The incomparable Dirty Harry matures as Clint Eastwood turns series director
At the end of 1976, Clint Eastwood was at the peak of his career. The Outlaw Josey Wales, a film he took over directing for fear the production would flounder, was a critical and box office hit. Eastwood breathed much-needed fresh air into the fading western genre, and he also gave a jump- start to girlfriend Sondra Locke’s film career. Later in the year, his third Dirty Harry outing, The Enforcer, also did well and became the highest-grossing film of the franchise to date. Eastwood was one of America’s biggest stars and he was earning his stripes behind the camera as well.
In the late 70s and into the early 80s, Eastwood pushed his creative limits and broke new ground as a cinematic storyteller. He stepped away from his action hero persona and went in new directions with Bronco Billy, featuring Eastwood and Locke on the traveling rodeo circuit; and Honkytonk Man, which tapped into Eastwood’s musical sensibilities in a Depression-era tale of musicians that also starred his son, Kyle. Eastwood also starred in the moody prison drama Escape from Alcatraz, his last collaboration with director Don Siegel, a partnership that included some of Eastwood’s early successes, among them the original Dirty Harry.
Eastwood didn’t forget where he came from, though. He was, after all, an action star, and it was these movies that generated much of the revenue to allow Eastwood to explore other passion projects that took him out of that mold. In 1977, Eastwood took the idea of the “shoot-em-up” picture to new heights with The Gauntlet, in which he played a burnt-out cop who has to escort a witness, played by Locke, to trial with every corrupt lawman in Arizona standing in their way. In one of the film’s great set pieces, cops fire so many bullets into a house where they believe Eastwood and Locke are holed up that the structure completely collapses. In 1982, Eastwood joined the Cold War with Firefox, a slick espionage film that predated techno-thrillers like The Hunt for Red October that would come later in the decade.
No word of Dirty Harry, though. Eastwood had no strong interest to revisit San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan. What could Harry say or do that he hadn’t done before? Additionally, Dirty Harry spawned an entire sub-genre of cop thrillers with tough-as-nails anti-heroes who didn’t think twice about bending the rules to achieve justice. The tough-guy cop market in the early 80s was very competitive, with films like Sharky’s Machine and 48 Hrs. putting a modern edge on the genre. The worst thing that could happen for the franchise was a new Dirty Harry film failing and turning the franchise into a parody of itself. But fans wanted more. There was even a survey conducted, writes Richard Schickel in his biography Clint Eastwood, that asked filmgoers who they wanted to see come back to the big screen, and they overwhelmingly picked Dirty Harry. Warner Bros., which was in dire financial straits in 1983, approached Eastwood about another ‘go-round. According to Schickel’s book, Eastwood agreed to help his old friends who ran Warner Bros., knowing that having a Dirty Harry film on the production slate would be good for the studio. Eastwood had made a lot of money for Warner over the years, and the studio helped make him a very successful man. They owed each other.
Harry: It’s a question of methods. Everybody wants results, but nobody wants to do what they have to do to get them done. I do what I have to do.
Jennifer: I’m glad, Callahan. But, you know, you are an endangered species. This is the age of lapsed responsibilities and defeated justice. Today, an eye for an eye means only if you’re caught. Even then, it’s an indefinite postponement and let’s settle out of court. Does that sound profound or just boring? Sorry, I’m sure you get that sort of thing all the time.
Harry: I don’t hear it enough.
Sudden Impact grew from a screenplay by Earl Smith and Charles B. Pierce that was originally meant as a feature for Locke, but found its way as the likeliest candidate for a new Dirty Harry film. The script was re-written to fit into the world of Dirty Harry by Joseph Stinson. Eastwood signed up to direct, his tenth time behind the camera but the only time he would helm a film featuring his most iconic character. It’s also the first story set outside Harry’s home turf of San Francisco. Inspector Callahan tracks down a killer who turns out to be a woman he has fallen for out for revenge on the people that gang-raped her and her sister. It’s a dark story, bringing us back to the gravity and emotional weight of the first film, where we saw glimpses of the violence that Scorpio inflicted on his victims. It also explores a softer side of Harry’s character as his growing involvement in the case pushes him into a moral and ethical dilemma. Locke as the victim-come-vigilante is a powerful force in this film; she has the look of a wispy, mysterious woman, but there is a quiet menace about her; just beneath the surface is a boiling rage that may be unquenchable.
