Movie Night with Urbaniak: Dirty Harry

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Somehow, urbaniak has gone all these years without seeing Dirty Harry. And I guess my recent enthusiasm for Things Eastwood is catching, because we’ve set aside our recent John Ford/John Wayne kick to watch Eastwood’s breakthrough 1971 detective thriller.

Here’s the funny part: in the "special features" part of the recent DVD set (which boasts a stunning transfer, by the way), Robert Urich (an actor whose work I’m familiar with primarily through Stuntman Mike’s discussion of it in Death Proof) hosts a little documentary on the Dirty Harry series where he paces the movies’ San Francisco locations and gingerly tries to provide the viewer with some social and cinematic history so that we can place Harry Callahan in his proper perspective as we watch the movie.

For the young, some background: when Dirty Harry came out in 1971, it caused an eruption of concern about police brutality and the rights of the accused. Pauline Kael famously denounced it as a "fascist" movie. The "message" of Dirty Harry, according to the very concerned people of 1971, was that when the law fails, people should not hesitate to take justice into their own hands. Harry Callahan was condemned as a monster and celebrated as a populist (read: bonehead) hero, and eventually turned into a cartoon character by the actor who played him.

The shocking thing is that someone, maybe even Eastwood, felt the need to "explain" Harry Callahan all these years later, otherwise we might feel confused or guilty or, well, dirty, watching the movie. Which seems to me to be antithetical to the whole point of the character. It’s as though Kael and her well-meaning ilk somehow "got" to Eastwood, colored his view of the character he himself created, made him think "Good lord, do people really think I’m a fascist? I’d better explain all of this before somebody gets the wrong idea." Harry Callahan explaining himself isn’t Harry Callahan any more. And as recently as last Thursday, there were critics — intelligent, responsible critics — breathing sighs of relief at Gran Torino because it showed that Clint Eastwood had finally repudiated the "message" of Dirty Harry, apologized for the monstrous blight it had brought upon our culture.

Which strikes me as bullshit.

Dirty Harry is not a political treatise, or if it is, it’s not a very good one. It’s a character drama, and a very good one. If it were a political treatise, it would be unwatchable 39 years later, which it is not — rather, it remains, as it was in 1971, a gritty, thrilling and quite powerful drama about this guy named Harry Callahan.

Who is Harry Callahan? Harry Callahan is a guy who has put everything he has into the job of being a police officer. Everything, including his ability to get along with people — anyone. He has no wife, no girlfriend, no partner, no friends on the force — he’s utterly isolated, and his isolation, as Urbaniak noted, is the subject of the movie.

Harry’s designated partner in the narrative, Gonzalez, repeatedly asks Harry why they call him "Dirty" and gets several different answers, but Harry reveals the truth, and the kernel of the character, after he gets a jumper down from a ledge by making him feel like an idiot and then punching him unconscious: he is "Dirty Harry" because he gets all the shitty jobs. Harry gets all the shitty jobs because nobody likes him, and he seems to always get results.

(The jumper scene brought to my mind Greg House, and in a way House is a very Harry Callahan type of character — he acts like an an asshole, he genuinely doesn’t like people, yet he constantly saves them, has dedicated his life to the task, has nothing else.)

Along comes this killer, Scorpio, who’s batshit insane and who proceeds to tie the city into knots with his senseless attacks. All official channels of law enforcement are powerless against this nut and his batshit-crazy schemes, which means that Harry is given the job of tracking him down. Harry forms a weird, intimate bond with this psycho, far more interesting and textured than in most other detective-vs-psychopath narratives, and driven by Harry’s sense of dislocation, isolation and mounting anger.

People like Harry Callahan because he’s "cool," but he’s not cool, at least not in this movie — he’s a total loser, a man adrift in a culture and time he doesn’t understand, lucky to have a job and keeping going, like his redneck cousin Philo Beddoe, searching for some sense of honor in this fallen world. We never find out what Harry does in his spare time because he has no spare time — all he does is his job, which he hates, but which he keeps doing in the hopes that something decent might come out of it.

Yes, the "rights of the accused" argument comes up, and yes, we are meant to share Harry’s outrage at a system that favors a sadistic killer over his victims, but the "issue" is put to dramatic use, not political use.  This isn’t Brecht, this is Hollywood.  Dirty Harry is no more "about" victim’s rights than Joe Kidd is "about" land rights.  The issue is used as pretext for drama, not the other way around.

As the direction of Dirty Harry, the new transfer really shows it off — the blacks are inky, the suspense is palpable (this was a Movie Night with no bathroom break — an extreme rarity in this house), the flat, ugly, fake-documentary visual scheme is complex and cinematic in a way I don’t generally associate with Don Siegel.

If Eastwood (or whoever) really wanted to take the time to place Dirty Harry in its proper context, he should have placed it in the context of the post-Bullitt police thrillers of the late 60s-early 70s — gritty, detailed, character-based dramas about the difficult lives of unhappy men who have chosen to place themselves between society and criminals who prey upon it.


20 Responses to “Movie Night with Urbaniak: Dirty Harry”
  1. r_sikoryak says:

    I didn’t know Dirty Harry was still seen as a monstrous blight on our culture.

