Who is filmdom’s most iconic screen cop? What character laid the groundwork for virtually every “loose cannon” detective whose ends justify his means? Who is arguably the most quotable badass ever to stalk the streets of San Francisco (all the while keeping them safe from crime)?
If you said “Jack Webb”, then you’re probably either joking or you’re my late grandfather (which means I really need to get rid of this Ouija board next to me). If you said “Dirty Harry” then consider that Kewpie Doll your own, mister.
“Dirty” Harry Callahan is an undeniable screen icon. Having kicked ass in no less than five films between 1971 and 1988, he brought a new level of both realism and violence to the police procedural and marked one of Clint Eastwood’s most recognizable roles. Indeed, Harry Callahan could be considered Eastwood’s signature character if the actor hadn’t starred in so many memorable parts before, during and after his bow as the California detective. Because Eastwood rarely plays the same character twice (in name, anyway), the case for a signature character is both easy to make and violently punctuated by six shots from a .44 Magnum.
Bringing the angry whisper and grim visage of his already cultivated “Man With No Name” character, and creating lines that have become classically quotable film references along the way, Eastwood may have been born to play the role of the edgy investigator. That’s easy for us to say now, but old Clint was hardly the first choice for Callahan. Nor was he even the second or third or even on the short list of actors. This is hardly the only absurdity in the evolution of the Dirty Harry saga. In fact, looking at what the original film and its now-iconic title character could have become, it’s a shock that audiences have been gifted a film series this legendary and high quality.
Harry Callahan started life as a character in a screenplay entitled Dead Right. That screenplay was the late ’60s product of writer Harry Julian Fink (well known for such works as the 1957 – 1963 TV Western Have Gun – Will Travel) and his writing partner and wife Rita M. “R.M.” Fink (with whom he also wrote 1971’s Big Jake and 1973’s Cahill U.S. Marshal, both starring John Wayne). Dead Right was about an aging New York detective named Harry Callahan who faced burn out in his late 50s, but became obsessed with stopping a serial killer named Travis who was preying upon the city. In the original version it wasn’t even Harry who took the bad guy out in the end.
Draft after draft was attempted as the Finks and their production cohort Jennings Lang attempted to find the perfect actor to fill the role of the older policeman. Unsurprisingly, the original offer for the film went to John Wayne, whom the Finks had written the part specifically for. Wayne, however, felt that the violence in the film was glorified and unjustified, so he passed on the project. Still, using Wayne as the example of how they wanted Callahan to turn out was good enough for Universal Studios to option the screenplay from the Finks. The studio even envisioned Clint Eastwood in the lead, but the project languished in “Development Hell” until the screen rights ran out and returned to the Finks.
When Universal lost its rights to the project and the hunt for an appropriate actor to fill the role proved frustrating, Lang actually sold the rights to ABC Television with the idea of producing a TV movie of the week. Can you imagine the violent warpath of Dirty Harry toned down for the tube (of that era)? Neither could ABC, apparently. Feeling that neutering the hard-edged film would destroy the best parts of it, ABC backed out and the rights were re-sold to Warner Bros.
Once Warner Bros. stepped in, it quickly put its own vision on the cop crusader. Warners’ choice was not Eastwood, nor was it “The Duke”, but Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra. As odd as it may seem to picture Dirty Harry scatting a loud “Doo-be-doo-be-dooooooo!”, Sinatra was indeed very interested and went as far as contract negotiations with Warner Bros. For those of you still in disbelief, please note that Sinatra did star as the title role in The Detective (1968) wherein he played the role of Joe Leland. Bruce Willis would later play the same role (albeit renamed to “John McClane”) in the Die Hard series of films, starting in 1988. (See the Next Reel article “Out of Sequence: The Saga of Hollywood’s Hidden Sequels” for more on that story).
The studio was quite keen on sealing the deal to ink the then 55-year-old Sinatra as the man behind the Magnum. Thus, it brought in veteran director Irvin Kershner (who would go on to helm 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back) and the hottest young screenwriting name in John Milius (who would go on to write 1979’s Apocalypse Now). Milius insisted that Warner provide him with a version of the .44 Magnum that the character would be using, for inspiration. He turned in the Sinatra-seducing script in just 21 days.
However, this same gun was partially responsible for Sinatra passing on the role. Having broken his wrist on The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Sinatra found the “hand cannon” that the Magnum actually was to be too unwieldy to convincingly fire. Having also faced the death of his father not long before, Sinatra was eager to seek out lighter fare as opposed to the dark and violent tale that would become Dirty Harry.
