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Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Complete Dirty Harry

From 1971 to 1988, Clint Eastwood portrayed Dirty Harry, San Francisco's toughest cop. In doing so, Eastwood established a character so iconic that it rivals his famous "Man With No Name".

This post covers all five movies in the "Dirty Harry" series.

Dirty Harry (1971)
Starring: Clint Eastwood and Andy Robinson
Director: Don Seigel
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

When a madman who calls himself Scorpio (Robinson) sets about to terrorize and extort the city of San Francisco with sniper attacks and kidnappings, only the unorthodox methods of homicide inspector Harry Callahan (Eastwood) can stop him.

"Dirty Harry" stands as one of the greatest police dramas ever made, and the bad guy--the monstrous, utterly insane Scorpio--is so extreme that it even has elements that appeal to lovers of horror films. From the opening shots, the tension in the film keeps building and it doesn't let up until Harry and Scorpio have their final confrontation. Everything in this movie works perfectly, from the casting, to the camera and Foley work, to the great score by Lalo Shafrin (with the eerie "Scorpio Theme" adding a lot to the film).

Eastwood is also great as Harry, a cop who dislikes bureaucracy and who always puts the well-being and rights of crime victims ahead of the criminals that prey on them. And he does it within the boundaries of the law, with no consideration for politics. He's the sort of cop who can only get away with what he does in the fantasy land of movies.

Robinson also makes a fantastic bad guy. Between the actions of the character and the way the actor plays him, even the most hardcore member of the "violence in movies is bad" and "every criminal has rights" has got to be cheering for Harry to give the justice he has earned.

This film lays the foundation for the Dirty Harry sequels that followed, and I think it was just as much the fantasy of a cop who can buck the system and bag in a bad guy who knows how to play it, as it was Eastwood's portrayal of Harry that made the character so popular. (If you watch the movie carefully, you can see the depth that Eastwood brings to Harry's character.)

"Dirty Harry" is well-deserving of its reputation of being a classic. It is a great movie, and while it has been imitated over and over, it's never been matched... even by its own sequels.

Magnum Force (1974)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Hal Holbrook, and David Soul
Director: Ted Post
Rating: Six of Ten

When San Francisco's biggest crime figures fall victim to a series of execution-style hits, homicide detective Harry Callahan (Eastwood) first believes that someone must be impersonating police officers to get as close to the victims as they are, but his boss, Lt. Briggs (Holbrook) is convinced that the murders the result of a typical gangster power-struggle. As Callahan investigates, he uncovers a frightening possiblity--that maybe the "fake cop" is a real cop, and that a secret death squad exists within the SFPD.

"Magnum Force" is a somewhat dissapointing follow-up to "Dirty Harry", and it's one of the weaker entries in the series. The movie seems to drag on and on, in part due to some exceptionally dull cinematagraphy, a lack of story focus until the third act, and a near-total lack of humor throughout. (The exception being an encounter totally unrelated to the rest of the movie, except to establish Harry's renegade ways, when Harry prevents a plane from being hijacked,)

The film is still superior to most cop dramas out there--mostly thanks to its great cast--but it's a weak link in the "Dirty Harry" cycle.

The Enforcer (1976)
Starring: Clint Eastwood and Tyne Daly
Director: James Fargo
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When a terrorist group attempts to blackmail San Francisco with bombings, murders, and ultimately by kidnapping the mayor, even the unorthodox methods of Police Inspector Harry Callahan (Eastwood) might not be enough to overcome both the bad guys and the touchy-feely approach of the "new" San-Fran city government.

In "The Enforcer", the real-world San Francisco finally seems to catch up with Dirty Harry, as he spends as much time fighting against style-over-substance politics as he does tracking down the villains. Although the bad guys here are not up to the standards set by the first two movies--they may be more violent, but they're no where near as sinister--this movie is a vast improvement over "Magnum Force", not only because it actually has a well-focused storyline, but also because the character of Harry comes off as multi-faceted... and, for that matter, a true believer in justice and equality. From his interactions with black militants to his approach to his new female partner (Daly) who has been foisted on him in the name of women's-lib, Harry shows a constant willingness to accept anyone who proves themselves worthy of his trust and respect.

Like previous "Dirty Harry" movies, this film is blessed with excellent camera work and a great cast. In addition, the script is excellent, with the rookie homicide detective who gets promoted just because she's a woman, but who shows she definitely has the chops, being a great character (as well as a source of some of the film's more humorous moments.) What's more, out of all the films in the series, this is the one where Harry Callahan comes across the strongest and most likable. This is why the film has one of the saddest endings I think I've ever seen to a cop drama.

