Dirty Harry confronts gender inequality the way only he can
At the beginning of the 1970s, if you knew who Clint Eastwood was at all, you knew him as mostly a western actor. He had played Rowdy Yates in the early 60s TV show Rawhide, the Man with No Name in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western trilogy, and was in a handful of other big screen western efforts, including the 1969 musical misfire Paint Your Wagon. Eastwood was a talented actor, and he also showed skill working behind the camera, but his career was pinned to a genre that was dying in Hollywood and losing audience interest. Eastwood needed to break out. And break out he did. In the 1971 blockbuster, Dirty Harry, Eastwood not only proved his acting chops in a gritty cop thriller, he created an iconic character that forever changed the face of cops & robbers movies. The equally popular sequel Magnum Force in 1973 proved that the original film was no fluke, and that Eastwood was here to stay.
The actor/director used the fame that Dirty Harry provided to branch out. Eastwood’s production company Malpaso kept busy cranking out a variety of films. There was the Eastwood-directed Breezy, a 1973 drama with William Holden as a middle-aged loner who gets emotionally tangled up with a teenage drifter. Then came Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), a solid bank heist flick that gave big career boosts to writer Michael Cimino and actor Jeff Bridges. This was quickly followed by The Eiger Sanction in 1975 about spies bounding about in the Swiss Alps. Naturally, the westerns kept coming, as it seemed Eastwood, next to John Wayne, was the only name that could sell such flicks in the ‘70s. Joe Kidd (1972) and High Plains Drifter (1973) were followed up by The Outlaw Josey Wales in 1976, a modern classic that is considered among Eastwood’s finest films. He was now a bona fide Hollywood star, and he could make just about any movie he wanted. But would he want to return to Dirty Harry?
With two hit Dirty Harry films in its vaults, Warner Bros. was eager to keep the franchise going, but Eastwood was a serious storyteller. It wasn’t enough to simply come up with another adventure for hard-boiled San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan. The actor needed a compelling reason to come back to the role. The first film tackled the issue of runaway crime in America head-on, forcing its audience to confront hard questions about right and wrong and face the awful truth that sometimes the law and justice are mutually exclusive concepts. The second film took this argument and flipped it on its head, forcing Harry to actually defend the broken criminal justice system against a group of rogue vigilante cops. How do you top that? In Hollywood, there’s always an answer.
In 1974, Gail Morgan Hickman and S. W. Schurr were two San Francisco-based film school students who decided to write a Dirty Harry spec script. They were not hired by Warner Bros. or Malpaso or anybody to make a new story for the franchise. They just thought up a concept and banged it out. Hickman in later years penned the screenplay for what would ultimately become the glorious train wreck that is Death Wish 4: The Crackdown. But there is no reason to hold that against him here. He and Schurr came up with an interesting concept for a third Dirty Harry movie that pits our hero against revolutionaries bent on bringing down the corrupt and decadent capitalist system, presumably to replace it with a corrupt and decadent socialist one.
You’re cold, bold Callahan with his great big .44. Every other cop in this city is satisfied to carry a .38 or a .357. What do you have to carry that cannon for?Moore
Allow me just a moment to get into a little real-world background here. In the early 1970s, there were a handful of counterculture warriors left over from the 60s who were disgruntled at their inability to bring down the Establishment. Groups like the Weathermen took things to the next level and went underground. And they weren’t kidding around. This was no longer about protests and sit-ins. These groups stocked up on weapons, trained in guerrilla warfare, and learned how to build bombs. What followed was the longest sustained bombing campaign on American soil in the country’s history. Every few weeks or months, news headlines featured stories about a post office, an armed forces recruiting station, or a government records facility getting blown up. Some groups also engaged in kidnapping. Probably the most famous of the era was when the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst.
Using this material as background for their story, Hickman and Schurr approached Eastwood with their script. Eastwood liked the idea, but wasn’t keen on the script. In the meantime, Warner Bros. had already hired screenwriter Sterling Silliphant to develop a third Dirty Harry film. He came up with a script that placed Harry with a female partner, but the story didn’t have much else going for it. Both concepts went into the sausage grinder, with Hickman and Schurr getting story credit and screenwriting credit going to Silliphant and Dean Reisner, who was brought in to punch up the action. Out came Dirty Harry III, which Eastwood later smartly changed to The Enforcer. He planned to direct the film himself, but he didn’t have time to do the prep work as he was still in post-production on The Outlaw Josey Wales. He handed over the reins to James Fargo, a longtime production colleague who may have officially been the director of The Enforcer but did pretty much everything Eastwood told him.
There are two stories going on in The Enforcer. The clearly action-oriented one involves the People’s Revolutionary Strike Force that is attempting to hold the city ransom and promising violence in the streets if their demands are not met. They steal a load of guns, ammunition, and explosives and kill Harry’s longtime police colleague Inspector Frank DiGiorgio, played in all three Dirty Harry films by John Mitchum. This gives Harry a vested interest in catching these punks who appear bent on revolution, or at least killing a lot of innocent people in an effort to pretend to be revolutionary. Although Harry prefers to work alone, he is saddled with a brand new partner on this case, which brings us to the second story being told in The Enforcer.
