Dirty Harry (1971) 4/5 (1)


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Rating: The Good – 77.5
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Duration: 102 mins
Director: Don Siegel
Stars: Clint Eastwood, Andrew Robinson, Harry Guardino

As with many films that spawn an extended franchise, one might be tempted to conflate one’s opinion of Dirty Harry with one’s opinion of its sequels. In this case, the sequels are actually quite good so no real harm done. But it would still be a mistake because the original is a very different film in tone and style. Don Siegel most certainly aimed to make an entertaining thriller first and foremost but such was his power and status as a director that he didn’t have to pull his punches while doing so. As such, in Dirty Harry we are treated to a much darker detective story than perhaps any other mainstream Hollywood film before or since.

Clint Eastwood is the eponymous San Francisco police inspector with a track record for violence and suspect abuse that has put him in the doghouse with the powers that be in his department. When a deranged serial killer called “Scorpio” begins randomly targeting the citizens of his city while simultaneously taunting the police in a series of letters (yes, it’s supposed to be familiar – it was San Fran of the early 70’s), Inspector Callahan is the detective that gets the closest to his quarry and when he does sparks fly.

Eastwood’s iconic hard-boiled detective is not simply a tough guy with a mean temper. There is an impatient but genuine concern for the victims of the crimes he investigates. There is also firm belief in natural justice that is at odds with the duties of his job. Andrew Robinson is the maniac and it seems that his contribution to this film has been neglected over the years. It’s a uniquely unhinged performance but laced with a coherent sense of purpose and even intelligence. You don’t often find actors who are clever enough to regulate the “nuts” once they are allowed to get going but Anderson made a career out of doing just that (and at the same time providing evidence this wasn’t just the result of good notes from his director). The end result is a film that is propped up on either end with two of the most memorable counterparts in screen history. And they play off each other brilliantly. Robinson’s Scorpio is everything Callahan hates: loud, needy, cruel, a coward. Eastwood’s Callahan is everything Scorpio fears: not a public avenger, a personal one. One who intends to administer punishment not because of Scorpio’s crimes per se but because of the avenger’s distaste for the very insecurities that are causing him to commit those crimes.

This essential contrast between (anti)hero and villain sets the context for some truly suspenseful drama which peaks in two central scenes. One of them involves a school bus full of children. The other an empty football stadium and an aerial pull-back shot that combined with the grisliness of Eastwood at that moment represents one of the bravest and darkest scenes in any mainstream detective movie. Hats off to Siegel and Eastwood both.

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