In 1971, when a script called Dead Right landed in Clint Eastwood’s hands, it was one step from the Hollywood graveyard. Steve McQueen had turned it down, as had Paul Newman. Frank Sinatra, well past his cinematic prime, stepped in then dropped out. Burt Lancaster passed, and so did Robert Mitchum, who later explained that he wasn’t “a complete whore. … There are movies I won’t do for any amount. … Movies that piss on the world.”
Nobody but Eastwood wanted to play Harry Callahan, a San Francisco police inspector with an aversion to certain tedious elements of the Bill of Rights and a taste for vigilantism administered via his .44 Magnum. And nobody but Dirty Harry’s creators was particularly happy when the movie caught on. Roger Ebert was one of many critics to call it “fascist.” Pauline Kael—like Eastwood, a San Francisco native—was furious to see her hometown, already known as “the red center of bleeding-heart liberalism,” exploited to focus the “unifying hatred of reactionaries.” (Some things never change.) Kael called the movie a “deeply immoral … right-wing fantasy.”
Warner’s new seven-disc edition of the Dirty Harry series offers all five of the movies that, between 1971 and 1988, intermittently gripped the public, coined half a dozen catchphrases, and launched a long-running debate about their quaintly repugnant, strangely adaptable politics. The extras include five commentary tracks (though none by Eastwood) and six hours of documentaries. But the most fascinating artifacts here are the films themselves, particularly the first three, which offer a tour down a scuzzy side street of mainstream ‘70s cinema. With their helicopter shots, plasterboard sets, no-second-take performances, and light-jazz soundtracks, they’re the kind of movies that, for critics at the time, seemed to define the decade as a low point in Hollywood filmmaking, no matter what they might have been seeing from Robert Altman or Francis Coppola.
Dirty Harry based its plotline on the same late-’60s murders that inspired David Fincher’s Zodiac (in which Harry is unflatteringly referenced). The Zodiac killings went unsolved, but Dirty Harry reimagines them as the work of Scorpio, a shaggy-haired sniper who blends easily with the city’s post-hippie community. In one shot that especially outraged the film’s detractors, he’s shown wearing a peace-sign belt buckle. The implication wasn’t that the anti-war movement was sheltering murderers but, rather, that liberal peaceniks would never notice one more lunatic in their midst.
The movie’s most inflammatory sequence is not Harry’s famous, twice-delivered “Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?” monologue. It’s the scene in which Harry traps Scorpio and then tortures him to learn the whereabouts of his latest victim (who, unbeknownst to Harry, is already dead). “Rights.… I have rights,” Scorpio shrieks, sniveling as Harry’s foot presses down on his bleeding leg. Because of Harry’s literal overstepping, the killer eventually goes free; he then hires a large black thug to beat him up so that he can work the easily duped court system by filing a false police-brutality claim. While the city’s brass wants to bargain with Scorpio, Harry knows the only solution is to hunt him down and kill him. Which he (spoiler alert) does.
In other words: Of course this is a right-wing fantasy. Ideologically, Dirty Harry was a well-calculated sop to the group of Americans that Richard Nixon identified in 1969 as the “Silent Majority” (though neither word was entirely accurate), those for whom everything about the period, from burning ghettos to women’s lib to anti-war marches represented steps toward barbarism.
Over the years, though, some critics have given the film a bit of a revisionist free pass for its particular brand of malarkey. That’s due in large part to its director, who claimed to be as appalled by Harry as many of the movie’s fiercest critics. Dirty Harry was made by Don Siegel, a self-professed liberal whose Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Riot in Cell Block 11 had won him a kind of cult status among cinephiles who saw a through line in his work, which more than once depicted prickly, amoral, or even criminal outsiders in opposition to a corrupt or dimwitted establishment. Siegel shrewdly began spinning even before Harry’s release: Calling the original script “terrible,” Siegel proffered his take, which was that Harry was just as bad as Scorpio “in his way.” He added, “We show that within the force there are ‘pigs’ like this.”
Reinforced by the ads (“a movie about a couple of killers … the one with the badge is Harry”), some auteurists saw Harry not as a right-winger fighting wimpy liberals, but as a cowboy protecting a frontier that had succumbed to lawlessness. It’s almost a legitimate reading—that is, if you ignore the actual screenplay, which was overhauled by hard-core conservative and noted munitions enthusiast John Milius. Harry, says Milius on the discs, was a response to “the liberal bureaucratic morass that we all live in.” There’s not much political ambivalence there, or in Eastwood’s remark that in 1971, “everyone was so sick of worrying about [rights of] the accused … [the movie] was in resistance to out-and-out stupidity.”
