Dirty Harry’s Scorpio: the most overlooked screen villain?

Although Dirty Harry is regarded as a classic thriller, the performance of Andy Robinson as Scorpio is often overlooked, Ryan writes...

Director Don Siegel’s 1971 thriller Dirty Harry is rightly regarded as a landmark, providing Clint Eastwood with one of his signature roles, giving action movie theater one of its most memorable catchphrases (“Do I feel lucky…?”) and setting the template for a legion similar cop movies.

Yet while Dirty Harry‘s influence on movies like 48 Hrs. and Lethal Weapon is readily acknowledged, the importance of its villain is less commonly discussed. But the nihilistic killer Scorpio, as played by Andy Robinson, is arguably one of the best villains in movie theater, and his performance has surely had a subtle influence of its own.

Dirty Harry begins with one of the coolest opening sequences in any thriller. On the roof of a San Francisco skyscraper, Scorpio, all wild hair and staring blue eyes, takes aim through a sniper rifle. His target is a young woman swimming in a rooftop pool, and as Lalo Schifrin’s unforgettable theme tune plays out, we anticipate the coming shot with dread – and when it does, its effects are a real gut-punch.

It’s in this deceptively complex opening sequence that director Don Siegel packs in a startling amount of information with just a few beautifully composed shots. Scorpio is established as a villain, who ostensibly kills in order to hold the city to ransom (he later issues a note demanding $100,000, but his maniacal demeanour suggests that he probably just murders people for the fun of it). Meanwhile, Clint Eastwood’s laconic ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan is established as the cop on Scorpio’s trail, calmly picking through the scant bits of evidence left in the killer’s wake.

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From here, Siegel’s movie alternates between cop and killer, building up a picture of Callahan’s cynical, self-destructive mindset (look how he strides across a street in the aftermath of an armed robbery) and how they compare with the killer’s utter disregard for human life, irrespective of age, race or gender.

Taking the time to establish these two apparently opposed characters is important, because presenting us with Callahan’s world view, not to mention the hints of darkness lurking at the periphery of his personality, helps us to understand Scorpio all the better.

Siegel’s at pains to show us moments where Callahan responds with bewilderment to the city around him, whether it’s mail-flower power era free love or young homosexuals meeting in a park. In a sense, Scorpio is Callahan’s worst nightmare made flesh, and an inversion of everything he is. Where Callahan’s a strutting alpha male, Scorpio is floppy-haired and unmanly; where Callahan has his own slightly warped sense of justice, Scorpio has none. 

It’s worth noting just how little screen time Andy Robinson actually gets until the second half of the movie. But because Siegel establishes Scorpio as such a ruthless character from the first scene, we sense his presence even when he doesn’t appear for long stretches.

Callahan spends a great deal of time travelling in Scorpio’s wake, either reading through ransom notes with his superiors or standing over the body of an innocent victim. In all these scenes, we get a sense of Callahan’s helplessness and growing rage – and that sooner or later, he and Scorpio will finally collide.

In many ways, Dirty Harry is a deliberately manipulative movie. Scorpio is plainly modelled on the Zodiac Killer, who murdered several Californian people in the 60s and 70s, sent taunting notes to the police, and was never apprehended. Dirty Harry was also quite controversial, sparking accusations of fascism and even protest over its depiction of a cop operating outside the bounds of the law.

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But just as Don Siegel’s classic Invasion Of The Body Snatchers invited both accusations of both anti-McCarthyism and anti-communism, it could be said that Dirty Harry could be read one of two ways. It could be a simple power fantasy, where we’re rooting for the righteously violent cop as he takes down an evil crook, or it could be that we’re meant to be appalled by both characters: sure, Scorpio’s beyond redemption, but Callahan’s essentially a maniac with a badge. 

It’s this duality, this perfect pairing of flawed hero and magnetic villain, that makes Dirty Harry such a timelessly electrifying movie. And it’s Andy Robinson’s extraordinary, mad charisma that makes Scorpio more than just a bad guy with a gun – in his every jerky movement and flicker of his eyes, we get the impression of a maniacal intelligence at work.

Scorpio may be lacking in brawn compared to Callahan, but he’s nothing if not a strategist, engineering every encounter so that he has the upper hand. We may be disgusted by his crimes, and anxious to see how Callahan will finally bring him down, but there’s an animal quality to Robinson’s performance that means you simply can’t take your eyes off him.

Whether he’s cooing over the size of Callahan’s gun (“Ooh, that’s a big one,” he says – a line improvised by Robinson), or forcing a group of tearful school kids to sing on a hijacked bus, the young actor dominates every single scene he’s given. Even his last moment is absolutely right for his character: finally cornered by his nemesis, Scorpio goes for his gun anyway, cackling until the bitter end.

It’s important to note how much of Scorpio’s character came directly from Robinson. According to the actor, who was in his late 20s at the time and had never appeared in a movie before, he didn’t much care for the original script. “I didn’t get the character,” Robinson said. “And the character was, of course, described differently. He was like this balding guy in a T-shirt with a paunch that hangs around bus stations.” 

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Siegel, however, had his own idea of how Scorpio should look, and hired Robinson because he had “the face of a choir boy”. Siegel also encouraged Robinson to make his own contributions to the character, and even allowed him to choreograph his own escape attempt in the final scenes set in a remote quarry. 

In the rogue’s gallery of great villain performances, the same names usually come up: Richard Attenborough as Pinky Brown, Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter. Yet Andrew Robinson’s portrayal of Scorpio seldom does – in the American movie Institute’s 100 Years, 1000 Heroes & Villains list, for example, Scorpio didn’t get a mention, even though Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan rightly did.

Yet while so many critics and writers overlook Scorpio’s unhinged brilliance, it’s possible to see more than a trace of his DNA in the late Heath Ledger’s turn as The Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight. Like Scorpio, The Joker is the laughing, merciless, scheming opposite to the movie’s murky hero – a sociopath who kidnaps and murders and schemes without remorse. Although Ledger’s turn was itself a remarkable one, it’s possible that he took at least a little inspiration from Robinson’s scene-stealing, criminally overlooked performance.

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