Realizing that this meant that its own Dirty Harry would never meet “The Girl from Ipanema” in this film or any of its sequels, Warner Bros. widened its net, hoping to catch a big enough star to make Dirty Harry a success. Marlon Brando was briefly considered (though he reportedly was never made an offer) before Robert Mitchum was given the chance to play the role.
At the time, Mitchum had a rule that the less he liked a script the more money he would demand and the studios always tended to pony up. Mitchum, however, found Dirty Harry to be so deplorable that he would not accept the part “for any amount”, considering it to be one of the “movies that piss on the world” and “a piece of junk”. Mitchum added “If I’ve got $5 in my pocket, I don’t need to make money that fucking way, daddy.” Thus the man who played a serial killer in such films as When Strangers Marry (1944), The Night of theHunter (1955) and Cape Fear (1962) felt that Dirty Harry was too much for him. He turned down the lead role in the seven Academy Award winning film Patton (1970) for similar reasons.
On the other hand, Robert Mitchum’s brother, John Mitchum, did appear in the first three Dirty Harry movies, which may have made for some awkward Thanksgiving table conversations.
Burt Lancaster, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman were all approached to play Dirty Harry, and all of them turned the role down down, although Newman recommended 41-year-old Eastwood for the part. Warner Bros.’ response translates to something along the lines of “Okay, sure, why not Clint?”
Yes, folks, this is arguably Eastwood’s most recognizable role and he was the studio’s eighth choice. Am I the only one imagining Eastwood’s Paint Your Wagon-esque rendition of the song “I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am”? Probably… but still… Eighth Choice? Clint?
At last Warner Bros. offered Eastwood the role and he accepted it under the provision that he would also be able to produce through his own Malpaso Company production corporation. The announcement was made in the press just before Christmas of 1970. From that point, Eastwood maintained an almost Dirty Harry-esque amount of control over the production.
Having first seen the script back in 1969 when Jennings presented it to him (while the project was still at Universal) Eastwood was already intimately familiar with the early stages of the project. Believing that the rewrites had ruined the point of the entire story (to be fair, some versions demoted Harry to a cameo by the last act of the film as Marine snipers took out the bad guy), Eastwood proclaimed “I’m only interested in the original script” and he demanded rewrites.
Another of Eastwood’s provisos was that Don Siegel direct the film. While Eastwood himself was tied up in post-production on his directorial debut Play Misty for Me (also 1971), Siegel was locked into a contract with (you guessed it) Universal Studios, which prevented his involvement in a Warner Bros. picture. Undaunted, Eastwood went to the studio heads at Universal and requested that Siegel be loaned to Warner Bros. for this film. Based, in part, on Eastwood’s success with director Siegel on yet another 1971 film, The Beguiled, Universal agreed and Eastwood (and the Warners) had their helmsman.
Siegel further agreed with Eastwood on the scripts and the duo rejected them all. The villain, now renamed “Scorpio”, was to be a mindless killing machine who committed psychopathic murders simply because he liked to, but Milius’ successor Terrence Malick had upgraded Scorpio into an anti-heroic vigilante who killed wealthy criminals who had escaped justice. Siegel hated the idea and Eastwood agreed that it wasn’t right for the first film, but the story stuck with him and he decided later to revisit the concept.
Eastwood and Siegel hired Dean Riesner to rewrite the screenplay. At Eastwood’s instructions, Riesner used the original Fink and Fink script as the basis for the film with some biting (and quotable) dialogue from Milius’ version kept in and reshaped the plot into a retelling of the real-life saga behind the Zodiac Killer who had stalked the same San Francisco Bay Area that Scorpio would in the film, only a few years before. Detective David Toschi (the chief investigator in the Zodiac case) was even used as a partial inspiration for Callahan himself.
Although the inspiration for the killer was intact, Eastwood, Siegel and Warner Bros. found the villainous and sociopathic character of Scorpio almost as hard to cast as Dirty Harry himself had been. James Caan had also been attached to the role going back to the Sinatra and Kershner days, but he didn’t feel quite right as a match for Eastwood, so the star and director kept looking. Siegel pushed for Audie Murphy to play Scorpio, feeling that having the clean-cut genuine war hero and screen icon play a psychopathic killer would create a delicious irony. That irony was sadly trumped by another as Murphy died in a plane crash before discussions could be finalized.
