Marin, I believe, AND Eastwood’s crazy stalker is played by Jessica Walter, that is, Lucille Bluth!)

  • Diane says:

    @Hanov3r – thank you so much for mentioning Andrew Robinson and Star Trek! I think his having a role like Scorpio at a formative time in his career lent him a subliminal but absolute creepiness which stays with him in the most wonderful way. His features have an innocent appearance, but he’s just about the scariest guy on film – possibly because of exactly that. His eyes are just a millionth of an inch too wide; his smile just a shade too unctious …

    Confession: I remember watching the Liberace film in my dorm with my roomie. It was an EVENT, even though – believe it or not – there were actually two Libby biopics on TV in one week that year. (Robinson’s, of course, was by far the better one. And creepier!)

    (@Lisa, I’ll be 40 in less than two months, and movies I’ve never actually watched – though in some cases I’ve *seen* enough bits and pieces to have possibly viewed them entirely – include the Indiana Jones films and Citizen Kane. There aren’t any rules, really!)

  • Tom says:

    rootlesscosmo beat me to the quotational punch. :-)

    The moral and ethical questions the movie raises are interesting to some degree, but the stance the filmmakers implicitly take is way more reactionary than I’m comfortable with.

    Still, I watch it over and over, just because the action scenes are so much fun, and Eastwood has enough charisma to hold it together even if I don’t agree with the particular brand of social criticism on offer.

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