Dirty Harry (1971) is a compelling neo-noir thriller about San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), who is increasingly forced to choose between liberal legal norms and bringing a sadistic serial killer known as Scorpio to justice. Once Harry kills Scorpio, the movie ends with him throwing away his badge, symbolizing a momentous decision. When justice and law conflict, Harry chooses justice.
This is what makes Harry “dirty.” Harry Callahan is not corrupt. He is not willing to dirty his hands with illegality for selfish and petty reasons. But he will go outside the law to secure the higher good. The various events of the movie’s plot beautifully reveal elements of Harry’s character, so that his final choice makes sense.
Dirty Harry belongs in the category of first-rate crime thrillers like The French Connection, L.A. Confidential, To Live and Die in L.A., and Drive.
Director Don Siegel frames Dirty Harry with sweeping Bay Area vistas. Then the camera dives into the action and draws the viewer with it. The script is tightly written and the story swift-paced. Lalo Schifrin’s jazz fusion score marries perfectly with the action and heightens the emotional impact. This being a gritty crime thriller set in swinging San Francisco, there are some racy elements: violence, cussing, nudity, homosexual couples, etc. But Siegel avoids outright obscenity. It is easy to overlook the artfulness of Dirty Harry because the story is so captivating.
The best way to appreciate Dirty Harry is to compare it to its four terrible sequels: Magnum Force (1973), The Enforcer (1976), Sudden Impact (1983), and The Dead Pool (1988).
Dirty Harry was decried as “fascist” for making a hero of a vigilante cop who was also characterized as a racist, although the movie pulled its punches on this particular matter by making Harry an equal opportunity hater and partnering him with one Chico Gonzalez. But Dirty Harry was also a huge hit, especially among white men. This dictated two things. First, there would be sequels because there would be money in them. Second, the sequels would subvert everything that Leftists found “problematic” about Harry Callahan.
This would dictate that the sequels could not build on the evolution of Harry’s character in the original movie, because that was the biggest problem of all. So instead, they just reduced Dirty Harry to a formula and repeated it four times. Each Dirty Harry sequel required: Clint Eastwood, a big gun, some shootouts with hoodlums, some California degeneracy, a clever line he repeats from time to time, and a jazz fusion score, preferably by Lalo Schifrin.
Since Harry is racist and presumably sexist, they have to pair him with a non-white or female partner. Since Dirty Harry was very much a guy movie, they also tarted up the sequels with some romance.
Since the formulaic repetition of tropes without any character development gets boring fast, these movies feel hollow and meaningless. Thus the filmmakers punched them up with fist-fights and car chases and made the sex and violence extra lurid. Dirty Harry had dashes of Playboy. The sequels in the sleazy Seventies were pure Hustler.
The first sequel, Magnum Force, is the worst. With a script by the allegedly “based” John Milius, Magnum Force is less a sequel than a hard reboot of Dirty Harry. At the end of Dirty Harry, Callahan looks like he is quitting the police force and going rogue. In Magnum Force, Callahan is back on the force as if nothing has happened. Moreover, as a large number of criminals start getting gunned down, Callahan suspects that the culprit is actually a rogue cop gone vigilante. Our new Squeaky-Clean Harry is determined to bring him to justice.
It turns out that the culprits are four good-looking white motorcycle cops played by David Soul, Robert Urich, Tim Matheson, and Kip Niven. Of course the “real” Harry Callahan would have been mentoring young men like this, not trying to arrest them. But instead Harry has a black partner, complete with ’fro, named Early. Naming a black man “Early” sounds like a racist joke to me, but surely that was not Milius’ intention.
It turns out that the young vigilantes are mentored by Lt. Neil Briggs, played by Hal Holbrook, a pencil-necked prig who spends a lot of time chewing out Callahan for being trigger-happy. When Briggs finally reveals himself to Callahan, our Squeaky-Clean Harry argues (1) that vigilantism is a slippery slope that will lead to shooting people over parking tickets, which is absurd, and (2) that the system may be broken, but it is the only one we’ve got, and we can’t let go of it, which is Republican. At this point, Milius has completely destroyed the hero of Dirty Harry. And it was premeditated.
It would take a free-standing essay to detail all the ways Magnum Force is lame, tasteless, and subversive. But life is too short for that, so here are a few highlights.
Magnum Force was directed by Ted Post. I didn’t need to visit Wikipedia to know that he made his career in television. Despite being shot on location in and around America’s most scenic city, Magnum Force looks and feels like television: scrunched shots, dull camera work, sclerotic pacing. Not even Lalo Schifrin’s excellent score—the only first-rate thing about this movie—can breathe life into Post’s directing.
The acting is all TV-grade as well. The only thing that would keep this movie off TV is its extremely lurid treatment of sex and violence.
In good dramatic conflict, the outcome is determined by the characters of the antagonists. Action is revelatory of character. Events have a deeper meaning. But during the climactic battle with the vigilantes in Magnum Force, one of them . . . dies in an accident.
The allegedly clever line that Harry repeats is, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” which is a far cry from, “Do you feel lucky?” and completes Milius’ transformation of the hero of Dirty Harry into a smug old fart.
Three years later, Dirty Harry returns in The Enforcer. A mostly white group of hippy criminals has stolen military weapons and explosives from what is apparently a private warehouse guarded by a single geezer. They style themselves People’s Revolutionary Strike Force and try to extort money from the city by planting bombs and kidnapping the mayor.
Harry is paired with a female rookie (Tyne Daly), because the mayor wants to court feminists and good press. She tries hard to be a good cop. She also tries to seduce Harry. But her lack of experience gets her killed while rescuing the mayor. Thus The Enforcer actually amounts to a powerful critique of affirmative action and the political flakes who push it. Too bad it isn’t a better movie.
The Enforcer is directed by James Fargo, who like Ted Post captures the Bay Area’s spectacular scenery, as well as lurid sex and bloody violence, with all the cinematic sweep and dynamism of an episode of The Golden Girls. Harry’s pursuit of the criminals takes him to a whorehouse and onto the set of a porno movie. The killings are extra bloody and lurid. There are plenty of chases to a very routine jazz fusion score by Jerry Fielding.