Eastwood had seen Andrew J. Robinson in a stage performance of Subject to Fits and envisioned the actor as the disheveled, psychologically unbalanced hippie that Scorpio became. Upon seeing Robinson, Siegel readily agreed, believing he had his “irony” angle covered with Robinson, whom Siegel described as having “a face like a choirboy”. Thus, Dirty Harry finally had its perfect villain, right?
Well, not exactly.
The “Choirboy” angle wasn’t far off for Robinson. Those who best remember Andy Robinson as the duplicitous Garak from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993 – 1999) or licking blood from his lips and gleefully growling “Jesus Wept!” before being torn apart by hooks and chains in Hellraiser (1988), not to mention his eventual sadistic turn in Dirty Harry itself, may be shocked to learn that two words accurately used to describe the actor have been “squeamish” and “pacifist”.
Robinson detested the use of firearms in real life and could barely cover his discomfort on film, flinching violently every time his gun was fired. Disturbed by this revelation, but still convinced that Robinson was the best choice, Siegel actually shut down production completely and sent Robinson to classes in order to learn to fire a gun convincingly. While this did work, the astute viewer will still notice Robinson’s eyes closing every time the trigger is pulled.
Robinson was also very uncomfortable with the character’s bigotry, chilling at the use of racist epithets in the film and he absolutely hated having to berate and physically abuse school children in the finalé of the film. Possibly as part of a calming ritual, Robinson’s real-life stepson, Steve Zachs, was chosen to portray one of Scorpio’s hostages.
However squeamish or pacifistic Robinson may be, he is also a very fine actor and his performance has proven to be one of the biggest reasons that Dirty Harry became such a success. Although Milius gets credit for many of the film’s best lines, such as “You have to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel Lucky?’ Well DO YA, PUNK?”, Robinson actually adlibbed many lines that remained in the final product. The line “My, that’s a big one!”, uttered when Dirty Harry first shows Scorpio his gun evoked laughter in the crew, causing the scene to have to be re-shot. However, Siegel loved Robinson’s adlib so much that he had him repeat it for the final cut. “Hubba, hubba, hubba, pig bastard!” was also an adlib on Robinson’s part.
This cop film that had more misfires than any marksman would tolerate, and actually came together remarkably well, thanks to the writing, directing and acting of the well-chosen team that ultimately made Dirty Harry (1971). Released in December 1971, Dirty Harry was a remarkable success, earning $36 million in its initial run against a mere $4 million budget, making it the fifth biggest box office earner of the year. Unsurprisingly, however, the film caused controversy upon release due to its intense violence (it was an envelope pusher for the time). Debates over victim’s rights, police brutality and the nature of law enforcement helped to propel the controversy. At the 44th Annual Academy Awards, feminist groups protested the film, with slogans echoing Robinson’s own, such as “Dirty Harry is a Rotten Pig!”
Although considered a critical darling today, Dirty Harry received mixed reviews in its initial run. Many critics praised the film, particularly Eastwood’s performance, while others, such as Roger Ebert, denounced the film as “fascist”. Today, Dirty Harry holds a 95 percent approval rating on RottenTomatoes.com, and is considered one of the best films of 1971. The film continues to appear on “best of” lists and has proven to be among the most influential films of all time. Many actors, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robert Urich (who latter appeared in the first sequel) cite Dirty Harry as among their biggest influences. For better or for worse, the .44 Magnum enjoyed an upswing in sales after this film’s debut.
Notably, John Wayne, whom this part was written for, regretted having passed on the part and went on to make two Police films McQ (1974), and Brannigan (1975), reportedly spurred on due to the success of Dirty Harry.
Good Actor, Bad Attitude
Police Procedural dramas with edgier cops soon followed with ABC’s Streets of San Francisco (1972), starring Michael Douglas and Karl Malden taking direct inspiration from the film and its success. The ABC TV shows Toma (1973) starring Tony Musante and Susan Strasberg as well as Baretta (1975) starring Robert Blake and Ron Thompson owe debts to Dirty Harry. Ironically, ABC was the very same network that passed on Dirty Harry as a TV movie.
On the negative side, however, just as Dirty Harry took inspiration from the Zodiac Killings, the film went on to inspire copycat crimes (like a school bus hijacking) and the murder of a young girl by a couple who were influenced by the film.
Of course, the impacts were far from merely outside of the Dirty Harry universe as the first sequel was soon commissioned. The Malpaso Company and Warner Bros. again ran with the project, hiring Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) director Ted Post who had also worked with Eastwood on episodes of Rawhide between 1954 and 1964 as well as the feature film Hang ‘Em High (1968).
