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And It Was the Dirtiest Harry We Have Seen in a Very Long Time: The Dirty Harry Series
   
 

And It Was the Dirtiest Harry We Have Seen in a Very Long Time: The Dirty Harry Series

  When Dirty Harry was released on Christmas Day in 1971, it was a phenomenon. Finally here was a movie that encapsulated the rage many Americans were feeling about the crime rates and both their and the police's uselessness in the face of them, practically allowing the criminals to roam the streets unchecked, be that because of their sheer numbers or because the law was on their side, legal loopholes letting them off or giving them lenient sentences. Goddammit, why couldn't the cops simply shoot the criminals on the spot? This reactionary point of view came to define the cop thrillers of the world for decades after, as every maverick lawman with a gun was largely Harry Callahan in a different guise, but it also came to inform politics where might was right and Wild West justice was the only justice that mattered.

Clint Eastwood had, of course, been a star of Westerns both on television and the big screen in the nineteen-sixties, it was where he had made a name for himself, especially in the Man with No Name trilogy from Italian director Sergio Leone, but the seventies were moving towards action thrillers to replace the genre as the most popular, and Dirty Harry was hugely influential. Yes, The United States was still reeling from the Civil Rights battles of the previous decade, and the Manson Family had tainted a generation of supposed peace-loving hippies, exposing them in the minds of the less liberal citizens as an active danger, and murderous to boot, so the younger, less compliant strata should be sent to Vietnam to apply that killing streak to combating Communism. But San Francisco had its own problem, a serial killer who taunted the police named Zodiac.

There seemed to be nothing the cops could do to stop him as he sent goading notes to the press and murdered San Franciscans with apparent impunity since there was no way of tracking him down - and indeed he never was stopped, remaining at large to this day, assuming he is still alive. This offered Dirty Harry the chance to right that wrong, and Eastwood was the embodiment of this drive for justice at all costs, a character who could finally dole out the punishment that millions were wanting to see exercised. In a parallel universe, it was Frank Sinatra who took the role, but you cannot imagine him being half as effective as Eastwood who prowls through the film variously cynical and amused at a world going to Hell, or actively furious that things have got this bad. The star was a famous conservative and to his fans this seemed to be perfect for him.

Yet the director, Don Siegel, had a more liberal outlook, leading some to wonder if there was not a more subtle, nuanced, even satirical aspect to Dirty Harry that its cheerleaders were missing. The never-named villain, nicknamed Scorpio, was essayed by stage actor Andy Robinson in such weaselly, repulsive terms, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, that he had to be a joke, right? Plenty of audiences could believe there were perverted murderers in America just like him, many more, but was the joke on them? The States, indeed the world, certainly saw an increase in serial and mass killings in the seventies, but these were the exceptions, not the norm. By feeding the hoi polloi their nightmares, Siegel was having his cake and eating it, delivering a taut thriller with a terrific sense of place that authenticated its modern nightmare.

You may not like the effect Callahan had on society's opinions on crime, but he became a lightning rod for its commentary, so in spite of what happened at the end, where he throws away his badge in either disgust or defeat, the movie was a blockbuster hit and a sequel was inevitable. Magnum Force, two years later, saw Harry back with the department as if he had made up his differences with them that caused him to discard his badge, High Noon style, at the end of the previous instalment. Much of this apparent change of heart was prompted by Eastwood, who was dismayed at some observers' reactions to Dirty Harry in that they thought it promoted the titular cop as a vigilante who was obsessed with working outside the law instead of within it, something the star objected to as that was not the way he saw it.

With Magnum Force, Callahan's hardline approach to the law was contrasted with the villains, who were not the usual punks and gangsters you would find in the decade's cop thrillers, but actual cops themselves. These are the vigilantes who have decided the rule of the land should come under the jurisdiction of the officers who are willing not only to shoot any miscreants dead in the line of duty, but also to go out of their way to hunt down anyone who has seriously broken the law and murder them, gaining what they regard as justice with this method. Eastwood was keen to make the difference clear, and with John Milius among the writers, inspired by the news stories of Brazilian death squads of the time (and mentioned in the dialogue), we were left in no doubt Callahan is a moral man who would never resort to breaking the law to make the law.

This was the longest of the Dirty Harry movies at over two hours, and there was a sense it was overindulging itself somewhat with such additions as an early scene where our hero disables those villains du jour, the terrorist aeroplane hijackers, with an admittedly very funny quip followed by well-aimed bullets. If Magnum Force sprawled, then the following entries learned their lesson from it, and despite stories of backstage turmoil as supposed director Ted Post found himself overruled by the star at almost every turn, it held together as one of the better sequels from this decade. It was very well cast, with Hal Holbrook the chief at loggerheads with Harry, David Soul in the role that made him the co-lead in TV's Starsky and Hutch, and Albert Popwell now a series fixture as a pimp. Lapses into bad taste (e.g. prostitute poisoned with drain cleaner) gave an edge.

Now the seventies were in full flow, it was clear Eastwood was one of the world's biggest stars, and much of that status rested on the Dirty Harry series, so it was obvious a third instalment was needed, and as expected, in 1976 The Enforcer arrived, lifting its title from a vehicle for a Hollywood tough guy of an earlier vintage, Humphrey Bogart. This time the bad guys were a cult of terrorists patterned after the Weathermen, real life insurgents who carried out acts of political violence during this decade in the United States and were headline-grabbers in their day. You can imagine many of those watching in that post-Manson Family era still held a grudge against the more bloodthirsty end of the hippy movement, which had either become blanded out by pop culture send-ups or had their social conscience raised by the spirit of the decade they lived in.

