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.

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Eastwood report: Every Which Way But Loose

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Every Which Way But Loose is a tender, human comedy of lost love and tarnished honor, and a penetrating study of domestic turmoil, painstakingly crafted and deeply felt.

Oh, wait, I’m sorry, that’s Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds. Every Which Way But Loose is the movie where Clint Eastwood knocks around with an orangutan.

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Eastwood report: Two Mules For Sister Sara

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Whenever I watch an Elvis movie I wonder for a moment why the Elvis experiment has not been repeated. A series of movies, built around a pop-culture personality, where the performer is more or less playing the same character over and over again regardless of the situation (or even the period) and gets into wacky adventures. And the viewers’ enjoyment of the movies is based in part on their familiarity with the series, like on television, where we delight in watching Homer Simpson enter into a situation because we’ve seen him react so hilariously in similar situations. We laugh before he even acts.

Watching Two Mules For Sister Sara, it occurred to me that Clint Eastwood, a contemporary of Presley, not only took the "Elvis Movie" concept to heart but applied to it an intelligence and sensitivity that has created a corpus pretty much unparalleled in American cinema (except maybe for Chaplin, and Eastwood’s East-Coast nemesis Woody Allen) — for 45 years now, Eastwood has revisited this "Clint Eastwood" character he created, put him into this or that situation (revolutionary-era Mexico, post-Civil-War Montana, modern-day Detroit) and let the plot do its job, confident that the audience will want to check in with "Clint Eastwood" and see how he’s feeling these days. The difference between Elvis and Eastwood is that Elvis was a hapless pawn in the grip of cynical chicanery, and Eastwood is a born cinematic artist, which means that the "Elvis" character never developed, but Eastwood’s has: he’s grown, and grown older, he’s embraced and resisted change, he’s matured and mellowed, he’s become haunted and regretful. One can watch Eastwood from A Fistful of Dollars to Gran Torino and come away with a kind of cinematic biography of a character.

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Eastwood report: Joe Kidd

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The other day I noted the sheer number of Clint Eastwood movies I hadn’t seen, an odd lapse for me regarding a filmmaker I admire so much. So I harnessed the power of the internet and bought an abnormally large number of Clint Eastwood movies. I set my budget at no more than $3 per movie and had no trouble keeping it through As I stroll through this forest of Eastwoodness, I will report in to my loyal readers.

Joe Kidd hits at an odd place for Eastwood — it’s in between Dirty Harry and High Plains Drifter. The Outlaw Josey Wales, which I think of as Eastwood’s first inarguable masterpiece, is still four years off. It’s directed by John Sturges, but it’s produced by Eastwood and is obviously tailored to fit his established persona — it all but winks at us as it sets up its Eastwoody goodness. It has an "Old Hollywood" Technicolor look about it, with bright, saturated colors (the blood looks like tempura paint) and only occasionally pays attention to light in the way I associate with Eastwood. It’s got Robert Duvall in it (concurrent with The Godfather but after his bad-guy part in the John Wayne vehicle True Grit) as a rich white guy, which makes it feel very modern, and John Saxon as a Mexican, which makes it feel very old-fashioned. It’s got a screenplay by Elmore Leonard, and even bears signs of his leanness of narrative — little is explained in Joe Kidd, and the story is extremely simple.

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Clint Eastwood: the good, the bad and the ones I haven’t seen

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I’ve been thinking a lot about Unforgiven lately, which leads me to think a lot of Clint Eastwood, which leads me to think of, strange as it sounds, Woody Allen. It’s hard to think of Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen as even existing on the same planet, much less as comparable artists, but they are two of my favorite living American directors, they are roughly contemporaries (Eastwood is five years older), they both get to make just about any kind of movies they want to make, and, since the mid-1960s, each has managed to get at least a movie a year into the theaters, on their own terms and following their own particular muses. Nobody gets to make movies in this manner any more.

(Thinking about Clint Eastwood also, inevitably, leads me to think about John Wayne, whose work urbaniak and I have been soaking up lately. I grew up watching Clint Eastwood movies, assuming they were some sort of "answer" to John Wayne movies. Wayne, popular imagination had it, was a reactionary crank who stood for everything Just and American, while Eastwood was a cold-hearted psychopath intent on critiquing everything that Wayne stood for. I thought all that without ever watching a John Wayne movie, and so now I’m lost, because I’m learning that John Wayne, too, was also intent on critiquing everything that John Wayne stood for. And then, of course, Eastwood has spent a good deal of his career critiquing everything that he has stood for. It’s all so confusing.)

