Classic Movie Review: Dirty Harry (1971)

Posted: November 19, 2016 in Action, Drama


San Francisco Detective Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) has always been asked to do the dirty jobs that other police officers don’t care to do.  Currently, he’s tracking a serial killer named Scorpio. (Andrew Robinson)  Harry also has a new partner named Chico Gonzalez (Reni Santoni) who Harry dismisses as too young and inexperienced to be a partner.  A helicopter team spots Scorpio, but loses him. Scorpio kills a little boy, and promises to kill a priest, so Harry and Chico stakeout a church.  They spot Scorpio, but they lose him during a shootout.  Scorpio sends another note announcing that he has kidnapped a 14 year old girl, unless The Mayor (John Vernon, pays him a ransom. Harry and Chico track Scorpio again, and Harry stabs him in the leg.  While Scorpio is in the hospital, Harry discovers Scorpio is a groundskeeper for a football team, and tracks him to an abandoned football field.  But the evidence Harry gets from Scorpio is inadmissible, because Harry doesn’t have a warrant, so Scorpio goes free.  What happens next?

Dirty Harry is the first and best of the vigilante movies in the 1970’s. A spate of vigilante movies followed, Death Wish with Charles Bronson, Walking Tall with Joe Don Baker, Billy Jack with Tom Laughlin.  The basic premise of all these movies is that progressive judicial  decisions like the Miranda decision, have left police hamstrung, and the only alternative is a good man with a gun, or a club, or a baseball bat acting to take extra-legal action. Harry Callahan is the personification of the “silent majority” and their backlash against the permissive nature of 1960’s society.  And last but certainly not least, Harry is a cop in San Francisco, the great bastion of liberalism. Dirty Harry is ruthlessly manipulative, the Scorpio Killer is a guy not even a mother would love.  He kills boys and girls of every race and ethnicity, and kidnaps helpless people, so the viewers can easily overlook the racism of Harry Callahan.   The movie is also deftly written so that images of a black bank robber are quickly followed by images of a black police doctor.  Chico Gonzalez as a partner to Harry is also meant to be a counterweight to Harry.  No matter manipulative the movie is, the ending is undeniably satisfying.

This is the seminal role of Clint Eastwood’s career, he had made a name for himself as a cowboy in movies and tv, but this was the movie that made him a star.  He plays Harry as a laconic, calculating cop, who doesn’t need a search warrant to decide a person’s guilt or innocence. There is one iconic line, about Harry forgetting how many bullets he used, which he punctuates with,” Do ya feel lucky, punk?” I’ve heard that Frank Sinatra was considered for Harry Callahan, but I can’t imagine him or anyone else delivering that line as well as Eastwood did.  The understated way he delivered his lines, made the character more likeable. Andrew Robinson is perfect as Scorpio, big locks of curly hair that hide crazy eyes.  Robinson plays a psychopath, and seems to revel in the role of being alternately killer and victim pleading for his life.  John Vernon is the Mayor, which is only funny if viewers also remember him as the  dean in Animal House.  I guess he looks like an authority figure.

The direction is good.  The pacing is fast, and there are all kinds of shots and angles. And of course there are the two iconic scenes, one on the football field, and the last scene. Don Siegel is not well known, but he did an excellent job with this movie.

Dirty Harry:  A harrying trip with a psychopath.



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