Dirty Harry: Nothing Wrong with Shooting the Right People

[21 April 2009]

By Marco Lanzagorta

“I know what you’re thinking. “Did he fire six shots or only five?” Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”
  —Detective Harry Callahan

Few would disagree that Detective “Dirty Harry” Callahan (Clint Eastwood) is the toughest guy in the history of motion pictures. By embracing a superior sense of justice that transcends the limits of the American law, Dirty Harry swiftly delivers brutal punishment to serial killers, rapists, murderers, terrorists, fascists, bank robbers, and all types of bad guys. Furthermore, as evidenced by his memorable .44 Magnum line, Dirty Harry’s defense of the law is done with plenty of style and a great degree of coolness.

As such, it should not be surprising that Dirty Harry has had a huge impact in the history and characterization of American popular culture. All five movies of the franchise, Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971), Magnum Force (Ted Post, 1973), The Enforcer (James Fargo, 1976), Sudden Impact (Clint Eastwood, 1983), and The Dead Pool (Buddy Van Horn, 1988), were big successes at the box office. And perhaps more important, these films defined the narrative and visual structure of the action and police genres for years to come.

In this regard, Dirty Harry was a truly revolutionary film because of its plain depiction of moral ambiguity. Paraphrasing the tagline found in one of the posters for the theatrical release of Dirty Harry, the narrative of this movie boils down to a brutal confrontation between two sadistic killers. However, one of them, Dirty Harry, happens to have a San Francisco Police Department badge.

Just as we are made to witness the sadistic and nefarious murders committed with plenty of enjoyment by the demented Scorpio (Andrew Robinson), we also get to catch a glimpse of Dirty Harry killing, teasing, and torturing bad guys with equal gusto. This narrative structure may sound formulaic of today’s action genre extravaganzas, after all, we easily see it on hit TV series such as 24 (2001-2009), The Shield (2002-2008), and NYPD Blue (1993-2005).

But such moral ambiguity was rather unique back in 1971. Indeed, back in those days it was extremely rare to see a fictional hero torturing his nemeses for information. Interestingly, that same year also saw the release of The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971), which featured the tough Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) as a trigger-happy detective who also resorts to torture methods to interrogate criminals. Popeye Doyle, though, lacks the charisma and mythical aura of Dirty Harry. That is, Popeye Doyle is presented as a low rent detective that hardly looks as the heroic figure that Dirty Harry embraces.

But then again, even if Dirty Harry constantly transgresses the boundaries imposed by the American legal system, the film justifies his brutal and unlawful behavior. From the very first scene of Dirty Harry, where we witness Scorpio murdering a girl in a swimming pool, we know that he is a deviant killer that has to be stopped at any cost. As the film progresses, the legal system appears to favor Scorpio rather than the victims. Thus, we can only cheer for Dirty Harry who is breaking the law to impose justice and enact righteous revenge.

To carry out his law enforcement mission, Dirty Harry possesses an incorruptible sense of justice and an unequivocal moral stand. As contradictory as it may sound, Dirty Harry has to override institutional authorities and laws in order to preserve justice. As such, in Dirty Harry, concepts such as law, order, and justice are reduced to mere abstract constructions.

After Dirty Harry tortures Scorpio to force him to reveal where he buried alive a young girl, a law professor blames Harry for “violating the 4th, 5th, 6th, and possibly the 14th amendments” of the suspect. With such an incompressible legalistic rhetoric, the viewer is forced to loathe the legal system.

Faced with these accusations, Dirty Harry’s response is clear and simple: “The law is crazy! I do not know what the law says, but I do know what’s right and wrong”. As such, Dirty Harry confronts morality against legislative law. In this regard, the moralistic world of Dirty Harry is a clear and simple binary structure without room for inconsistencies. That is, it is always perfectly clear who is good and who is evil, there are no shades of gray, and there are no irresoluble moral conundrums.

Dirty Harry embodies all the paradoxes and contradictions of the era: Dirty Harry is an incorruptible hero but he needs to break the law to impose justice on a decadent and libertarian society. This film is a clear product of its time. Indeed, Dirty Harry reflects a bleak period in US history where the American legal system was in complete disarray, both nationally and internationally.

Just think about it, 1971 saw several demonstrations of angry cops questioning why criminals had very solid constitutional protections that often interfered with law enforcement work. Indeed, let us recall that the Miranda rights, which protect those under police arrest, had only been approved by Congress in 1966.

The leftist group Weather Underground bombed the San Francisco Department of Corrections as a reprisal for killing a member of the Black Panthers while he was trying to escape from the San Quentin State Prison. And a few weeks later a brutal prison riot took place at the Attica Corrections facility in New York. Many anti-war manifestations in a number of states turned into violent riots. And no less important, 1971 also saw the publication of the controversial Pentagon Papers, which exposed the contentious government policies regarding Vietnam and South East Asia.