Anyway, nobody asked, but because I’m a list-making sort of person, here is my listing of Clint Eastwood movies in order of preference:

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The Eiger Sanction

Jonathan Hemlock is a government assassin — with a taste for murder.

I’m sorry, that didn’t actually mean anything.  Let me start again.

Jonathan Hemlock is a government assassin.  He’s retired, but wouldn’t you know it, his super-secret agency needs him for one last job.  He tells them, on no uncertain terms, that he’s out of the game, but his Pure Albino boss Dragon (How do we know he’s a “Pure Albino?” why, he obligingly tells us so when we meet him — “Dr. Hemlock, did you know I’m a Pure Albino?” he says, coiled up in his dark, climate-controlled lair, licking his lips from the sheer perversity of it all, looking for all the world like Jabba the Hutt’s sickly little brother) —

I’m sorry, where was I?  Oh yes, Dragon lures Hemlock (these names, I swear, and we haven’t even gotten to Pope, Jemima or Miss Cerberus yet) —

Anyway, Dragon pressures Hemlock into pulling one last — no, wait — two last jobs for the agency.  (Christ, this is turning into the “Spanish Inquisition” sketch.)  Which agency?  Oh, you know, the super-secret US spy agency that crops up all over the place in 1970s spy thrillers — Three Days of the Condor, Marathon Man, etc., the super-secret spy agency that was known only by its members and all Hollywood screenwriters.

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Sudden Impact

left to right: Ronald Reagan, Sudden Impact, George W. Bush, Bring it On.

Please tell me I’m not the first person to notice this:

When Ronald Reagan wanted to talk tough, he lifted a line from a Clint Eastwood movie.  When George W. Bush wanted to talk tough, he lifted the title of a cheerleading movie. 

Makes perfect sense: Reagan (although an evil, lizard-faced moron) saw a kinship in Eastwood, a fellow conservative, cowboy and Last Good Man.  And Bush was, literally, a cheerleader.  I can actually imagine him watching Peyton Reed’s cheerleading drama (a wonderful movie in its own right) for the fifth time in the screening room at the White House, nodding his head sagely and thinking “Yes, this is how it really was.”  And then, the light bulb goes off: this is the message he will bring to the terrorists.  He sets his jaw, grits his teeth and speaks the words aloud: “Because I’m a cheerleader, dammit.”

UPDATE: It has come to my attention that there are people unfamiliar with the Reagan quote.  When standing up to somebody or other (Gadaffi, the Russians, who knows) he invoked Sudden Impact‘s catchphrase, “Go ahead, make my day.”  It was as obscene then as saying “bring it on” regarding international terrorism is now.  Imho.

Clint Eastwood is a personal artistic hero of mine and one of America’s greatest living directors, but when he’s bad he’s really quite bad; tin-eared, flat-footed, careless and slipshod.  Sudden Impact is notable, at least philosophically, for the scenes involving Eastwood’s relationship with the Sondra Locke character, as  we find Dirty Harry having unexpected rapport with the target of his investigation, but in all other regards it is one of his least interesting movies (although this fan has yet to see The Rookie and Pink Cadillac).  It is mostly poorly shot, muddy and ugly, with very little of the interest in light that normally characterizes Eastwood’s work (the elegant, sublime Pale Rider was his very next movie).  The acting is serviceable at best and quite appallingly horrible at it’s worst (mostly the sneering, smirking, giggling, scowling, bellicose bad guys — okay, okay, we get it, they’re bad).  Pat Hingle, one of our most reliable of character actors, is given a stupefyingly long expository monologue late in the movie (“Let me tell you my comatose son’s side of the story”) and even an artist as great as he cannot find anything to do with it. 

The script puts two protagonists on parallel tracks; unfortunately, we’re only interested in one of them, and the one we’re interested in isn’t Dirty Harry.  Sondra Locke pursues and punishes the men who raped her and her sister while Harry beats up some people, causes an old man to have a heart attack, shoots some would-be robbers, gets shot at by some mobsters, retaliates, gets yelled at by his superiors, runs into some more bad guys, has to kill them, so on.  Harry’s action is fulsome but without dramatic impact (sudden or otherwise).  Fully half the movie passes before the two protagonists literally bump into each other (via the hoariest of cliches, the pet dog, no less) and it’s even longer before Harry has any idea who’s killing all the rapists.  It’s strange to watch a Clint Eastwood movie and to keep thinking “yeah, yeah, Harry’s interesting, but where’s Sondra Locke?” but that’s what happens here; her character is given all the dramatic thrust in the picture.  That shows both Eastwood’s generosity and weakness as a dramatist — his own character is given pointless busywork to do while his nominal antagonist runs off with the movie.

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