1971. Directed by Don Siegel.
Iconic. Controversial. Misunderstood.
Don Siegel’s legendary cop saga, Dirty Harry, is an abrasive and uncompromising bare knuckle brawl. Built atop a turgid city in distress and featuring one of Clint Eastwood’s most memorable performances, Dirty Harry strips away peaceful reflection, opting to depict a world in violence is not only appropriate, but welcomed. An unapologetic imagining of one man’s obsessive hunt for a serial killer and one of the most revered films of the 70’s, Dirty Harry is a perfect marriage of blue collar grit and heart stopping action.
A serial killer known as Scorpio is terrorizing the streets of San Francisco. Inept bureaucrats and bumbling police administrators are baffled and turn to Inspector Harry Callahan, an infamous detective, to bring the assailant to justice. Paired with a Latino detective, Callahan pursues Scorpio across a variety of locales and tension wound scenarios, in which both the hunter and the prey switch roles numerous times. As the violence escalates, Callahan’s disdain for the system forces him to abandon conventional means in order to stop the killer, leading him to forsake the badge and embrace the trappings of his dubious nickname.
Clint Eastwood’s performance has been unfairly categorized as a macho cop vehicle. One of the best things about Eastwood in this film is how his Harry always seems inconvenienced. He begins as a believer, who is always being interrupted by the nonstop corruption and villainy of the city he’s sworn to protect. He stops a bank heist while absently chewing on his lunch. During a ransom delivery scavenger hunt, Harry meets a myriad of miscreants, each of which he approaches with a tired sense of concern, desperately wanting to be left alone to pursue true evil, and yet unable to stop himself from policing. Yes, he has catchy lines and always exudes an aura of coolness, but it’s the vulnerable outsider that brings everything home.
John Milius worked on the Zodiac Killer inspired script, which portrays San Francisco as a false haven. On the surface, the city is populated by the beautiful and hard working masses, living in relative harmony while the rest of the nation fractured over Vietnam. Underneath the veneer, the police perpetuate bigotry and the system ultimately fails those it seeks to protect. Callahan’s colleagues shame his tactics and yet continue to call on him when the situation demands a forceful response, enriching the theme of necessary transgression when confronted with darkness outside human understanding.
Lalo Schifrin’s unique score combines jazz, creepy voice overs, classic rifts, and free love rock into a eclectic knife that cleaves through the smog, with memorable melodies that are still used in television and other mediums today. Glenn Wright’s costume design is often overlooked, giving Harry a modern hounds tooth blazer, a symbol of his devotion to justice. Bruce Surtees’s brash cinematography features some amazing shots of the nightlife, using aerial photography and stark contrasts to set the dark city apart from it’s sunshine counterpart. There is a wide shot of Eastwood on elevated train tracks that is sublime, and the following sequence, in which Harry jumps onto a moving bus was performed by Eastwood himself.
Everything about Dirty Harry is a perfect convergence. Siegel’s patented directorial genius shines in every scene, using a wealth of technical expertise and a phenomenal central performance to create a singular cinematic endeavor. Available now for digital rental, Dirty Harry is an overwhelmingly American film, revered for it’s tough guy mystique and misjudged for its unrepentant brutality. Underneath the blood and bullets lies one of the more thoughtful cop films of the 70’s,right down to its heartbreaking finale. A slimmed down neo noir in an uncomfortably tight package, Dirty Harry is an essential piece of American crime cinema.