Milius returned to write the screenplay, but the idea behind the script (originally entitled Vigilance) predated the film’s pre-production and stretched back to Malick’s rejected screenplay for Dirty Harry. One of the many criticisms of the first film was the concept that “Dirty” Harry Callahan was more of a vigilante who took the law into his own hands than a by-the-book cop. Responding to this criticism and combining this concept with Malick’s and Milius’ ideas, Eastwood pushed for a script that actually pit the comparatively straight cop Callahan against a gang of literal police vigilantes who executed criminals the law itself could not punish. Milius also took inspiration from a real-life death squad, “El Esquadrão da Morte”, which operated the previous decade in Brazil during a military dictatorship.
Writer Michael Cimino (who would later create one of the biggest box office disappointments of all time with 1980’s Heaven’s Gate) was brought in to rewrite the script when Milius was unavailable due to commitments to Dillinger (1973), which he both wrote and directed. Cimino’s subsequent screenplay maintained much of Milius’ dialogue and added a number of action sequences to keep adrenaline high.
In the film, ultimately entitled Magnum Force, Callahan is no less of a tough guy, but is portrayed as much more reserved and reasonable than the quartet of killers that he tasks himself to take down. Robert Urich stars as the ringleader of this “gang” of motorcycle cops and is joined by David Soul, Tim Matheson and Kip Niven.
However, it was not merely onscreen clashes that Eastwood faced. Behind the camera, the actor/ producer clashed with Post often, refusing reshoots, declining to authorize sequences Post had envisioned and pushing for a smooth shoot, even when only, as Director of Photography Rexford Metz put it, “seventy percent of a shot” was worked out. Post later said of Eastwood’s control on set: “Clint’s ego began applying for statehood.”
In spite of (or perhaps because of) Eastwood’s creative control, Magnum Force was released to great success on Christmas Day 1973. Topping the box office its opening week, the first sequel went on to become more financially successful than the original and proved to be the sixth highest grossing film of 1973. Critics were not quite as kind to the film often calling it a clone of the first. The morality of the film, much like the first, was also called into question.
That said, the film continued to push the legend of “Dirty Harry” and its influence made even more waves. The film launched the careers of Urich, Matheson and Soul as well as featuring an early performance of Suzanne Somers.
The film also garnered more controversy for its violence (Magnum Force has the highest body count of the entire series) and, sadly, also went on to inspire copycat killings. The “Hi-Fi Murders” were done in imitation of the scene in which the prostitute is killed with drain cleaner. The killers admitted that they were inspired by that scene in the movie, believing that such a method would be as efficient as depicted onscreen and would have chosen another method had they known better. The key words here are that the killers would still have done the killing regardless of the movie’s depiction. They chose this method based on that film, but the film hardly inspired them to kill.
As a response to perceived racism in the first film, Dirty Harry’s partner Early Smith was cast with African American actor Felton Perry. As the success of Magnum Force led directly to a sequel, Callahan was next partnered with a woman, in Tyne Daly’s Kate Moore. This may have been a pandering move considering the feminist outrage the first film inspired, however, Daly proves to be an excellent actress and a tough-as-nails partner in her own right when The Enforcer (1976) is viewed critically.
Then again, The Enforcer has been almost entirely viewed “critically” in spite of Daly’s performance. Critics disliked the perceived carbon copy plot of this third film and Eastwood’s performance was critically derided, just as Daly’s was lauded by many of the same critics. That said, The Enforcer was another huge success, earning many times its budget back, paving the way for a fourth film and earning its spot as the ninth highest grossing film of 1976.
Both the big box office success and relative critical failure of The Enforcer proved to be a far cry from the humble roots of the project. In fact, the screenplay, originally entitled Moving Target was initially not intended to be a Dirty Harry film at all. San Francisco area film students Gail Morgan Hickman and S.W. Schurr, like the writers of the first two films, called upon real life to inspire their script, this time finding inspiration in the Patty Hearst kidnapping. Once the duo saw Dirty Harry and Magnum Force they re-crafted their screenplay into a Harry Callahan vehicle surrounding militant groups similar to the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Black Panther Party.
