Filmsite Movie Review
Dirty Harry (1971)
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Dirty Harry (1971) from director Don Siegel is a seminal vigilante film of the decade, along with The French Connection (1971), the UK's Get Carter (1971), Death Wish (1974) featuring a vengeful Charles Bronson, Walking Tall (1973), The Seven-Ups (1973), and the Australian film Mad Max (1979) with Mel Gibson. Countless other cop-action films have been made to copy this original law-and-order film that was one of the first to appear on movie screens. However, the influential film received no Academy Award nominations. In the same year, Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Gordon Parks' blaxploitation film Shaft (1971) presented alternative views of crime and the place of law in society.

Dirty Harry was considered sensational because of its overt violence and occasional glimpses of nudity. The duelling combatants (the cop and the criminal) throughout the film - an individualistic, unconventional, neo-fascist, super-hero police detective with a .44 Magnum weapon who threw away the rule book, and his complementary opposite - a pathological, malevolent and sadistic criminal who demanded an extortionist ransom of $100,000, both shared traits of brutal violence and insanity.

The police thriller spawned many debates about the political stance of the film and the complex issue of the conflicting rights of victims, suspects, and society. Was it a reactionary message piece against imperfect, "liberal" judicial trends that let 'sicko' criminals get away, literally, with murder? Or was Siegel encouraging audiences to empathically identify with the indiscriminate vengeance of the violent, anarchic, unrestrained vigilante 'killer' on the side of the law who acts as an autonomous police power?

The screenplay, credited to husband-and-wife team Harry Julian Fink & R.M. Fink and Dean Riesner (based on the Finks' story) was also partially written by an uncredited John Milius.

[Note: The film drew parallels with an actual series of murders committed by a gunman (the so-called Zodiac serial-killer) in the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960s. The astrological name Scorpio, and the killer's taunting with coded, written notes were just a few of the similarities between the film's account and the real case. The Zodiac murderer was never identified or caught, however.]

This was the first of many hard-hitting, action-packed sequels starring maverick, renegade cop Inspector "Dirty" Harry Callahan ("Inspector 71") who was famous for sarcastic one-liners, portrayed by steely-eyed Clint Eastwood in a career-boosting role. The iconic part was turned down by Paul Newman, John Wayne, and Steve McQueen. [Earlier in his career, Eastwood had starred in a series of "spaghetti" Westerns with graphic violence filmed by Sergio Leone as an amoral, lone and brutal "Man With No Name" gunfighter. The trio of films included A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966).]

Transferring his persona to the urban environment, Eastwood (in his most famous role) plays the part of an uncompromising, tough, unyielding, street-wise cop in a San Francisco overrun with crime and sexuality (e.g., the Columbus Street red-light district, and other deviant lifestyles displayed in the film). He follows his own unconventional philosophy of justice using "excessive force," ruthless methods, and "the end justifies the means" principle without much regard for the rules and legal regulations of his profession. Often, his methods are as vicious, taunting, sadistic and violent as the behavior of the criminals he opposes.

Advertising posters for the film read:

  • "Dirty Harry and the homicidal maniac. Harry's the one with the badge."
  • "You don't assign him to murder cases. You just turn him loose."
  • "Detective Harry Callahan. He doesn't break murder cases. He smashes them."

Eastwood followed up with four other fast-paced, commercially-successful, but formulaic 'Dirty Harry' cop-thriller sequels:

  • Magnum Force (1973) (d. Ted Post)
  • The Enforcer (1976) (d. James Fargo)
  • Sudden Impact (1983) (directed by Eastwood himself)
  • The Dead Pool (1988) (d. Buddy Van Horn)

Director Siegel and star Eastwood had made other films together before this one: Coogan's Bluff (1968) with Eastwood as an Arizona deputy displaced to NYC, Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), and The Beguiled (1971), and Siegel had also aided Eastwood with his directorial feature debut for Play Misty for Me (1971). Siegel also directed the excellent NY police detective film Madigan (1968) a few years earlier without Eastwood, but with Harry Guardino. This film was the actor's third feature in 1971.