The other more drama-oriented storyline involves the relationship between Harry and his new partner, Kate Moore, played by Tyne Daly in one of her early film roles. Harry doesn’t take kindly to his new partner, as he believes she has been given her position on the homicide squad merely because she is a woman. When Moore is interviewed for the post, she admits she has spent her career up to this point in Personnel and Records, and has had no street time or made any arrests. Harry is flummoxed that she is a candidate for the job, but at Moore’s interview he is told by Ms. Gray of the Mayor’s office that the San Francisco Police Department is going to “be brought more into line with the mainstream with 20th century thought.” Harry teases that the idea sounds “very stylish.” He smells the dirty wind of politics, though, and shares his own perspective in the interview.
This storyline takes on the equal rights movement and affirmative action policies that were part of the public debate in the mid-70s. The question at the heart of this conversation was whether young inexperienced officers like Moore have a right to be part of the homicide squad simply because they are a member of a traditionally underrepresented minority group. Harry clearly thinks not, but as he and Moore are forced to work together to crack the People’s Revolutionary Strike Force case, Harry slowly warms to the determined Kate, who later proves her worth. In the traditional fashion of the Dirty Harry films up to this point, The Enforcer takes on issues that were prevalent at the time and offers a take that is controversial and thought-provoking. And the character of Harry Callahan changes a little along the way, even though longtime committed detractors of the Dirty Harry movies insist he is a one-note fascist wrecking machine.
Except that out there, you’re gonna have a partner. And if you get blown away, he gets blown away with you. And that’s a hell of a price to pay for being stylish.Harry
Unfortunately, The Enforcer does not hold up well against the two previous entries in the Dirty Harry franchise. It has some strong points. Daly more than holds her own as the earnest Kate Moore, always trying to keep up with Harry even though she is in way over her head. And Eastwood inhabits the role of Harry Callahan so thoroughly by this point, that his performance alone is worth the price of admission. Likewise with series regulars Harry Guardino as the put-upon Lt. Bressler, and the aforementioned John Mitchum as DiGiorgio. Incidentally, this is the last Dirty Harry film in which we will see either of these two characters. And let us never forget Albert Popwell, another series regular who plays a different role in four of the five films. This time Popwell plays Big Ed Mustapha, a black militant leader who ultimately agrees to help Harry track down the Strike Force in exchange for help getting one of his guys off a possession charge.
These performances can only do so much, though. For the few colorful characters in the film, there are a number of others that are one-dimensional stock characters that are sadly predictable in their motivations and their actions. Harry’s inept bureaucratic boss Captain McKay, the inept politico Mayor, and the snarling members of the Strike Force are all right out of central casting. They are caricatures of Harry’s foils in earlier films, but it’s not the actors who are to blame. The script stops short on several occasions of taking the story to the next level, instead relying on familiar tropes from earlier films. When Harry breaks up a liquor store holdup by driving a car through the store front and shooting all the punks, he is chewed out by McKay for his actions. Their arguments about proper procedure have been had several times in Dirty Harry films up to this point, and though Harry engages in some sarcastic humor from time to time in this film, the dialogue in general doesn’t resonate like in previous installments. And the Strike Force doesn’t seem to insert much jeopardy into the story. Compared to the unpredictably psychotic Scorpio in Dirty Harry and the menacing fascist motorcycle death squad of Magnum Force, this crew looks second rate. Even the final shootout that takes place on Alcatraz Island for the most part plays out predictably.
The film’s saving grace is the story between Harry and Kate. The social dynamic of a female homicide detective in 1976 San Francisco is played both seriously and comically in the film, forcing the audience to take into account what Kate is going through trying to fit in, and also forcing Harry to come around from his earlier opinion. He spends the early moments of their partnership trying to shield Kate from the tougher aspects of the job, like sitting in on an autopsy where the medical examiner makes a crude joke that sends the squeamish Kate running out of the room, or when Harry suggests she wait in the car while he goes into a room filled with black militants. Her response each time is, “Don’t concern yourself, Inspector.” She is up for every challenge placed before her. Even in the film’s final moments, when Kate heroically sacrifices herself to save Harry’s life, he promises to get her help, and she says, “Don’t concern yourself, Harry.” It is clearly the most emotional moment in the film, with Harry realizing that not only did he have a great partner, he had someone he was starting to fall for. It takes a bit of time for the chemistry between Harry and Kate to kick in, which may have been a deliberate choice for the film. But this is a shame because up until things get rolling with the two of them on the streets working the case, the film is a bit predictable and not up to the quality we have come to expect of the Dirty Harry franchise.
Like the two previous films in the series, The Enforcer was released during the Christmas season of 1976 and it did great box office. The first week’s take of $8.8 million was a record for a Clint Eastwood movie up to that point, and it was the 9th biggest film of the year. The popularity of The Enforcer proved that Dirty Harry was still a fan favorite, but audiences would have to wait seven years before they could again see Inspector Callahan on the streets of San Francisco. Next time, it would need to be a doozy.
Brilliant piece yet again. I love how much research and detail you’ve done for the article. It’s very informative and a great critical look at the film. I’m really looking forward to reading your sudden impact piece!
Thanks. Me too 🙂
Yeah, I love looking at films in the context of when they were made. The world around us is a very influential force on our art, and vice versa. Glad you’re enjoying the articles. Thanks for reading.