From Sudden Impact

Even Scorpio looks right out of the headlines of the newspapers of the era. For his first couple of murders, Scorpio climbs tall buildings and uses a high caliber rifle equipped with a telescopic sight. As such, Scorpio is clearly reminiscent of Charles Whitman, the notorious University of Texas Sniper who killed 14 people and wounded other 31 in 1966.

The name ‘Scorpio’ brings to mind the Zodiac, the infamous serial killer that murdered at least five persons and terrorized San Francisco during 1968 and 1969. Furthermore, Scorpio sends a number of messages to the San Francisco Police Department, just as the Zodiac did in real life. As the Zodiac was never captured, it is reasonable to suggest that Dirty Harry is indeed a fictional film about the return of this wicked serial killer.

Because of its explicit violence and resonance to chaotic world events, Dirty Harry suggests that there is only one way to stop crime. That is, one has to fight fire with fire. In other words, the film implies that law enforcement should have the omnipotent right to stalk, torture, and execute criminals. Quite amazingly if you think about it, Dirty Harry perfectly embodies Bush Jr.’s fascist policies put forward by the Patriot Act and the controversial official endorsement of torture methods at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

When originally released, Dirty Harry confronted harsh criticism because of its extreme brutality and reactionary political ideology. A few conservative critics vented their unfounded preoccupation that this film would incite both, criminal violence and police brutality. The legendary film critic Pauline Keal, for instance, indicted the movie for being fascist. But nevertheless, Dirty Harry proved to be extremely popular and quickly became a solid success at the box office.

Dirty Harry was extremely popular among real life cops and detectives, and as a consequence, Eastwood and Siegel were often invited to talk at a variety of law enforcement reunions. Rather bizarrely, Dirty Harry appears to have been one of the most favorite films of the Soviet Politburo. And believe it or nor, Smith and Wesson, the firearms manufacturers, reported record sales on the now legendary .44 Magnum handgun.

But perhaps more important, Dirty Harry opened the doors for subsequent action films with omnipotent heroes such as those in the Rambo (1982, 1985, 1988, 2008), Lethal Weapon (1987, 1989, 1992, 1998), and Die Hard (1988, 1990, 1995, 2007) franchises. Indeed, Dirty Harry pretty much solidified the traits of what is known today as the postmodern action hero, an archetype that continues to be popular with modern audiences.

In this context, the postmodern action hero reflects the torrid political climate of the era, and he does not symbolize the attributes of authority institutions. On the contrary, police and military forces are shown as weak, inefficient, decadent, and bureaucratic, often creating more trouble for the hero than help with solving the crisis at hand. Furthermore, the individuality of the postmodern hero is constantly threatened by endless bureaucracy. As such, the postmodern hero is usually portrayed as an outcast and the victim of a social crisis.

It’s important to note that this cinematic representation of heroes is in strong contrast with the one found in most flicks from the 1950s, where the military and the police were effective and trustworthy. Arguably, such a shift was a reaction to the generalized discontent and frustration felt towards the government and other authority institutions that took over the nation during the 1960s.

As much as Dirty Harry deconstructed and redefined the action and cop genres, its relevance and legacy is self-evident in the four sequels that it inspired. In all these films, Dirty Harry remains the same rough, righteous, and moralistic character that imposes his own sense of justice. Without hesitation, Dirty Harry dutifully embraces the legal triad of jury, juror, and executor. As a consequence, all the bad guys in these films are unmistakably evil, and they include serial killers, mafia bosses, fascists, rapists, terrorists, and members of corrupt and inefficient authority institutions.

Interestingly enough, while Dirty Harry remained pretty much the same character in all the sequels, his nefarious enemies showed a telling evolution concerning their political ideology. As Scorpio has long hair and wears a belt with a buckle in the form of a peace symbol, he looks like a hippy and allegorically stands for liberalism. On the other hand, Dirty Harry is indeed a fascist by virtue of his deep irritability and pathological hate for everything that goes against his beliefs. As such, Dirty Harry and Scorpio enact an unambiguous ideological conflict between fascism and liberalism.

But then, two years later Magnum Force presented a dramatic storyline that explores the fascist scenario where rightful vigilantism is encouraged and institutionalized at the highest levels of the San Francisco Police Department. Quite amazingly if you think about it, Dirty Harry looks like a liberal when compared to the rogue cops that have decided to take justice into their own hands.

But then again, Magnum Force places a subtle, albeit complex, ideological framework that distinguishes Harry’s brutal methods from unrestrained vigilantism. Not surprisingly, the difference is a matter of morality rather than legality. Indeed, the rogue cops do not care about collateral damage, and are eager to sacrifice innocent bystanders on their wicked quest for retribution and justice.

Thus, even though this fascist group uses the exact same brutal methods as Dirty Harry, their moral stand is questionable. The difference between them is made clear by Dirty Harry, who states that, “Nothing wrong with shooting as long as the right people get shot”. Therefore, the unresolved consequence of this problematic ideology is to determine who deserves to be shot, and who should make such decisions. But then again, as already stated, in the world of Dirty Harry there are no irresoluble moral conundrums.

