Mar 30, 2021
The Dirty Harry series: When police brutality was cool
Along with the Man With No Name, “Dirty Harry” Callahan is one of Clint Eastwood’s most famous roles. There have been numerous police inspectors on TV and the big screen both before and since 1971’s Dirty Harry, but what makes this character unique is that he managed to tap into the public’s thoughts when it came to violent crime. The 1970s began with violent crime on the rise, and with the Manson trial in the news, this series became cathartic, if you will, for viewers. As a result, the character generated controversy concerning just how far police could and should go when it came to exacting justice.
Here now is a look at all five movies in this series.
Released the same year as other crime/police classics as Shaft and The French Connection (which won that year’s Best Picture Oscar), Dirty Harry helped usher in the wave of police dramas that the decade would give us, including other gems such as Serpico and Death Wish. A sniper calling himself Scorpio (Andrew Robinson, long before he donned Cardassian makeup) is terrorizing Harry’s San Francisco haunts, which eventually leads the inspector to resort to methods that are unorthodox (to say the least) in order to stop him.
Perhaps no actor has more quotable movie lines to their name than Eastwood, and this series certainly added to that list. The most famous moment of the film is when Harry says, “Do you feel lucky? Well, do you punk?”, first to a bank robber, and then at the film’s climax to Scorpio (who somewhat resembles Manson, but was based on the Zodiac Killer, who terrorized northern California in the late ‘60s and was never caught).
Some critics, notably the late Pauline Kael, referred to the Callahan character as fascist. This is because of the methods he uses to take Scorpio down, including at one point torturing him to get him to reveal where he’s hidden a girl he kidnapped. Not surprisingly, such moments inspired debate about the rights criminals or suspected criminals may have once they’re in police custody.
But this film basically states that said rights can be (and often are) at the expense of the rights of those who have been victimized. This allows viewers such as yours truly to look at Dirty Harry as something of a modern-day Man With No Name.
Although it would be two more decades before Clint would get Oscars to his name, 1971 is probably his best year, because along with this film, he acted in the ahead-of-its-time drama The Beguiled (directed by Dirty Harry director Don Siegel) and made his directorial debut with the ahead-of-its-time thriller Play Misty for Me. Capping the year off with this movie showed that Clint wasn’t just a standard action hero.
Like all sequels, Magnum Force got the green light because of the financial success of its predecessor. But this sequel is actually more thoughtful than most, because it addresses what some thought of its predecessor and makes a story out of it.
This movie turns the argument that Harry is fascist on its ear by having Harry face off against patrolmen led by his superior Lt. Briggs (Hal Holbrook). These policemen (played by then-unknowns Robert Urich, Tim Matheson, David Soul, and Kip Niven) prove that they’re fascist by systematically killing off criminals, or anyone they consider to be a threat, without provocation. Harry’s refusal to join them leads to him becoming a target.
Harry’s confrontation with Briggs, in which Harry explains that Briggs’ murdering people makes him just as bad as those he’s murdering, is a perfect reason why we should root for Harry and why any arguments that he’s fascist are just bullshit (Harry gives everyone he’s dispatched a chance to surrender before using his .44 Magnum, anyway).
I also like the Lalo Schifrin score, which is quite moody, even more so than his score for the previous film. Schifrin composed the music for all the Harry films except the third (which was composed by Jerry Fielding), and speaking of which…
In this entry, Harry goes up against a group calling themselves the People’s Revolutionary Strike Force, which has kidnapped San Francisco’s mayor. This time, however, Harry is partnered with spunky but inexperienced Kate Moore (Tyne Daly, in her pre-Cagney & Lacey days).
This film is basically nothing new compared to its two predecessors, but it’s still entertaining, with Daly proving a nice match for Eastwood. The scene where the two officially gain respect for each other, after Harry declines to appear at a televised press conference and tells his superior to piss off, stands out and gives this relationship more substance than most films of its kind.
The fourth entry in the series is the only one directed by Eastwood himself, and incidentally, has what is arguably Clint’s most famous line: “Go ahead, make my day,” which he states to a robber at the beginning of the film and, again, to the villains in the climax.
Once again, Harry is investigating deaths of criminals, while becoming involved with artist Jennifer Spencer (Eastwood’s former flame Sandra Locke). The twist this time is that the perpetrator turns out to be Jennifer, whose victims raped both her and her sister years earlier, leaving her sister catatonic.
Every film series has clichés, and this series basically had its clichés set by this point, especially Harry being assigned a partner who gets killed.
Interestingly, while Jennifer is not the first lady Harry has bedded in the series, his love life is somewhat, shall we say, low-key compared to the likes of other action heroes of the time. But the Harry/Jennifer dynamic helps make this one stand out, while the villains (Paul Drake and Audrie J. Neenan) actually give ham acting a good name (I crack up at a lot of their lines). The ending, in which Harry makes his decision regarding Jennifer’s fate, is also memorable.
My dad and I are probably the only ones who think of this movie and not the Marvel comics character when we hear the phrase ‘dead pool’.
Many view this film as the weakest entry in the series, and in some ways, that’s understandable. Supposedly, Clint agreed to play Harry for a fifth time so Warner Brothers would finance his film Bird. There’s also the fact that smaller studios such as Cannon were already inundating audiences with low-budget cop flick schlock throughout the ‘80s (including the Death Wish sequels), which I’m sure didn’t help this movie stand out.
Fans, however, will note one interesting difference this film has from its predecessors. In the previous entries, Harry has been taken to task in one way or another after taking out bad guys in his unique way. Indeed, Dirty Harry itself ends with a disgusted Harry tossing away his police badge (I guess he went to the trouble of fishing it out of the bay for the sequels). In this film, however, Harry has actually become famous, which fits into this movie’s theme of the dangers of being a celebrity.
This movie also had three actors who would go on to greater fame: Jim Carrey, Liam Neeson, and Patricia Clarkson.
Harry is investigating the death of a rock star (Carrey) who was working on a music video. The victim appears to have OD’ed, but Harry’s suspicions are aroused when he learns that the video’s egotistical director (Neeson) keeps a list he calls the Dead Pool, which lists celebrities he expects to die within a year because of their professions, or in the case of the rock star, their drug use. Harry soon realizes that his own name is on that list, and with his partner, martial artist Al Quan (Evan Kim), soon finds other listed celebrities getting killed. Interestingly, one of these celebrities is a film critic played by an actress who somewhat resembles Kael.
Harry’s love/hate relationship with reporter Samantha Walker (Clarkson), who wants to do a story on Harry’s career and (of course) gets her name on the Dead Pool list, is ho-hum and the scene where he and Al have to outrace a toy car is nothing short of silly. Still, as with the four previous entries, it’s an entertaining way to pass the time. Although not exactly a rousing finish, The Dead Pool was an adequate way to end the series before it got really stale (à la the zombie pics of George Romero after Day of the Dead). Leonard Maltin said it best in his review when he wrote, “Eastwood’s charisma makes all the difference.”
Since The Dead Pool, Eastwood has kept going strong, including winning Oscars for directing the western Unforgiven (which was dedicated to both Siegel and Man with No Name director Sergio Leone) and the drama Million Dollar Baby. Dirty Harry itself would be later included in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2012 for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”
One could certainly argue that the dynamics of this series are the reasons we now have other film series such as Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, both of which have protagonists always getting in hot water with their bosses for not doing their jobs by destroying public property. The unorthodox methods the series’ title character utilizes, which were so controversial initially, have now become pretty much mandatory for all movie police detectives. Perhaps this lack of controversy explains why so many of those Harry imitators haven’t made the same impression.