The problem was, how could two film students get a screenplay under the nose of superstar Clint Eastwood and expect it to become the third film in a hugely profitable series? One couldn’t exactly spit out a James Bond script and expect Albert R. Broccoli to magically snatch it up and green light it any more than these kids could hope for Eastwood’s attention. Luckily for Schurr and Hickman, Eastwood also owned a restaurant and bar in Carmel, California called “The Hog’s Breath Inn”, and Hickman persuaded an associate of Eastwood’s to show him the script. Miraculously (and as an ego boost to all struggling writers) Eastwood loved the concept but thought the idea needed work.
Warner Bros., of course, had its own ideas for the sequel’s screenplay and had already hired veteran screenwriter Stirling Silliphant to pen a third film in the series. Silliphant’s screenplay, Dirty Harry and More, had the bright idea to partner Callahan with a female detective whose last name is “More”. Get it? Get it? Yes. Cleverness almost completely died that day. One must wonder if Silliphant’s next idea was to partner Callahan with Les Nessman from WKRP in Cincinnati for a bold new script called “Dirty Harry and Les”! Perhaps if both had been successful a spinoff could have been created revealing that Nessman was a cross-dressing impersonator of Harry’s previous partner. I envision it being called “Les is More”.
Eastwood loved the idea of having a female partner for Harry, but disliked most of the rest of the script (presumably especially the title). Thus, he provided Silliphant with the Schurr/ Hickman screenplay and the seasoned writer went on to combine the action of the young authors’ work with his own more cerebral ideas.
In the end, Eastwood and director James Fargo brought back writer Dean Riesner for a quick polish (including retitling) and The Enforcer was born. The only person not convinced was Tyne Daly herself, who passed on the role of More (renamed “Moore” for the shooting script) three times before finally accepting. To be fair, the original idea had her character falling in love with Callahan on the job, as opposed to being the dedicated, no-nonsense cop she was. Daly asked for the romance angle to be deleted and accepted when her request was met. That said, she was still horrified by the copious violence in the final film.
As with the first film, critics have rediscovered The Enforcer and it currently holds a 78 percent Fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com. And if that’s not enough of a draw for you, this is the film which marks the first time Eastwood ever had an onscreen utterance of the word “fuck”.
Speaking of which, what is your favorite Dirty Harry franchise quotable line? Better yet, what is the line from the franchise that best says “Dirty Harry” to you and what line is best known of the series?
The aforementioned “Do I feel lucky?” line is sure to show up on the list. “A man’s got to know his limitations” from the second film is memorable to be sure as is that same film’s “I asked if you knew where San Quentin is, and you do, don’t you asshole?” And, of course, there’s the scene in The Enforcer, when crooks demand a police car and just before driving that car through the plate glass window at said crooks, he tells his fellow cops what he’s going to do: “Give ‘em one.”
The list goes on and on, but I’ll bet most of you are going to cite the most iconic line from Dirty Harry as “Go ahead, make my day.” And I would agree with you, that line is awesome. But it was never said during Dirty Harry.
No, the famous “Go ahead, make my day” line was never uttered until the fourth film in the series, 1983’s Sudden Impact. That’s right, arguably the most famous line of the entire saga didn’t pop up until the second to last film. That would be kind of like “May the Force be with you” not being said until Attack of the Clones or “Live long and prosper” being coined for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Callahan’s line is still used in reference to the film and was eventually voted the sixth most memorable line in film history by the American Film Institute.
While it took only five years for the first three films to hit box offices, there was a seven year gap between The Enforcer and Sudden Impact. Reportedly the greenlight for this film is actually owed to yet another action film icon: James Bond.
As I reported in the Next Reel article “The Non-Bonds: James Bond’s Bitter, Decades-Long Battle… with James Bond “, Warner Bros. was the distributor of a competing Bond Flick Never Say Never Again (also 1983) with triumphantly returning star Sean Connery facing off against the main franchise’s Roger Moore in the same year’s Octopussy. Preparing to promote the Bond film, Warner Bros. polled moviegoers for a famous actor and a famous part they played. “Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry” was one of the biggest responses over any of them. Suddenly, Warner Bros. became very interested in resurrecting the franchise and it contacted Eastwood to tell him so. As you could guess he came back with a few provisos.
Eastwood was already exercising an unprecedented amount of control over the series (even directing certain scenes) going back to the first film in the saga. When it came time to return to the Magnum and Sport Coat, Eastwood decided to simply make it official and direct the entire film himself.
So powerful was Eastwood’s clout that he actually received 60 percent of the film’s profits. Eastwood reportedly walked away with a cool $30 million.
