Eastwood’s archetypal action hero debuts with a cult classic that was certainly unlucky for some
At the dawn of the 1970s, it didn’t take a PhD in sociology to determine that America had issues. The stories on the nightly news read like a grocery list of everything that could go wrong in society—war, poverty, inner city rot, racial unrest, and so forth. Crime in particular was a major concern. Statistics proved it was on the rise and growing more violent, and not just in major cities. A political battle was waged between conservatives and liberals as to the root cause of all the craziness and how best to address it. Naturally, there was little overlap in their proposed solutions. Conservatives believed it was time to get tough on criminals with strong policing tactics and harsher sentences. Liberals argued this is what got us in trouble in the first place, especially in minority communities where civil rights were routinely violated.
Throughout the late 1960s several laws were passed to strengthen civil rights and bring a uniform system of justice to the courts. Two key U.S. Supreme Court cases, Miranda v. Arizona and Escobedo v. Illinois, affirmed criminal suspects’ rights under the U.S. Constitution. These actions had no effect on the problem, and a growing segment of the population began to think that the courts were being soft on crime. They felt as if they were besieged by a crime wave that the government was powerless to stop. They feared going out at night and that there was no one to protect them. It was out of this chaotic mess that Dirty Harry was born.
The character of police inspector Harry Callahan first appeared in a screenplay by husband and wife writing duo Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink. He was a tough-as-nails New York cop on the trail of a serial killer modeled after the real-life Zodiac Killer who at the time was terrorizing San Francisco. The setting was later moved to Seattle as different actors were considered for the lead character. Every big actor at the time was approached, from Frank Sinatra to Steve McQueen to Paul Newman and so on. They all turned down the part mostly because of the story’s violent, bleak nature. In 1970, the script made its way to Clint Eastwood, who was then finishing his directorial debut, the thriller Play Misty For Me.
Mayor: Callahan, I don’t any more trouble like you had last year in the Fillmore district. Understand? That’s my policy.
Harry: 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?
Harry: 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. [Leaves the room]
Mayor: I think he’s got a point.
Eastwood was an up-and-comer at this point in his career, making a name for himself in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western trilogy and a handful of American westerns and war pictures. He had portrayed a cop only once up to this point, a small-town Arizona sheriff in 1968’s Coogan’s Bluff who is sent to New York City to track down an escaped killer. The film was directed by Don Siegel, and the two worked together again on 1970’s Two Mules for Sister Sara and The Beguiled the following year. Siegel and Eastwood had a strong working relationship, so it only seemed natural that Siegel take the helm for Dirty Harry. They moved the setting of the story to San Francisco, a city that held a special place in Eastwood’s heart as the city where he was born. And the city, in all its post-hippie, liberal glory is very much a character in the story. Also along for the ride is a strong supporting cast that included Andrew Robinson as the killer, Scorpio, Reni Santoni as Callahan’s partner, Chico, and John Vernon as the Mayor. The Finks’ tight script included some uncredited contributions from John Milius and Terence Malick. But no review of Dirty Harry is complete without mentioning the hardware, namely Callahan’s .44 Magnum.
The Smith &Wesson Model 29 revolver was introduced in 1955 as a handgun designed to fire a .44 (read 44 caliber) Magnum round. This bullet was made to be used in sidearms for big game hunters because of its tremendous stopping power. It was not designed for self-defense and certainly not meant to be carried by police officers. The Model 29, which featured different designs of varying barrel lengths, was a heavy enough weapon that it could withstand the recoil of firing a .44 round. It was billed as the most powerful handgun in the world, and it held that title for many years. The fact that Dirty Harry carried one made him a truly dangerous peace officer, and in the film, whenever he fires his gun, you hear a sound not unlike that of a cannon going off. Obviously, it’s amplified for dramatic effect, but for anyone wanting to watch a movie where a no-nonsense cop cleans up the streets, it’s cool as hell. Sorry, not sorry. It’s no wonder that the Model 29 was the most popular handgun in America for many years after Dirty Harry came out.
Harry’s .44 is not the first gun we see in the film, though. The first weapon brandished is in the film’s opening sequence when Scorpio shoots a woman from a rooftop at several hundred yards with a high-powered rifle. Harry is assigned to investigate and finds a note left by Scorpio that demands the city pay him $100,000 or he will gladly kill again. The Mayor is notified and agrees to go along with Scorpio’s game. Harry, whose sneer speaks volumes about his faith in the Mayor’s plan, prepares to hit the streets to crack the case.
Harry stops by his favorite burger joint for lunch, and notices a car parked in front of the bank across the street with its engine running, the man behind the wheel chain-smoking cigarettes. Harry smells trouble and tells the cook at the diner to call the police about a bank robbery in progress, then sits back and enjoys his meal while he waits for the cavalry to arrive. Just then, the bank alarm goes off, and Harry has to go to work. With a mouthful of food, he steps into the street and brandishes his .44, which looks bigger than most small children. Behind him, a movie theater marquee advertises Play Misty for Me, which had just hit theaters when Dirty Harry was filming.
Harry dispatches two of the robbers with thunderous gun shots, then shoots the driver of the car before he can mow Harry down in the street. As people watch in amazement, Harry strolls up to the entrance to the bank, where a wounded bank robber lies on the ground within arm’s reach of his shotgun. Harry aims his hand cannon at the man.
Harry: I know what you’re thinking? Did he fire six shots or only five. Well, to tell ya the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and it would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?