Out-and-out stupidity soon became a series hallmark. Siegel wasn’t a great director (and he certainly wasn’t the actor’s director that Eastwood needed back then), but he had a craftsmanly sense of visual storytelling; his impenetrably inky night scenes and his use of the lurching verticality of San Francisco as a sniper’s dream terrain are still effective. Siegel was also economical: “If you shake a movie,” he once said, “ten minutes will fall out.”
If only someone had shaken the 124-minute Magnum Force (1973) two or three times. Milius, who co-wrote the script with Michael Cimino, says the movie was intended as an “answer” to the charge that Harry was fascist; here, his enemies would be real fascists, a jackbooted gang of motorcycle policemen that moonlights as a death squad, killing criminals who they say would be behind bars “if the courts worked properly.” When Harry first encounters these guys on the firing range, he’s downright giddy at their marksmanship. “When I get back on homicide, I hope you boys’ll come see me,” he says, as flirtatious as Mae West. (When another cop comments that the close-knit pack seems almost “queer for each other,” Harry replies, “If the rest of you could shoot like them I wouldn’t care if the whole damn department was queer.”)
But when Harry finds out what they’re up to, he’s … concerned. “When police start becoming their own executioners, where’s it gonna end?” he muses, expressing some fear that police might kill people for minor offenses. Apparently, it’s not the principle that’s flawed—only its potential misapplication. The evil cop’s response: “Either you’re for us or you’re against us.” (Congratulations to George W. Bush for being the only politician ever to lift the villain’s line from a Dirty Harry movie. Perhaps Harry’s oft-repeated mantra from this film—”A man’s got to know his limitations”—wasn’t as appealing.)
As early as 1972, Eastwood and Co. already knew that Harry’s image needed cleaning up; the sequel offers no reprise of the original’s not-quite-serious statement that “Harry hates everybody—limeys, micks, hebes, fat dagos, niggers, honkies, chinks.” Thus, Magnum Force teams Harry with a black officer—temporarily, of course, since Harry’s partners tend to meet their makers in the line of duty before the closing credits. In The Enforcer (1976), he’s forced to pair with a woman—”Lady fuzz!” a bad guy calls her—played by a pre-Cagney & Lacey Tyne Daly with every shred of dignity she can muster while performing chase scenes in knee-length suede boots and carrying a huge purse. The Enforcer draws its boogeyman inspiration everywhere, from the Manson family to the SLA, inventing the “People’s Revolutionary Strike Force” and, better still, a black-power group called “Uhuru” run by one “Big Ed Mustapha.” There’s little ideology on display, however, just a silly climax involving an exotic new weapon called a “taser gun” which seems to have been fashioned by Warner’s props department out of a shoe box and a can of silver paint. By now, Harry is almost a teddy bear; he approvingly tells Daly, “Whoever draws you as a partner could do a hell of a lot worse,” just before she takes a slug to save his life and, possibly, her future acting career.
Historically, Harry has come out to play only for Republican presidents; he went into mothballs during the Carter administration, and probably should have stayed there. The last two Dirty Harry movies feel like studio horse-trades that bought Eastwood freedom to pursue the more ambitious, nuanced path he was already clearing for himself as an actor and director. He stepped behind the camera for 1983’s bloody, brutish Sudden Impact, in which Harry acquired a farting bulldog as a sidekick while pursuing, not unsympathetically, a woman who is picking off the men who raped her. But it’s memorable chiefly for handing Ronald Reagan a re-election-campaign present with “Go ahead—make my day” (a line that actually originated in the exploitation movie Vice Squad a year earlier).
As for The Dead Pool (1988), in which Harry investigates a series of murders surrounding the production of a horror movie, the “before they were stars” casting is a happy accident; the supporting players include Liam Neeson, Patricia Clarkson, and “James” Carrey as a heroin-addicted pre-Goth rock star who lip-syncs “Welcome to the Jungle.” But the script is little more than an especially gory episode of “Murder, She Wrote.” The streak of political taglines also ended with this tin-eared enterprise—unless John McCain decides to deploy “You forgot your fortune cookie—it says you’re shit outta luck” during a debate.
Eastwood recently scotched rumors that he’d be blowing the dust off Harry for one final escapade, saying the character would simply be too old to remain remotely credible as a police officer. (Now he worries about credibility?) More to the point, though, the man who incarnated him is, at this point, simply too smart to try to rehabilitate a cop who was a relic the day he was conceived. “It was fun for a while,” says Eastwood in a typically laconic 2001 interview on the DVD. But, he adds, “[S]ometimes it’s best to leave a good thing alone.” Perhaps wisely, he doesn’t elaborate on exactly what the good part was.