Over the course of 17 years and four sequels, the reputation of Harry Callahan, San Francisco’s toughest cop, has definitely been tarnished a little. So it’s almost a shock to return to Don Siegel’s seminal crime thriller and rediscover a character – and type of movie - very different from his final appearance, 1988’s laughable The Dead Pool. Like all films that set a template, it does feel like we’ve seen this sort of no-nonsense, ignore-the-rules cop a thousand times since, probably because we have, but Dirty Harry still packs a punch.
As the movie opens, a psychotic sniper calling himself Scorpio is terrorising the city, picking off innocent victims from rooftops, and demanding a huge ransom from the mayor and his cronies. Grizzled veteran Inspector Callahan (Clint Eastwood) is given the task of stopping him, but his somewhat unorthodox way of doing things quickly brings him into conflict with his superiors. You know the story.
Except, you don’t necessarily. Just as Eastwood’s previous collaborator – Sergio Leone – subverted the western with his own peculiar sensibilities, here Siegel consistently goes out of his way to mess with accepted cop thriller convention. The identity of the killer is revealed almost straight away – snivelling pervert Andrew Robinson – and even then, he is hardly the cunning criminal that most cops of Harry’s calibre have to face. Scorpio is a terrible serial killer; well, he’s pretty good at killing, but it’s only blind luck that stops him from getting caught by police no fewer than three times in the film’s first 30 minutes. Harry’s biggest adversary is actually the law itself, since Scorpio is captured at the film’s mid-point, but our hero’s disregard for due process and the killer’s ‘rights’ see him released back into society, the lawyers unable to find enough legally-gained evidence to detain him.
It is this aspect that gained Dirty Harry most of its notoriety when released in 1971; in particular, the sequence in which Harry tortures Scorpio to discover the location of a teenage girl he has kidnapped led to accusations of fascism. Again, time has blunted this angle somewhat – any movie cop worth his salt these days is a crusading bully with little interest in how well the criminals are treated – and to be fair, Siegel never truly condones Harry’s actions. The legal argument (represented by John Vernon’s do-gooder mayor) is well presented, and even though he ultimately gets his man, Harry’s catalogue of citizen-endangering stunts, in particular risking the lives of a busload of kidnapped schoolkids during the climax, remain questionable at best.
But away from all that, Dirty Harry remains a cracking police thriller, up there with The French Connection and Serpico as the decade’s best. Harry Julian Fink’s script crackles with wit, both the famous lines (“Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”) and the nicely drawn relationship between Callahan and his fresh-faced partner Gonzalez (Reni Santoni), while Robinson’s memorably despicable killer and the off-kilter funk of Lalo Schifrin’s score are further reasons why this film is so loved. And above it all tower Siegel’s direction and Eastwood’s performance. Siegel was a director seemingly happy in any genre, and here he injects a gritty urgency to the story, delivering dynamite action and suspense sequences, and reveling in a dark brutality unheard of in cop movies of the era. And while on one level Eastwood may have simply taken the Man With No Name out of the desert, called him Harry and dumped him in the city, there’s little denying the iconic power of this performance. We may not find out much about Harry – we know his wife recently died, but that’s really it – but the mix of conviction and disgust with which he goes about his job say more than any number of speeches about the rights and wrongs of modern police work ever could.