With this much power, it easily follows that Eastwood would have cast his girlfriend and repeat collaborator Sondra Locke as the female lead in this fourth film, but the truth is not so simple. Much like The Enforcer, Sudden Impact started out as a completely independent screenplay with no connection to Harry Callahan. That script, written by Charles B. Pierce and Earl E. Smith did already contain the “Make My Day” line, but was originally written as a vehicle for Sondra Locke herself before being rewritten as a Dirty Harry flick by author Joseph Stinson.
As for the film’s successes, Sudden Impact was both the most financially successful and least critically acclaimed to date with continuity and plausibility being especially criticized. However, Roger Ebert was correct in calling the film “a great audience picture”, in that it tripled its $22 million budget, resulting in success for the studio as well as Eastwood.
As for the iconic quote “Go ahead, make my day”, the line was not originally intended for Eastwood or Callahan, but quickly became synonymous with the actor, character and franchise, to the point that many people believe this is a line from the first film. Then President Ronald Reagan famously quoted the line and action films and comedies alike went on to both spoof and pay tribute to the line. The truth behind the line is somewhat more mundane, as it came from a threat Pierce’s father used to make to the writer during childhood. If his chores were not completed by the time dear old dad came home, the Elder Pierce was known to say such an infraction would “make my day”.
Pierce followed Reagan’s line by calling his father and informing him that he was just quoted by the President of the USA. When it came time for Eastwood himself to enter politics, running for the top spot in the city of Carmel-By-The-Sea, his chosen slogan was “Go ahead – Make Me Mayor!”
For all its successes, Sudden Impact marked the final time that Locke and Eastwood starred in a film together (after six successful collaborations). While it’s true that Eastwood never made another film with Locke again, it’s also true that Warner Bros. similarly never made another film with James Bond again. How does that make your day?
With the great success of Sudden Impact this would most assuredly not be the last film Warner Bros. made with Clint Eastwood, particularly where “Dirty Harry” was concerned. Unfortunately, the next film in the series would only arise after a break of five more years.
However, it was much easier to take Clint Eastwood out of the Dirty Harry films than it was to get the Dirty Harry out of Clint Eastwood. The actor’s very next film was produced by Warner Bros. and The Malpaso Company and was known as Tightrope (1984). Written and directed by Richard Tuggle, Tightrope is essentially a Dirty Harry movie with the star, production companies and attitude, but without the name. Eastwood’s character of Wes Block is another Police Detective who shares many traits with the killer he’s hunting (just like in Sudden Impact). The original setting was intended to be San Francisco before it was changed to New Orleans, to differentiate the series, and the original female lead was intended to be Sondra Locke before Warner Bros. nixed the idea due to fears of sameness.
How’s Dirty Harry Feeling These Days?
Diversifying his resume greatly, Eastwood then starred as a cop in the Warner Bros./ Malpaso Company production known as City Heat (1984) in which he plays a cop named Lieutenant Speer who shares so may traits with Harry Callahan that his performance qualifies as a spoof in this comedy film.
By the mid-’80s, Dirty Harry was as hard to escape from as Eastwood’s own “Man With No Name” persona (which he also dusted off a few more times for various projects). In case you couldn’t tell, Eastwood had lots of fun going back to Dirty Harry and characters like him, so for 1988’s The Dead Pool, Eastwood decided “I’ll go back and see how he feels about things now.”
To this end, Eastwood ran with an idea thought up by three of his buddies from the health and fitness scene. Sandy Shaw, Durk Pearson and Steve Sharon came up with the idea of a list of celebrities whose deaths could be predicted and bet on… and a serial killer who finds the list and decides to make it come true. While Shaw and Pearson had both advised on films before (including some of Eastwood’s own), neither of them had any writing credits to their name. To date, The Dead Pool remains their sole credit of this kind. Sharon, who actually wrote the screenplay based on the story he created with Pearson and Shaw, had no other movie credits to his name and The Dead Pool remains his only credit of any kind to date.
Aspiring writers, once again, take note: no matter who you are or what your experience level might be, Eastwood probably wants to read your script.
Controversy was never far off from the Callahan character and protests began even before filming commenced. Believing that “Dirty Harry” was not a very good representative of San Francisco, citizens took to the streets to attempt to convince the city to deny filming permits for the production. If that seems a little over-the-top then you should see The Dead Pool.
By 1988, the style of cop films that Dirty Harry had sired had gotten both more extreme and more comical. Lethal Weapon (1987) pushed the envelope in both categories and The Dead Pool itself debuted in theaters less than a full week before the next phase in action flicks, Die Hard hit (and blew up) silver screens the world over. Writer Steve Sharon and director Buddy Van Horn recognized the debt owed to Dirty Harry and worked toward fitting that film’s title character into the new world of action cinema.
