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Dirty Harry: Nothing Wrong with Shooting the Right People

From Dirty Harry

The year Dirty Harry was released (1971) saw several demonstrations of angry cops questioning why criminals had very solid constitutional protections that often interfered with law enforcement work.

"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.

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