Looking back at Dirty Harry

With Blitz out on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday, we look back at 1971’s Dirty Harry, the thriller that sparked a generation of maverick cops…

If examined in any kind of detail, most modern heroes are maniacs. Take away their capes, witty one-liners or police badges, and they’re actually just cold-blooded killers with a malfunctioning moral compass.

The rampaging cop of 1971’s Dirty Harry is a case in point: a self-appointed judge, jury and executioner, his right-leaning attitudes are abhorrent, at least to someone with my leftie ideals. And yet, in spite of this, Dirty Harry remains among my all-time favourite thrillers. Besides, there’s something so shrill and absurdly over-the-top about the film’s notions that it quickly tips into unintentionally amusing self-parody.

Dirty Harry’s plot reads like a 70s right-winger’s worst nightmare – or darkest fantasy. In a San Francisco presided over by maverick cop Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), a deranged killer called Scorpio is murdering and kidnapping residents apparently at random. With casualties mounting up, and the city’s mayor more interested in paying Scorpio off with ransom money than putting a stop to his murderous exploits, Callahan ultimately concludes that bullets are the best solution to the problem.

Ad – content continues below

Scorpio is modelled on a real-life series of killings that occurred in the late 60s; the Zodiac, as newspapers dubbed him, was never caught, and would later become the subject of David Fincher’s film of the same name. Zodiac was well known for his habit of sending taunting letters to the police, and in one of these, Zodiac threatened to hijack a school bus – something Scorpio eventually acts out in Dirty Harry. (“Come on, sing everyone!” Scorpio shrieks to a group of terrified school kids, in one of the film’s blackly comic moments. “Sing or I’ll go home and kill all your mommies!”)

Andrew Robinson’s performance as Scorpio – his feature debut – is extraordinary, and a major reason why Dirty Harry remains a surprisingly dynamic film, even 40 years later. He’s the tittering antithesis of Clint Eastwood’s glowering, laconic cop, a toxic hippy whose crackpot nihilism allows him to kill without remorse.

Interestingly, Callahan displays similarly sociopathic facilities himself – in an early scene, he points his gigantic .44 Magnum in a stricken criminal’s face, and responds to his fear with the now legendary “Do I feel lucky?” monologue. Later, Callahan tortures Scorpio until he divulges one of his kidnapped victims’ whereabouts – are we supposed to applaud this act of cruelty, or find his brutality disquieting? The answer, perhaps, is both.

The symmetry between Callahan and Scorpio is strikingly similar to the mirror-like kinship between Batman and his arch enemy, the Joker. This is probably why Dirty Harry is the best of all the movies that followed, and why both 1989’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight are the best films in that franchise.

Don Siegel directs with assurance, cutting together a sharp opening scene to the funky beats of Lalo Schifrin’s classic soundtrack, as Scorpio aims a sniper rifle at an unsuspecting bather floating in a rooftop swimming pool. It’s telling, perhaps, that Siegel chooses to open the movie not on Harry, but on Scorpio – Callahan may be the nominal protagonist of the piece, but Scorpio’s the driving force. In the face of the mop-haired sociopath’s killing spree, Callahan can only react with largely impotent violence.

Ad – content continues below

Dirty Harry changed many times before it finally arrived in cinemas in 1971. Several actors were approached for the lead role, and the script was rewritten numerous times. John Milius wrote a draft, and he was responsible for the legendary “Do I feel lucky” line mentioned earlier. The auteur Terrence Malick even wrote a draft, in which the killer targeted wealthy criminals – a plot that would be altered and used in the Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force.

It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the lead role now, but the part of Harry was originally intended as a vehicle for Frank Sinatra. When he dropped out, it was offered to John Wayne (who objected to its violence, among other things), Paul Newman (who hated its politics) and just about every other macho, popular actor kicking around Hollywood studios at the time.

As for Scorpio, it was Eastwood himself who recommended the relatively unknown Andrew Robinson for the part. Eastwood had seen Robinson performing in a stage play, and concluded that the young actor (he was just 29 at the time) had the perfect, cherubic face for the role of Scorpio.

