“Dirty Harry” was released in 1971 and is one of the greatest action-thrillers of all time. It was directed by Don Siegel and stars Clint Eastwood as “Dirty” Harry Callahan, a ruthless police investigator tasked with finding and stopping the “Scorpio Killer.”
Clint Eastwood was the perfect choice to play Dirty Harry. After his era of westerns throughout the 1950’s & 1960’s, it’s clear he felt very passionate about doing a film in another genre. His signature glare, stern voice, and unrivaled screen presence were all utilized to their fullest potential. Sure, it can be fairly argued that he was playing a character similar to the Man With No Name from Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy,” but I don’t mind that — Eastwood plays this type of role better than anyone else. Without Eastwood, Harry Callahan wouldn’t be the iconic action-antihero we know and love today.
“I know what you’re thinking. ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I kind of lost track myself. But being that this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well do ya, punk?”
Dirty Harry isn’t just a great character because of Eastwood’s performance or the iconic monologue or his action scenes; he’s actually complex and well-written. Throughout the film, Harry experiences an arc where he learns that he isn’t as fit to be a police officer as he used to be. He sees crime all around him and is losing his sense of morality, gradually becoming more of a vigilante and less of a detective. He’s getting a little too old for his line of work and feels doomed to always be alone. His wife died in a car accident years ago and his partners keep getting killed or hospitalized. These feelings are heightened when he is assigned a young partner named “Chico” González, a new college graduate with a degree in sociology. Once Harry finally starts to connect with hs new partner in the middle of the film, González gets shot and almost dies in an effort to save Harry, furthering Harry’s partner curse.
My favorite scene is at the end of the film when Harry speaks with González’s wife after González decides to quit the force. Harry tells her that González is right, that “this is no life for you two.” When she asks Harry why he even stays in it, he simply reples, “I don’t know. I really don’t.” When Harry kills Scorpio in the final scene of the film and throws away his badge, his arc is completed, as he finally accepts that he is no longer cut out for the police force.
Unfortunately, Harry’s arc in this film is almost done away with by the four sequels. Although “Magnum Force” is a well-made movie that I thoroughly enjoy, I still wonder whether “Dirty Harry” would be better if it wasn’t a franchise starter.
An aspect of this film that isn’t discussed nearly as much as it should be is Andrew Robinson’s performance as the Scorpio Killer. He brought such an unsettling appearance and set of mannerisms to the role which, if played by a less talented actor, would’ve otherwise made for a generic villain. In fact, Robinson was so believable in the role that he received death threats after the film’s release.
“Dirty Harry” wouldn’t be nearly as thrilling without Don Siegel’s direction. He elevated the somewhat-generic premise with brilliant tension and fast-paced direction which makes this film hold up today. The movie uses every second of its runtime to consistently have thrills, character beats, and grow the relationship between Dirty Harry and the Scorpio Killer. The action in this film is still fantastic half a century later, particularly the 20-minute sequence in the middle of the film, which goes from the Scorpio Killer toying with Harry to Harry chasing a wounded Scorpio into a football stadium.
Something else that added a layer to this film were the themes and ideas it raised: “Are Harry’s methods too extreme?” “Is the criminal justice system ineffective/corrupt?” “Are people like the Scorpio Killer beyond rehabilitation?” I appreciate films which raise questions and actually make the audience think about what they saw, giving us further enjoyment after actually watching them.
“Dirty Harry” is a fantastic film. It has a compelling lead character, standout performances, beautiful cinematography, quick pacing, and passionate direction. I strongly recommend this action classic.