The director took advantage of many scenic views and locales in the picturesque city of San Francisco within the film, although the most famous set-piece - the bank robbery on a downtown street in the film's opening - was shot on a Hollywood studio set.

Plot Synopsis

With bells tolling, the film opens with a zoom-in to a marble wall memorial "in tribute to the police officers of San Francisco who gave their lives in the line of duty" (presented by a citizen's committee) [located at the Hall of Justice, 850 Bryant Street, between 7th and 8th Streets]. Atop the memorial is a representation of a gold San Francisco police badge. With the badge superimposed over the names of dead cops, the camera scrolls down the lists of officers killed, stretching from 1878 to the current year 1970.

The policeman's badge (symbol of law and order) dissolves into the muzzle-barrel end of a high-powered rifle of a criminal sniper - linking the two combatants. The baby-faced, hippie-looking killer, on a rooftop [atop the Bank of America Building on California Ave], has his weapon with a telescopic lens, aimed at a young woman in a yellow, one-piece swimsuit at a nearby roof-top hotel swimming pool [atop the Chinese Cultural Center - Holiday Inn on Kearny Street, two blocks away]. As she swims laps, he pulls the trigger, and blood spurts from a bullet wound in her left shoulder. [The angle of entry would be an impossibility from the vantage point of the killer.] The water turns red as she sinks below the surface.

During the playing of the credits with jazzy, upbeat music from Lalo Schifrin (of TV's Mission: Impossible fame later in his career) ("DIRTY" in the title of the film is a muddy brown color, "HARRY" is bright yellow), a sunglasses-wearing Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) of the San Francisco police force (Homicide Division) investigates, by himself, the scene of the crime and the probable location of the shooter [another rooftop with a gorgeous and dramatic skyline view of the Bay Bridge, Treasure Island, Yerba Buena Island and the surrounding city]. High above the entire city, he discovers the spent shell casing of the rifle (later identified as a "30 ought 6") and carefully places it in a used envelope (addressed to himself at the Homicide Department at 850 Bryant Street from an address in Provo, Utah) and then he finds a ransom note pinned to a TV antenna. A man of few words throughout the entire film, he reacts with a simple expletive, his first line of dialogue: "Jesus." ['Dirty Harry' is called upon to be an avenging angel - an outcast cop to seek and exterminate the evil, Satanic, conscience-less killer destructively let loose in the urban environment. In semi-religious settings, a church near a revolving 'Jesus Saves' sign, and a giant cross atop Mount Davidson Park, Callahan confronts the murderer.]

The handwritten note is projected on a screen and read by the Mayor (John Vernon) [filmed in the actual offices of the SF Mayor at the time]. The deranged sniper, a "madman" calling himself SCORPIO, demands cash or he will resume the killing of random targets among the city's innocent citizens:

To the City of San Francisco, I will enjoy killing one person every day until you pay me one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000). If you agree say so tomorrow morning in Personal Column San Francisco Chronicle and I will set up meeting. (closeup) If I do not hear from you it will be my next pleasure to kill a Catholic priest or a n----r [the last word isn't read outloud].


[The character of Scorpio was based on the real Zodiac Killer, a menacing serial killer to the city in the late 60s who also wrote handwritten letters. The composite character also has elements of Charles Manson and 60s Texas sniper Charles Whitman.] The Mayor concludes to the Chief of Police (John Larch): "The City of San Francisco does not pay criminals not to commit crimes. Instead, we pay a police department." A spiteful, anti-authoritarian and rude Callahan is summoned into the Mayor's office, where he crudely complains about waiting almost an hour: " Oh well, for the past three-quarters of an hour, I've been sitting on my ass in your outer office, waiting on you." The detective reports on the activities of the department into all possible suspects:

We've got a dozen men checking identification files, checking on all known extortionists, rooftop prowlers, rifle nuts, peepers...

