Dirty Harry (1971) – A second look

harry5This is a redo of my early Dirty Harry (1971) review, which I think merits a second look because it deserves more than a simple reiteration of its most superficial themes. And it certainly has a lot of themes. It was criticized by the New York Times and Roger Ebert as right-wing propaganda, as the victims, murderers and everyone else in the film are trampled over by police. The main character’s nickname proclaims this theme. He is dirty. He is going to do what it takes to keep a balance in a broken world, no matter what the cost, no matter what the politics, left-wing or right-wing.

I don’t think this is an action movie, despite having Clint Eastwood portray his classic quiet man gunslinger in a modern-day setting. It has all kinds of themes about race, the police, politics, and crime. It seems to paint Dirty Harry as a rogue cop, who guns down the criminals very cold-heartedly. He is cold, aggressive and could be the first hugely popular anti-hero I ever saw on film.

Dirty Harry – The Moral Right, a short documentary by Gary Leva, cites many of the points I have already said. But I would take it a step further and say that this film is a criticism of law in general, a criticism of any law that contradicts our common sense. People generally know right from wrong. The killer in Dirty Harry was a bad guy and didn’t deserve to get off on a technicality. He deserved to be punished for his crimes, but the cops couldn’t do it.  Dirty Harry should live in the old west, because he can’t seem to cope with changes to society, such as Miranda Rights, search warrants, and long drawn out trials. It complicates his job for the worse, according to this movie.

harry4That’s what Harry actually says in the movie. He calls the rules crazy, if they allow the killer to walk free, even after they’ve caught him. For one, I’d rather picture this movie as a cowboy anti-hero cop drama than a fascist statement on politics, but that’s just me. The themes make it better though.  They make it interesting.  The controversy and the themes have made this film persevere and live on, kicking dirt on other cop films that are much more superficial.  Does Lethal Weapon (1987), Bad Boys (1995), or Beverly Hills Cop (1984) have the depth and balls of Dirty Harry (1971)?  I would say no, even though all those films aren’t too bad.

harry6The setting for Dirty Harry is San Francisco. I keep wanting to see this film not as a conservative right-wing movie, but San Francisco could be the most liberal city on Earth. It’s probably the best place to contrast liberalism. Was this done on purpose? I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that the movie is heroic and is fun to watch, no matter who gets shot.

The fact is, Dirty Harry catches the criminal. The final part of the film featuring the ransom run, is excellent. I love that part of the movie. He ends up at Kezar Stadium and holds the criminal at gunpoint, trying to save the girl. He tries to do the right thing, which most audiences undoubtedly root for. It’s not like he’s going around shooting people at random.  It’s the system who sets the criminal free.

Deep down, the police force needs Harry. They ask him to deliver the ransom and don’t do a darn thing when he’s obviously breaking all kinds of rules, every day. The police don’t care because he’s what keeps society from falling into chaos. It’s like they encourage it. It’s pretty funny.

harry8And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.

 —Jack Nicholson as Colonel Jessep

Jack Nicholson is the Dirty Harry character in A Few Good Men (1992).  He does what is necessary.  He gets the job done.  He goes a little too far though, which is why he’s the villain.  Harry Callahan treads that same thin-line between right and wrong.  

Even when Dirty Harry tracks down the villain and shoots him at the end, he still respects the system.  He gazes at his badge and tosses it away, knowing he crossed the line, knowing he doesn’t really fit into the system.  He saved society from the killer and a boy the killer had at gunpoint, but society isn’t going to see it that way.  Harry knows this.  He’s smart.  He’s an anti-hero if I’ve seen one, sacrificing his career to do what’s right.  And some people still don’t see it that way.  They criticize this movie and its themes, seeing only the endless violence and blood, never going deeper to see what the movie has to say.  No matter what society’s opinion of the movie’s thematic content, I respect it for taking a stand above other frivolous cop movies.

I think the legacy of Dirty Harry continues today. The cop stereotype comes from this film, especially those with a male lead. It has inspired many other movies and cop revenge stories. The film itself is becoming a little dated and has the appearances of its time, but its message still carries today.