So, despite somewhat weakly realized foes for our gun-toting, morally unbendable homicide detective, "The Enforcer" stands as the second-best film in the "Dirty Harry" series.

Sudden Impact (1983)
Starring: Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke
Director: Clint Eastwood
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A rape victim (Locke) is taking brutal revenge on her attackers, and SFPD's most rebellious police inspector, Harry Callahan (Eastwood) is trying to catch her.

the low point for Dirty Harry is "Sudden Impact", a film without any likable characters (with the possible exception of Meathead the Dog); flat performances from most of the actors (even Eastwood); a story that relies waaay too much on coincidence to keep moving (yes, there always needs to be some sort of coincidental convergence of events and characters, but "Sudden Impact" features so many that it's just plain bad writing); and the end is out of step with the way Callahan has been portrayed in previous films, how he is portrayed in the final film in the series... and it's just a bad ending all-around. (Without providing too many spoilers, Harry pretty much abandons any moral high-ground he once may have been able to claim, because as the end credits roll in "Sudden Impact", he's no longer a good cop by any stretch of the imagination.)

To make the experience even worse, Sandra Locke appears to have received a talent-ectomy before filming on "Sudden Impact" began.

I remember liking this movie alot when I saw it as a kid some two decades ago, but revisiting it was a great dissapointment. It's interesting how tastes change as we grow older.

The Dead Pool (1988)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Patricia Clarkson, and Liam Neeson
Director: Buddy Van Long
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When "Dirty" Harry Callahan (Eastwood)--San Francisco's most rebellious and anti-social homicide detective--is pointman in sending a major crime boss to prison, he finds himself receiving favorable media attention for once... and he hates every minute of it. He hates even more that the police commissioner wants him to spend time doing "press availabilities"... but when he is targeted first by vengeful mobsters and then by a maniac bent on claiming victory in a sick betting game called "The Dead Pool", Harry and his famous Magnum revolver are back in familiar territory, even defending a lady reporter (Clarkson) from harm.

"The Dead Pool" has all the elements that has made the Dirty Harry character so popular, particularly the way he is a conduit for the viewers disgust with police departments that are more concerned with PR than stopping crime, out-of-control and irresponsible journalists; and the way he is the sort of cop that really can only exist in urban fairy tales like the Dirty Harry movies. (Dirty Harry NEVER harms an innocent--in fact, he goes far and above the call of duty in their defense--but if anyone who even was close to the sort of nature that Harry has would have been tossed off the force long ago.)

Although "The Dead Pool" has all the great elements of a Dirty Harry story, it is weakened by several over-the-top assassination attempts on Harry by the gangsters and a main villain that's as crazy as the Scorpio Killer but whose final encounter with Harry sort of peeters out and is weakened by a gesture that is even extreme even for Harry (and a bit out of character, it seems to me the filmmakers were interested more in a final pun than a good ending to the film).

Those bad parts, however, give rise to some of the films better moments, so they can be excused. First, the way Harry gets the mob hit men off his back is the sort of approach that is at the heart of why the character was so popular. Second, a crazy assassination scheme of the film's main bad guy gives rise to one of the funkiest car chases ever put on film.

"The Dead Pool" features a great performance by Clint Eastwood as one of his signature characters. While it's not the best of the Dirty Harry films, it's still very worthwhile viewing. (One sad little part of the movie is the commentary on the out-of-control celebrity-worshipping media culture of the U.S... it's sad over 20 years later that media culture is more out of control than ever.


  1. Dead Pool is my favourite of the 4 outside of the original. I think what makes it so special is it's sense of humour and when that toy car recreates the chase from Bullitt I always laugh and laugh and laugh.

  2. The original is the only Dirty Harry movie I can watch all the way through again and again. I catch the others from time to time on television and I'll watch a few minutes or try to catch some favorite scenes, but as you say they are uneven efforts at best.

    What you say about Sudden Impact is so very true. Sandra Locke is lifeless in this clunker. The fresh-faced cops in Magnum Force are interesting, but little is done with them to distinguish them as individuals, and maybe that was the point.

    The first Dirty Harry though is a masterpiece, a elegantly made first-rate movie that I can watch over and over. It's so very good it rise above genre to become one of the great films of all time.

    Rip Off

  3. Mike: When I saw "The Dead Pool" for the first time, i hadn't yet seen "Bullitt", so I got a whole new view on the chase scene the next time I did. It's a great bit of filmmaking for many reasons.

    Rip: I think you're right that the cops in "Magnum Force" were intentionally made indistinguishable from one another. And "Sudden Impact" is not only the series' lowpoint, but it's also a bit of mystery. How could it be that Eastwood directed it? One would think he'd have a better handle on the series than that.