Eastwood was absolutely correct. Robinson’s performance in Dirty Harry is nothing short of outstanding. He’s a twitching, sweaty embodiment of everything an older generation fears about the younger – he’s sadistic, amoral, and prepared to kill anyone in his quest for self-gratification.

Dirty Harry is a logical extension of the westerns that were Eastwood’s previous stock in trade. Callahan is essentially a marshal of the old West, swept up and dumped into early-70s San Francisco. Seen against a contemporary backdrop, though, his attitude to law and justice becomes more troubling.

Eastwood once said that he saw Dirty Harry as a comment on the rights of victims, and how they can become lost in the political clamour to protect criminals from police brutality. Eastwood’s character rebuffs these concerns in the film with the line, “I’m all broken up over that man’s rights” – a line meant as a reference to his earlier maltreatment of Scorpio, but one that could also sum up the film’s attitude to criminals in general.

Ad – content continues below

Dirty Harry’s right-leaning underpinnings didn’t chime particularly well with everyone, even though the movie was a big box office hit. Roger Ebert said of the film, “If anybody is writing a book about the rise of fascism in America, they ought to have a look at Dirty Harry”. At the Academy Awards, protesters lined up outside with placards stating, “Dirty Harry is a fascist pig.”

Ironically, Dirty Harry falls victim to its own attitudes. It’s extremely easy to pick gloatingly at the film’s leaps of logic, such as the bizarre plot point that sees Scorpio released from custody because of Callahan’s violent assault. As the TV Tropes website points out, Scorpio could have easily been convicted for attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, possession of an automatic firearm, and kidnapping – all offences mysteriously overlooked by the film’s district attorney.

What’s interesting is that, although Dirty Harry is about a cop who’s willing to ignore legal boundaries in order to protect the innocent, the film lacks the triumphant air you might expect. Rather than concluding with a bare-chested, macho fight in which Callahan proves himself to be the superior male (as we’d later see in Sly Stallone’s hilarious Dirty Harry clone, Cobra), it ends with an oddly muted encounter in a desolate quarry. This setting was another of Eastwood’s choices, and it gives these final scenes a gloomy, downbeat tone.

The face-off between Callahan and Scorpio, in which the former gets to reprise his “Do I feel lucky?” line, plays out like a depressing retread of the quick-draw showdowns of Eastwood’s earlier westerns – and naturally, Eastwood wins. And as Scorpio’s lifeless body sinks into a murky creek, Callahan pitches his badge into the water after him, apparently in disgust.

The success of Dirty Harry ensured that sequels inevitably followed. The film also set the template for several decades of Hollywood cop movies thereafter, and echoes of it can be seen in such films as 48Hrs, Red Heat and Lethal Weapon (the latter even borrowed, in slightly amended form, a scene from Dirty Harry involving a hysterical chap threatening to jump off a municipal building).

Ad – content continues below

Judge Dredd and RoboCop could also be seen as left-wing parodies of an infamously right-wing character, and one stand-out Dirty Harry exchange was deliciously skewered in The Naked Gun (“That was a Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, you moron! You killed five actors! Good ones!”)

Almost exactly 40 years after Dirty Harry set the trigger-happy cop template, along comes Elliott Lester’s Brit-cop flick, Blitz. Although set on the mean streets of London rather than San Francisco, it presents an almost identical scenario to Don Siegel’s 1971 film.

A maverick cop (Jason Statham) goes up against a mop-haired sociopath (Aiden Gillen), and in the face of a legal process that appears to fall on the side of the criminal rather than the victim, decides that extreme measures are called for. Statham brings his usual caustic charisma to the film, but Aiden Gillen’s the real revelation here, turning in a memorably eccentric performance in his purple shell suit and green plastic shades.

Like Dirty Harry, the underlying politics of Blitz are exceedingly unpleasant if they’re subjected to any kind of scrutiny. But at the same time, both films are a manifestation of a peculiarly male fantasy about the kind of no-nonsense, self-reliant hero who’s more interested in stopping bad guys than obeying the letter of the law.

The thought of police officers like Harry Callahan or Blitz’s Tom Brant running around cities in real life is a horrifying one. The alternate world of action movies, on the other hand, simply wouldn’t be the same without them.

See more of our Looking Back articles here.

Ad – content continues below