Liam Neeson stars as glitzy Hollywood director Peter Swan, while Patricia Clarkson takes her bow as a popular television journalist. Even Harry Callahan himself becomes something of a celebrity after testifying against a mob boss, sending him to jail, and then cooperating with the media.
Perhaps most humorously, Jim Carrey is cast as Johnny Squares, a drug addicted rock star who lip synchs to Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” (in an over-the-top performance that could only be done by Carrey). This video shoot is for the Film-Within-A-Film called “Hotel Satan”, which Squares’ song is intended to be a tie-in with. As life imitates art, the release of Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction was pushed forward in order to provide a more valid marketing tie-in with the film. Trailers for the film featured the song, which helped to promote the band and the popularity of the song helped promote the film.
Members of the band Guns N’ Roses, though not seen performing their own song, also have cameo appearances in the film. Particularly notable is the scene in which guitarist Slash fires a harpoon through a window, much to the chagrin of Neeson’s director character. Considering the immense popularity that Guns N’ Roses soon enjoyed, Carrey’s performance (which is about five kinds of nothing like Axl Rose’s own) is particularly hilarious.
For those of you objecting and pointing out Carrey’s prowess in his first ever “serious role”, please note that the comedian won the role specifically due to comedy, not drama. Carrey’s audition did not consist of acting out scenes for the movie, but performing Elvis Impersonations for Eastwood. Eastwood and colleagues were reportedly laughing hysterically and thus, young Jim got the part.
Reportedly, Steve McQueen passed up the lead role in the first Dirty Harry film because he didn’t want to make another cop film after Bullitt (1968). Interestingly enough, The Dead Pool features a tribute to Bullitt in its car chase scene. The fact that Callahan’s car is being chased by a remote controlled toy car is both epically amazing (especially from a technical standpoint) and somewhat hard to believe at the same time. The scene is incredible to look at and shocking in its execution (it is reportedly Eastwood’s own favorite scene in the film), but at some point it’s hard not to think “Dude, am I watching a Dirty Harry flick where the star is being chased by an explosive toy?”
For all of its flaws, The Dead Pool still manages to be a good and exciting film with a typically badass performance by Eastwood and a surprising “whodunit”-style mystery that still holds up. However, reaction was mixed from both critics and audiences (not to mention Guns N’ Roses fans). While both Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel gave this fifth film positive reviews, agreeing that it was the best film of the series since the first, it didn’t quite achieve the critical acclaim of other films in the series. While the previous film had more than tripled its $22 million budget and became the most successful film in the series, The Dead Pool made less than $38 million against a budget of $31 million. Not exactly a flop, but far from a blockbuster.
In contrast, Die Hard, which competed with The Dead Pool in many of the same theaters, went on to make over $140 million against a $28 million budget and has spawned four sequels to date.
Sequels would not be in the cards for Dirty Harry, although the relative underperformance of the film is not the reason why. Eastwood has been open about the series having run its course and believed that any films he would make after this one would become parodies due to his age (58 at the time of The Dead Pool’s release). This is, of course, ironic, considering the fact that the original film (released almost 17 years prior) had been written with an actor in his late 50s in mind for the lead. Still, Eastwood scoffed at the idea of any further sequels and still laughs at the idea of “ Dirty Harry VI: Harry Is Retired”. The actor jokes about a retired Harry tiring of using a fly fishing pole and deciding to use his signature .44 Magnum to shoot the fish, instead. Eastwood further facetiously predicted a film in which Callahan would chase and catch criminals using a walker.
Instead of further films, a 1990 video game entitled Dirty Harry (alternately known as Dirty Harry: The War Against Drugs) was created for the Nintendo Entertainment System. This side scroller pits Harry against the drug lords of San Francisco and features Eastwood’s face from the Sudden Impact poster on the packaging, but did not feature any actual contributions from Eastwood. A Dirty Harry pinball machine (packed with electronic quotes) was created by the Williams Manufacturing Company (WMS Industries) in 1995.
A second video game, tentatively entitled Dirty Harry was planned by Warner Bros. Interactive and game developing company The Collective, Inc. for release in 2007. This game, planned for the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, would have been an official series entry taking place between Dirty Harry and Magnum Force. It would have featured an actual performance by Clint Eastwood in voice and likeness, and he would have also benefitted from his creative input. Plans included more depth for the character and an exploration of the man behind the gun. Sadly, undisclosed trouble at The Collective caused the game to be permanently cancelled, though a Facebook group has arisen, attempting to urge Warner Bros. to complete and release the game.