And according to Callahan's superior Chief Lt. Al Bressler (Harry Guardino), additional rooftop and helicopter surveillance teams or patrols have already been arranged around the city's Catholic churches and schools and "in the black area." Computers are also being used to run checks on persons who have Scorpio birthdays ("between October 23rd and November the 21st"). The Mayor decides to "agree to pay" the criminal, enhancing the slow-burning, angry gaze of Callahan who disputes the decision:

Callahan: You're gonna play this creep's game? might get somebody killed. Why don't you let me meet with the son-of-a-bitch?
Chief: No, none of that. You'd end up with a real blood-bath.
Mayor: I agree with the Chief. We'll do it this way.

As Callahan departs, he is advised by the Mayor to avoid stirring up violence (as he did in the past in an attempted rape case), but Callahan is contemptuous of authority that limits his effectiveness:

Mayor: I don't want any more trouble like you had last year in the Fillmore District. Understand? That's my policy.
Callahan: Yeah, well, when an adult-male is chasing a female with intent to commit rape, I shoot the bastard, that's my policy.
Mayor: Intent? How did you establish that?
Callahan: When a naked man is chasing a woman through an alley with a butcher knife and a hard-on, I figure he isn't out collecting for the Red Cross.
Mayor: (after Callahan has left) I think he's got a point.

On a San Francisco street where a CALIFORNIA & MARKET STREETS trolley car clangs in the background and underground construction is being conducted, Callahan drives by in his navy blue sedan and illegally parks (at a red curb!) near Pine Street in front of an adult Book Shop, and saunters over to a local Burger Den restaurant (their specialty is Jumbo Hot Dogs). [Around the corner, Eastwood's own directorial debut film that he also starred in, Play Misty For Me, is displayed on a theatre marquee.] While ordering his "usual" lunch (a jumbo hot dog), he cooly asks the counter-server Jaffe (Woodrow Parfrey) about the tan Ford parked across the street in front of the bank. He suspects a bank robbery ("a 211 in progress") and has Jaffe phone the police department for backup support. As he muses to himself, "if they'll just wait 'til the cavalry arrives," he hears the sounding of the bank's alarm system and a gunshot, and must put down his lunch after one bite: "Aw, s--t!"

Callahan calmly strides outside with his monstrous, long-barreled, heavyweight Smith and Wesson .44 Magnum ready for action against the three black men. He singlehandedly stops the heist by shooting and wounding one of the fleeing robbers who backs out at the bank door [one shot], and another [second shot] at a second suspect who runs from the bank and jumps into a getaway car with a driver. Another shot [third shot], that misses its target, is heard when the camera looks from behind the driver. Another blast smashes the windshield of the car driving straight at Harry [fourth and fifth shots], causing it to crash into a flower stand and fire hydrant and turn on its side. Still chewing his lunch and amidst water spewing from the plug, he kills [with a sixth bullet] the passenger in the upturned car who attempts to flee (and then Harry looks down to see his own pantleg with blood seeping through from a leg wound). Finally, he walks over to the entrance of the bank and threatens the wounded bank robber (Albert Popwell) who is reaching for his shotgun on the sidewalk. With an oversized view of his non-regulation weapon, he states his most memorable, courageous and forceful line (ritualistically repeated again almost verbatim at the film's conclusion) when he baits the criminal to gamble on luck with his lethal version of Russian Roulette:

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've kinda 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?

When the thief surrenders and then asks: "Hey, I gots to know," Harry's gun clicks empty as he pulls the trigger aimed at the robber's head. The criminal is spared after making his choice. Although Callahan is an effective enforcer of law and order, his methods also, paradoxically, leave an aftermath of destruction and disarray. The scene on the city block is one of complete havoc - an overturned car and several others wrecked, a hydrant spewing water, several robbers bloodied and dead, and a demolished flower stall.

At a hospital, as Harry is administered treatment by black intern Steve (Marc Hertsens) - he divulges that he has been wounded before in his "line of work," and that his life has suffered a personal tragedy - the death of his wife. Steve apologizes for referencing Harry's wife after he realizes he spoke wrongly. (Later in the film, he describes how she was hit by a drunk driver "who crossed the center line" late one night.)

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