Film: Dirty Harry
Format: DVD from personal collection on itty bitty bedroom television.
It’s not too uncommon for an actor to be associated with one role or type of role for his or her entire life. Look at Fay Wray from yesterday’s movie. It happens to great actors, too—Errol Flynn will always be a swashbuckler regardless of his later career. Even Bogart had particular roles that seemed tailor made for him despite his versatility. Other times, actors are able to overcome that one great role and move on, becoming equally associated with other roles. Harrison Ford is a good example of this—he’s much more than Han Solo and/or Indiana Jones.
And then there’s Clint Eastwood, who seemed for years unable to shed the dual roles of the Man with No Name from many of his westerns and “Dirty” Harry Callahan from the series of movies started by the eponymous one from 1971. No matter what he did, the knock against him was that he didn’t have any range; he always played tough guys with a squint. Even now, you may well be nodding at this. Eastwood, the common wisdom goes, didn’t really find any range until much later in his career, and even then he didn’t find much.
I think that’s unfair. Eastwood is certainly remembered and loved for Dirty Harry, but the same year he made that film, he also directed and starred in Play Misty for Me, a seriously underrated film. As good as it is, though, it is overshadowed by the gritty cop with the .44 magnum.
It’s easy to see why, actually. Dirty Harry arrived at the perfect time—right in the middle of a whole bunch of classic “renegade cop on the loose” films starting with Bullitt and continuing on in the next year with The French Connection. Of all of these early “dirty” cop films, this one is the granddaddy, though, the one that people can quote and can remember specific scenes from. Much of the reason for that comes from Eastwood himself.
What’s easy to forget, though, is that Eastwood isn’t just a hardass in this film. That’s far truer of the later films in the series. In this one, he’s human, albeit a damnably tough human. This isn’t to say that this film features a softer Callahan than later ones, but it does feature one that is much more realistic. He’s not the perfect cop, and he doesn’t expect everyone around him to be the perfect cop, either. All he really wants is to do his job the best that he can.
In this case, the job involves a psychopathic serial killer who calls himself Scorpio (Andy Robinson). Scorpio starts out the movie with a sniper shot on a woman in a swimming pool, then goes on to kill others including a 10-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl. He shoots an officer or two, kicks the living crap out of Callahan, and hijacks a school bus full of children. This is not a nice man.
Much of the movie concerns Callahan’s dealings with Scorpio. He also has to deal with a partner named Chico Gonzalez (Reni Santoni). And this is where the Callahan you may remember is different from the Callahan of this film. He doesn’t particularly hate Gonzalez as much as he’d simply rather work alone because his partners tend to get shot. But, he’s stuck with Chico, and the two have to make the best of things.
There are a few other notables here, particularly John Vernon as the Mayor of San Francisco. John Vernon is a “that guy,” meaning he’s one of those guys that you instantly recognize (“Hey, it’s Dean Wormer from Animal House!) but can’t always name. It’s a good role for him here. He plays authority figures well, especially when they are clashing with the main character(s) of the film.
While Eastwood certainly lives and breathes this film while toting the big handgun, in many ways, this is Andy Robinson’s film. Scorpio is one of the great film psychos, a man who is completely evil and enjoys his evil. When he has the upper hand, he is sadistic, twisted, and brutal. When he doesn’t, he is a sniveling little worm who begs for mercy. In other words, he’s easy to hate, which is exactly what is called for here.
As his career has continued, Clint Eastwood has shown that while many people find him limited to a certain range as an actor, he is one of the very few people in the business who not only made a successful transition to the director’s chair, but also that the director’s chair is perfectly suited to him. He’s a hell of a director, and he’ll be remembered as such. However, he’ll also be forever immortalized on film as Harry Callahan, and that’s not such a bad thing.
Why to watch Dirty Harry: The greatest film in the “my way or else” breed of cop genre.
Why not to watch: Police brutality.