Retrospective #1: Dirty Harry (1971)

 Dir. Don Siegel 

“When a naked man is chasing a woman through an alley with a butcher’s knife and a hard on, I figure he isn’t out collecting for the Red Cross”

(spoilers within)

My Dad loves Clint Eastwood. I assume most men of his generation probably do though. He always seemed to me like a tougher, funnier and cooler version of John Wayne (ironic then that he was one of many stars in the running for the lead role here). At least the characters he portrayed anyway. His smart arse, gruff, take-no-shit persona (exemplified as Harry Callahan) was/is a blueprint for the modern action star. The Alpha male. So thanks to my Dad I grew up watching many of his films. To me what they actually were about was kind of a blur when I was a pre-teen. It was either a Western or a cop movie. Of course too, home viewing in the 80’s was all about cropped pan and scan versions for the VHS/TV market. Though I enjoyed watching many films this way, it’s funny when you don’t know what your missing (Widescreen? 35mm? These were words I had no concept of until at least age 14). Considering now too, thanks to DVD, we are all presented with films the way they are meant to be seen – most of the time, and take it for granted.

My point is that when films started making their way onto widescreen editions on VHS etc, my cinema brain went into overload trying to re-watch all the films I loved that were pan and scanned from their original design. Case in point, Dirty Harry. A film of Clint’s I always liked, but figured it was just a run of the mill exercise with a great central character. Once I saw director Don Siegel’s full cut however, I realised how much of a great film it was, and how unique it would have been back in ’71. Pre-emptive to the stark quality of urban American cinema in the 1970’s, something Mean Streets took too another level soon after, Harry became for me one of my first appreciations of things being shot on film too. The framing and exquisite widescreen photography of San Francisco gave the film a completely new dimension. The zooming out of Scorpio on the roof in the intro and the extraordinary scene on the football field are classic examples of just how much such a thing can make a difference. The film is a major technical achievement that I think many are unaware of. Unfortunately, I have not yet seen this on Blu-ray, but rest assured it would be a mini-celebration when I do.

At its core though, still is the story, the script, Eastwood’s Harry Callahan and probably the most underrated feature of the movie, Andy Robinson’s portrayal of the film’s serial killer, Scorpio. One of the best bad guys in cinema history. Robinson, the unlikely British thesp candidate for such a role, excels in bringing a human quality to the killer. Because despite his menace, his vulnerabilities exist in plain sight. He may be evil, but he is also a fool and when faced with the unyielding Callahan, his cowardice is brought to the forefront. To me, he was the perfect foil to the stoic Harry. Perfect for the audience too, as he garners no sympathy, making it even more satisfying when he finally meets his end at the hand of Harry’s .44 magnum. Plus his shriek when stabbed in the leg is unforgettable.

Then of course, there is Callahan. Eastwood’s intensity when on duty is only matched by his almost laugh-out-loud, cool demeanour when relaxed. When asked by a male physician to remove his pants after Harry declines to have them cut off, he replies, “You can turn your back if you’re embarrassed”. This kind of dry wit remains classic and even though the sequels eventually become a parody of what made this film so good, Callahan’s zingers never disappoint throughout them all. The humour in general in the film is mischievous (witnessing the beginnings of a threesome while looking out for Scorpio; “You owe it to yourself to live a little, Harry”) but always countered with some sudden suspense or action. The infamy of the “Do you feel lucky?” speech still holds its power too, though only when it is repeated to Scorpio at the end with added vehemence. The disappointing Gran Torino will always resemble a pseudo-Dirty Harry film in some ways to me because of how much Eastwood does dwell back into such a similar character.

Finally, the music needs to be mentioned. One of the best originals of the movie’s era, the jazz fusion/psychedelic rock sound scapes feel not just ahead of their time, but a classic example of melding score and visuals to create a truly urban vibe. Its influence on similar films and TV is undeniable. Filled with great little scenes to break up the seriousness of the suspense, alongside it’s exceptional direction, this film just does not bore me on any level no matter how many times I watch it. Is it too inappropriate to say it’s a guy thing too? Not in a steroid explosion Expendables kind of way either. Dirty Harry is loaded with testosterone – another trait of the films in its decade, but the kind that seems to come from just being cool.


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