The Trials and Tribulations of "Dirty" Harry Callahan

Feeling lucky, punk? The road from obscurity to legend wasn't easy for Clint Eastwood's iconic character Dirty Harry. Think you know the back story? Read on!

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.

"Clint's ego began applying for statehood."
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 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.

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