Eastwood went on to even greater successes, including Oscar nominations and wins, starting with 1992’s Unforgiven (which featured something of an “all grown up” version of “The Man With No Name”). In 2008, Eastwood directed and starred in the action / adventure thriller Gran Torino, and rumors in the press and online circulated to suggest that this film was secretly to be the sixth and final film in the Dirty Harry franchise. There was no confirmation as to whether the supposed film would have included scenes of Harry shooting fish or catching bad guys with his walker, but the biggest speculation surrounded retired police detective Harry Callahan tracking down a killer who drives a Ford Gran Torino around town and kills people, one of them Callahan’s own grandson.
Such rumors could never be substantiated, as the stories surrounding the connection between Gran Torino and Dirty Harry proved to be untrue. Still, critics noted the similarities between Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski character and “The Man With No Name” and Dirty Harry Callahan.
Gran Torino wasn’t the first time critics noted similarities between Eastwood’s characters and Callahan. Aside from the aforementioned Tightrope and City Heat, Malpaso and Warner Bros., teamed up again with director and star Eastwood for the 1990 cop buddy film, The Rookie. Critics and audiences saw Eastwood’s character of Nick Pulovski as a thinly veiled representation of Harry Callahan training a young cop to follow in his footsteps. Variety actually referred to The Rookie as “Dirty Harry 5 1/2”, although not exactly meaning it as a compliment.
Dirty Harry lived on in a series of 12 novels published by Warner Books and credited to Dane Hartman (a pseudonym shared by authors Ric Meyers and Leslie Alan Horvitz). The novels became almost as popular as Jerry Lewis in France when French writer Jean-Paul Schweighaeuser translated them for publication on the continent as the Collection Supercops novel series.
An unauthorized novelization came from the pen (and easel) of writer/ artist Frank Miller, famous for such graphic novels as DC Comics’ Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, a number of redefining Daredevil issues for Marvel Comics and his own series Sin City for Dark Horse comics. When Miller, already a huge star for his comics work, saw The Dead Pool he was disgusted and didn’t consider it worthy to be the last Dirty Harry story. In response, Miller created the famous Sin City story That Yellow Bastard in which aging detective John Hartigan stands in for Harry Callahan as he defends and avenges a young girl named Nancy. In 2005 the feature film Sin City was created based on the comic books, including That Yellow Bastard. Die Hard’s own Bruce Willis stepped into the role of Hartigan (and, by proxy, Dirty Harry) and for the film version, Nancy was given the last name “Callahan”.
Unlike most huge franchises out there, there has been no attempt to actually reboot the Dirty Harry series, possibly due to the iconic stature of its leading man. After all, do we really have any valid Clint Eastwood stand-in out there? Any actor who played the part exactly the same would be criticized as unoriginal and farcical, while any actor who brought his own attitude to the role would be criticized as being nothing like the original and borderline blasphemous. In short, there is only one Clint Eastwood.
While I, and probably you, could think of a few actors out there capable of making the role their own and still honoring the past, perhaps having only these five films is really for the very best. Dirty Harry is not James Bond or Batman whom various actors can play whenever the franchise needs fresh blood. Dirty Harry aged with time, and always felt just a little bit outside of whatever time he found himself in. In this age of rampant remakes, reboots and recasting, shouldn’t we have a franchise or two that remain influential and infinitely watchable but not at all able to be recreated?
This inability to recast Dirty Harry with anyone besides Eastwood is both appropriate and humorously ironic. Eastwood was not intended to play the character of Dirty Harry Callahan and was in fact the eighth choice for the part. Once given control of the character, however, he made Dirty Harry his own to the point that it’s almost impossible to imagine any other actor playing the role. Whereas the character was originally written and intended for John Wayne, that actor would have been 64 years old when his Dirty Harry was released. Eastwood left the part permanently at age 58 which was just about the age the Finks originally intended Harry Callahan to be in the first film. Regardless of the original intent, Clint Eastwood and Harry Callahan are, and ought to be, completely inseparable.
Is there any future for the franchise in any form? I, personally, would belly up to the box office to see another Eastwood Dirty Harry flick, regardless of age, even if the film consisted of Harry Callahan debating an empty chair in front of a political convention. Until that happens, I’ll see you in The Next Reel.