That latter element, let's face it the more rabidly left-wing members of the community, were often the bad guys in Italian knock-offs of Eastwood's Dirty Harry entries, therefore Middle America was not immune to the pleasures of watching the supposedly crusading but actually criminal folks get their comeuppance, and if that meant watching Callahan blow them away with his Magnum, so much the better. We began The Enforcer with a typical to this franchise "day in the life" sequence to delineate the sort of hassles our hero had to deal with every time he put on his badge and strapped on his holster, in this instance running over some lowlife, hostage-taking robbers in his car - while they were in the store they were robbing. This doesn't faze him too much, but it gets him a warning and a demotion to a desk job, where he confronts something that genuinely disturbs him.

That's right, a woman police inspector, played by Tyne Daly a few years before she gained small screen fame as part of Cagney and Lacey, the hit cop show of the eighties that made a virtue of what was so appalling Callahan here. Daly spent most of her scenes running after Eastwood as he strode away from her, but she was an amusing foil though her ultimate fate was no surprise to anyone who had been following this series. James Fargo was the director, promoted by the star to take the helm as everyone assumed he would do whatever Eastwood asked with no squabbles or quibbles, and the results once again rang the tills at the box office, at home and internationally: audiences loved to see Eastwood display a mixture of tough guy action and demeanour mixed with a sense of humour that undercut his more hardline behaviour, even if he did seethe his lines when riled.

Callahan seemed to he relegated to the seventies with that entry, until Warner Bros discovered audiences were hankering after a new Dirty Harry movie in 1983, and Sudden Impact was released. It garnered some terrible reviews, but the public lapped it up, becoming the most successful item in the franchise, thanks to pop culture catching up with the character's maverick point of view. Of course, now that those in charge in The White House under Ronald Reagan were adopting the same reactionary approach to politics and society, you may be wondering how Harry could still be seen as the rebel when the lily-livered, bleeding heart liberals had been well and truly put in their place. The answer to that was American action flicks continued as if none of that were true, and despite one of the strictest legal establishments in the Free World, that myth was a potent one.

Eastwood directed this time, the only Dirty Harry effort he was at the helm of (though arguably he had been a guiding hand since the second instalment), and as with many of his movies from the late seventies to the early eighties, he cast his girlfriend at the time Sondra Locke as his leading lady in what would be their last outing together before their split. Locke played a rape victim who has seen her sister, also assaulted by a gang of scum, left in a coma by the ordeal; she had been away, but now, as an artist with a show on in a local gallery, she's back and shooting her attackers in the balls - the cops, naturally, are baffled until Callahan appears (the first victim was inside his San Francisco jurisdiction). This was one of a number of Eastwood films to feature rape, an unlovely trait he moved on from, but we are supposed to believe the crime justifies the vigilante.

Naturally, a romance develops between our hero and this embittered woman, though in truth Locke was so creepy in the role that you would be hard pressed to see what Harry was attracted to, other than her belief the courts were letting off heinous criminals scot free. This was a somewhat disjointed production; many of the series parts come across as being made up of themed sketches, some funny, some serious, but it was especially noticeable here, with many observers noting the presence of a farting dog pet for Harry as proof Eastwood was finding these endeavours insulting to star in and be acclaimed for popularly (though the pooch would not be out of place in his then-recent orang-utan comedies). The line "Go ahead, make my day", quoted by Reagan in a speech (!) was probably its legacy, effective in parts, but a curate's egg of a dramatic action thriller.

Sad to say, the fifth and final Dirty Harry effort was the least, and as the least successful at the box office, it's little surprise Eastwood never made any more, joking that the character was probably past it by now. Although every so often there were rumblings that a movie like The Rookie or Gran Torino were going to be, or had been conceived as, conclusions to the franchise, the star knew to leave well enough alone and that one classic and four not bad follow-ups was a pretty good run for such an iconic hero. Well, three not bad follow-ups and 1988's The Dead Pool, which posited Callahan as a sort of violent Mary Whitehouse figure, going up against a serial killer nowhere near as memorable as Robinson's Scorpio, with the idea that our Inspector was stamping out bad behaviour bred by a diet of too many gory horror flicks.

Understandably, being lectured on movie violence by Dirty Harry came across as somewhat hypocritical, nobody watched these for their sequences of embroidery after all, and distancing action pictures of the eighties from the excesses of the splattery, effects-filled shockers that had garnered such a poor reputation as the bad boys of the entertainment industry jarred. It was as if this was telling us, oh, we're not the bad violence in movies, we're the good violence in movies which is doled out by and for macho, manly men, not the bunch of nerds who attend A Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. The fact that The Dead Pool featured a scene where Eastwood exacted his revenge on his harshest critic Pauline Kael, who hated every one of his works, by staging a murder of a Kael-alike by the villain contained an irony that passed the filmmakers by.

The plot had it so Callahan was investigating the apparent overdose of a rock star on a film set, only to discover the titular pool where participants bet on which celebrity will die next has given rise to someone who will do their own killing - and Harry's on the list as a newly-appointed media star, much to his chagrin. That the rock star was played by Jim Carrey, who mimes to Guns 'n' Roses, and directed by Liam Neeson doing a whiny London accent were three reasons why The Dead Pool didn't gel, and the big setpiece car chase having the hero and his kung-fu kicking partner Evan C. Kim ("Bruce Lee" from The Kentucky Fried Movie) pursued by a remote-controlled toy car with a bomb in it was another. There was always humour in these, but that was simply silly. Also, that Callahan's final act in the entire series was one of murder and not self-defence, a throwaway joke, it went against the whole ethos of the character: he's sick of the bureaucracy, his stupid bosses, the entire media circus, but upholds the law nevertheless. For all that, he was a great incarnation of a certain type of movie hero of the seventies and eighties, and the role one of Hollywood's greatest stars would forever be identified with.
Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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