    Now I’m a little disappointed that everyone has forgiven the 1950’s horror comics. I mean, what do you think Scorpio grew up reading?

  2. Anonymous says:

    If Eastwood (or whoever) really wanted to take the time to place Dirty Harry in its proper context, he should have placed it in the context of the post-Bullitt police thrillers of the late 60s-early 70s — gritty, detailed, character-based dramas about the difficult lives of unhappy men who have chosen to place themselves between society and criminals who prey upon it.

    When I finally saw it (about 10 years ago), I couldn’t understand why anyone would think of Dirty Harry in any context other than this. And you still hear Harry Callahan’s name taken in vain.

    In a completely different context, your wife has a funny Dirty Harry story.


  3. planettom says:

    I wonder when that Robert Urich documentary was filmed, since he died 7 years ago…

  4. mitejen says:

    Didn’t the Death Wish movies garner a similar reaction? Like, there was an incident on the subway in NYC and people blamed this movie and Death Wish?

    I still haven’t watched the Dirty Harry movies myself, but I do love some Clint Eastwood. I kind of always hoped that if they did a Batman Beyond movie he’d play the elderly Bruce Wayne.

    • I think you may be thinking of Bernard Goetz.

      • mitejen says:

        That’s the one. I didn’t see a link on the ‘Death Wish’ Wiki page or on the link from Charles Bronson (even though they weren’t explicitly connected to the events, a lot of people seem to draw lines between them anyway).

    • 55seddel says:

      Or an elderly Logan/Wolverine, that would make more sense.

      • mitejen says:

        I think I was cross-referencing Batman Beyond with the Batman of ‘Dark Knight Returns.’ Not sure why, but I often hear Eastwood’s voice when I read it.

        • Todd says:

          That doesn’t surprise me: Frank Miller hears Eastwood’s voice coming out of Batman’s mouth as well. In the current All Star Batman & Robin Robin even goes so far as to comment on it.

          • mitejen says:

            Oh, I haven’t read that. I read ‘The Dark Knight Strikes Again’ and that was honestly the last Frank Miller I’ve read. I just. . . lost interest in the overall theme, I guess.

          • I think if comic fans paid closer attention to Eastwood movies, they wouldn’t be as puzzled about the direction Miller’s work has taken.

            • cdthomas says:

              During my second viewing of Watchmen,

              I imagined Jackie Earle Haley playing Eastwood’s son, because he had honed himself as Rorschach to that precise squinty con attitude as Eastwood had in Escape from Alcatraz.

  5. Speaking of great movie characters that eventually turned into cartoons, I watched “First Blood” last night for the first time. Holy Sh!t. I haven’t been that locked into a film for a long time, and I saw it on AMC with commercials. Hard to believe this is the same guy that did “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.”

  6. 55seddel says:

    Dirty Harry is proof that Clint Eastwood plays a better modern day cop than John Wayne.

    The solution to your problem of what Clint is in his westerns could be that he is a reverse anachronism. An urban hunter dealing with people who are intellectually behind him.

  7. zodmicrobe says:

    Yes to everything you said. And it’s particularly fascinating to watch ZODIAC shortly after.

    Hey, I have a totally unrelated request. For some reason recently (speaking of Fincher), I’ve been thinking about viewing ALIEN3 again– the “rough cut” Fincher wanted which is on the Alien Quadrilogy set. It’s a much richer, more fascinating movie (and a lot better structured). I don’t recall if you’ve ever analyzed ALIEN3, especially in the context of the theatrical vs the Fincher rough, but I find the structural differences really fascinating.

    • Anonymous says:

      Zodiac v. Fantasy; Cool Customer v. Bitter Loser

      Yeah, after seeing ‘Zodiac’ (and especially after having my ‘tension responders’ yanked on in its first 20 minutes), it’s no wonder this fantasy of retribution came up. Who wouldn’t want to see Zodiac deal with Clint Eastwood’s loner fury?

      Also, regarding Dirty Harry’s loser, loner lifestyle: check out his bachelor pad in ‘Magnum Force.’ A bed, a TV, and an empty dorm fridge with a soggy sammich and a six of Olympia. Eeeew! Everybody else in the film, except Briggs, has a family or an active social group. The producers try to make Harry less of a chump by having women throw themselves at him, but seriously, that apartment! And he’d had a wife at one time? Harry blames a ‘drunk crossing the double line,’ but I think that gal wanted OUT!

      Rockie Bee

  8. stormwyvern says:

    If there are indeed film critics who still think that “Dirty Harry” had some kind of social agenda as was promoting the idea of people taking the law into their own hands, they must really hate most modern cop movies, because at this point, it’s pretty much expected that many if not most cop films will have the protagonist forced to work outside of the law when the law fails to bring about justice. It’s so common that few people even raise an eyebrow at it anymore, and I doubt anyone is seriously making the argument that these movies promote some kind of fascist ideal.

  9. I’ve actually never seen Dirty Harry, but now I find myself interested in it.

    Was just curious if you’d consider doing a review of Training Day? I find it to be the one “modern day” dirty cop movie that is very well done.