From Dirty Harry

From Dirty Harry

Going back to the structure of the original, The Enforcer shows a fascist Dirty Harry confronting a group of liberal group of terrorists. And then, the series does another 180 degree turn with Sudden Impact, where Dirty Harry becomes a liberal trying to stop a fascist vigilante. And for the final entry in the franchise, The Dead Pool, Dirty Harry once more looks like a fascist.

Once again, it is important to remark that in all these films, Dirty Harry pretty much remains the exact same character. However, the ideological shifts of the movies are produced in reference to his enemies. As such, the Dirty Harry series makes evident that categorical political ideologies are not absolute concepts, but they are relative to our surroundings.

Except for this cyclic permutation of fascist and liberal wrongdoers, the Dirty Harry films are consistent in almost every other aspect. For instance, all five films showcase an anarchic and decadent urban environment that has been transformed into a violent battlefield. In this regard, these movies suggest that the only way to fight crime is with the use of superior firepower. Arguably, this brutal dystopia is a reflection of the American experience in Vietnam. 

In this regard it is interesting to note that, upon their original theatrical release, Dirty Harry and its sequels pushed the limits of cinematic violence to new limits. Audiences flinched at the uncompromising showcase of gunfights, fistfights, and torture scenes. However, in terms of violent content, the Dirty Harry films pale in comparison to what is seen today on national TV. For instance, CSI: Miami (2002-2009) by far has more violence and gruesome situations than any of these films.

Besides their unrestrained violence, the race and gender politics of the Dirty Harry films are also quite immutable over the evolution of the franchise. In all these movies, violence is almost exclusively directed towards women, children, and racial minorities. Furthermore, all the movies consistently exclude women from authority positions. And quite surprising, the Dirty Harry films never feature a meaningful romance or love interest.

Indeed, the only major female character on the side of the law is Inspector Kate Moore (Tyne Daly), who plays Dirty Harry’s partner in The Enforcer. But then again, her struggle for gender equality is constantly ridiculed when seen in contrast to the hyper-masculine attitude of Dirty Harry. On the other hand, Jennifer Spencer (Sondra Locke) in Sudden Impact is ultimately reduced to a mentally unstable homicidal vigilante.

In a similar vein, Dirty Harry’s partners include one female, Inspector Moore, and all others are males from minority groups: Hispanic in Dirty Harry, African American in Magnum Force, and Asian American in The Dead Pool. Invariably, by the film’s end, all these characters are either shot or blown away. As such, their presence is merely used to define and highlight the omnipotent white hyper-masculinity of Dirty Harry.

As a consequence, the Dirty Harry films celebrate white male power and control, and link masculinity with violence. Therefore, these films emerge as reactionary towards the civil right and women liberation movements that materialized during the 1960s. But then again, it is only thanks to Eastwood’s endless charisma that Dirty Harry never looks like an intransigent and intolerant maniac. That is, in spite of clearly being a politically incorrect autocrat, Dirty Harry succeeds in becoming a noble hero worthy of our cheers.

The many ideological complexities and exciting shootings that characterize the Dirty Harry films can be fully appreciated thanks to their recent release in the high definition blu-ray format. The Dirty Harry Ultimate Collector’s Edition offers all five films of the franchise in outstanding audio and video quality. In spite of the age of these movies, the high definition format offers considerable improvement over their standard definition versions.

The Dirty Harry Ultimate Collector’s Edition is loaded with plenty of interesting and insightful extra features. Every film includes an audio commentary and documentaries. For instance, film critic Richard Schickel speaks of the historical context and legacy of the films in his audio commentaries for Dirty Harry and Sudden Impact. And more technical discussions are found in the audio commentaries by screenwriter John Milius for Magnum Force, director James Fargo for The Enforcer, and editor Joel Cox and producer David Valdes for The Dead Pool.

The documentaries focus on important aspects of the films such as their violent content, their political ideology, their influence on modern action films, and their visual aesthetics. To round up this outstanding collection, the set includes a reproduction of Dirty Harry’s police badge, a poster with a map of the Scorpio killings, and a set of postcards with the original posters of the films.

The influence and legacy of the Dirty Harry franchise continues to be observed in modern films and TV shows. Indeed, Dirty Harry’s self-regulatory code of conduct that looks for revenge and justice by any means necessary has become archetypal of the modern action hero. Therefore, love him or hate him, Dirty Harry succeeded in shooting his way to an important place in the histories of world cinema and American popular culture.

From The Enforcer

From The Enforcer

Marco Lanzagorta received a PhD in physics from Oxford University and has worked at prestigious research institutions in England, Italy, Switzerland, Mexico and the US. During the past 25 years, he has conducted research in physics, computer science, and neuroscience. Currently, Marco is a research physicist at a major defense research laboratory in Washington DC, and an affiliate associate professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/66375-dirty-harry-nothing-wrong-with-shooting-the-right-people-1/