The robber thinks better of it and withdraws his outstretched hand, but then tells Harry that he has to know. Harry confidently aims the gun at the robber’s head and pulls the trigger. Click goes the hammer on an empty chamber, and Harry walks away with a chuckle. Another interesting side note: the actor who played the bank robber is Albert Popwell. He appeared in four Dirty Harry movies—as a pimp in Magnum Force, a gang leader in The Enforcer, and, finally, as a good guy, Detective Horace King in Sudden Impact.
Callahan is matched with a new partner at headquarters, which does not thrill him in the least. Partners don’t fit his rogue style; Harry’s most recent one is still in the hospital and his previous partner is dead. The rookie Chico Gonzalez is a sociology major who seems to represent everything that doesn’t work for Harry in law enforcement. They hit the streets chasing down clues to find Scorpio, and along the way are asked to help the fire department talk a jumper down from the ledge of a building. Harry goes up in the bucket, but he doesn’t try to sweet-talk the man out of committing suicide as might be expected. Instead, he merely asks for the man’s name because identifying him on the street would be impossible with his body all mangled from the fall. The man gets angry and lunges at Harry, who punches him, knocks him out, and brings him down. When they reach the street, he tells Chico that this is why they call him Dirty Harry—every dirty job that comes along.
Scorpio strikes again, killing a young boy and kidnapping a teenage girl. He has buried her in a secret location with just enough oxygen to last the day, and he will let her die there unless the city pays him $200,000 in cash. Harry is picked to be the bag man. He and Chico secretly concoct a plan to wire Harry with a microphone so Chico can follow him while he goes to an undisclosed location to deliver the money. When Harry reaches the drop spot, Scorpio beats him senseless, then confesses that he is going to let the girl die. Chico shows up to arrest Scorpio, and they exchange gunfire. Chico is wounded, but Callahan manages to bury a switchblade in Scorpio’s thigh. The killer escapes, squealing all the way.
Harry stops by a small clinic, the kind that specializes in treating people who for one reason or another can’t go to a hospital. The doctor tells him that he treated a man for a knife wound to the leg, and that the man lives in a room at nearby Kezar Stadium. Harry goes to the stadium and smokes out Scorpio. As the killer makes his way across the field in a vain attempt to escape, Harry shoots his good leg out from under him. When Scorpio refuses to share the kidnapped girl’s location, Harry stands on his wounded leg. Scorpio confesses the girl’s location, but by the time the cops dig her out of the hole she has already suffocated.
Harry: I want you to tell Chico I understand him quitting. I think he’s right. This is no life for you two.
Norma: Why do you stay in it then?
Harry: I don’t know. I really don’t.
The sadness of the moment is compounded by frustration when the district attorney tells Harry that he will not prosecute Scorpio. He dresses down Harry for violating the killer’s civil rights and tells him that any evidence gathered in apprehending him is inadmissible in court because Harry didn’t have a warrant. This incident speaks directly to a real public irritation at the time with a justice system that seemed to shield criminals with the very rights that were meant to protect law abiding citizens. Harry warns the D.A. that they have not heard the last of Scorpio. He visits Chico in the hospital, and looks forward to having him back in action, but Chico says he is quitting the force. Harry walks out of the hospital with Chico’s wife, Norma, and during their conversation we learn that Harry’s wife died a couple years ago, killed by a drunk driver. It’s a brief, but telling moment that reveals a lot about his character, and he abruptly changes the subject.
Harry is called into the Mayor’s office to learn, shock of shocks, that Scorpio has hijacked a school bus full of kids. He wants a plane and cash, and the Mayor agrees to comply. Harry demands to know when the police are going to stop messing around and stop this killer, but the Mayor doesn’t want to hear any of it. Harry storms out. He learns of the route that Scorpio is taking the bus to the airport, and waits for him on an overpass like an avenging angel of death. Harry leaps onto the roof of the bus, and Scorpio takes the wheel, driving like a madman to shake him off. The bus hits a ditch near a quarry, and Scorpio makes a break for it. Harry chases him, and they trade shots until Scorpio reaches a dock, grabbing a young boy who is fishing in a nearby pond. Harry wounds Scorpio and the kid runs off. Scorpio is wounded, but he’s still got fight left in him. Harry repeats his earlier line about losing count of how many shots he fired. This time, though, Scorpio does feel lucky and reaches for his gun. And very much unlike last time, Harry has one more round in the chamber. He shoots Scorpio squarely in the chest, putting him down for good. Then, in a final moment of pique, Harry pitches his police star into the pond.
With that kind of ending, it was figured in 1971 that this would be the last we would hear of Dirty Harry. But the film was too big a success to just let Inspector Callahan quit the force. Film critics were as divided about the film as the public was about how to combat rising crime, with one side savaging the film as a violent, fascist romp and the other side calling it a smart action picture. Audiences had the final word, though, making Dirty Harry one of the biggest movies of 1971. The film and its hero spoke to the legitimate concerns of a public tired of playing the victim to thugs who seemed to be taking over America’s streets.
Dirty Harry spawned four sequels and became the standard by which all urban action thrillers would be compared. The tough guy cop persona would be imitated, examined, and spoofed multiple times in the years to come, and even today Dirty Harry’s imprint can be clearly seen on American cinema. The character Clint Eastwood created became the mold from which many future action heroes would be poured—Paul Kersey, Martin Riggs, John McClain, even John Rambo. The archetype of the ordinary man called to extraordinary tasks when the system breaks down is as old as storytelling itself. And it’s one we’ll never tire of.