The film opens with Locke making out with a man in a car parked on some back road in San Francisco Bay. She shoots him once in the balls and once in the head. We soon learn that Locke’s character, Jennifer Spencer, is a successful painter who specializes in very dark impressionistic work. She is a moody person, not easily given to mirth or even a smile. Jennifer visits her sister who lives in a catatonic state in a hospital and confesses that she killed “one of them.” She is out for revenge for them both, and when she leaves, her sister’s only response to the news is a tear that runs down her face.
Meanwhile, Inspector Harry Callahan is up to the usual, upsetting judges and superiors with his so-called lone-wolf, misogynistic, racist, ways. It’s a well-worn path in the franchise by now, even clichéd. On this particular occasion, a judge lets a killer go free because Harry didn’t pursue a search warrant for the weapon. It’s not an entirely realistic scenario in an American court of law, but it has always played well to that segment of the audience that sees the American justice system as broken and corrupt. The killer, Hawkins (Kevyn Major Howard, Rafterman from Full Metal Jacket), taunts Harry afterwards, but gets a faceful of sinister snarl that makes him think differently, at least for now. Harry gets an earful from his boss, played by Bradford Dillman, who joined the franchise in The Enforcer. The weird part here is that Dillman plays essentially the same role as he did in that film, but his character has a different name. In The Enforcer, he was Capt. McKay, in Sudden Impact, he is Capt. Briggs. Any relation to Lt. Briggs, the vigilante cop played by Hal Holbrook in Magnum Force? It’s never mentioned. The whole point here is to show that Harry hasn’t changed, his bosses haven’t changed, and unfortunately, this repetitive part of the franchise hasn’t changed, either.
It’s back to the action before too long. Eastwood keeps the pace moving, following the best advice of the cinematic storyteller – start the scene as late as possible and get out of it as soon as you can. Harry stops by his local diner for a coffee, studying the jobs section of the newspaper so closely that he doesn’t realize that there is an eerie silence and sense of dread throughout the restaurant. He doesn’t even notice the waitress filling his coffee cup with sugar, obviously trying to get his attention. Harry walks out, takes a sip of his coffee, then quickly realizes what is going on. After he leaves the diner, several thugs hop up from tables and go about robbing everyone. Harry returns through the kitchen to complain about the black coffee he ordered. He tells the thugs that he and Smith & Wesson can’t let them walk out the place, and then the bullets fly. Harry takes out all but one of the thugs as customers run for cover, among them actress Adele Yoshioka, who played Sunny, Harry’s brief love interest in Magnum Force. In the world of Dirty Harry, this could very well be Sunny, living in San Francisco and going about her day. But this thread is never pulled, and if she says hello to Harry after he cleans the place up, we never see it. The last of the thugs has a gun to the waitress’s head, hoping to break out with her as more police arrive. Harry points his .44 Magnum right in the man’s face, and utters a line that changed film history.
The thug obviously gives up, but the moment stuck with audiences long after the film was over. Eastwood later recalled identifying it as “the punch line of the picture” when he read the script, and he always loved saying a good Dirty Harry line. But this time the line tapped directly into the American cultural zeitgeist. It started appearing on t-shirts, bumper stickers, in TV commercials, even the nightly news, when President Ronald Reagan, always a big Hollywood fan, said of Congress’s proposal to raise taxes, “Go ahead. Make my day.” The crowd ate it up. The line remains forever linked to Dirty Harry and Eastwood himself, and the scene is widely considered one of the most iconic in film.
But enough about that. Harry, showing no signs of slowing down, busts his way into the wedding of the daughter of a crime boss called Threlkis, played by beloved gravelly-voiced actor Michael Gazzo. Harry’s taunts send the old man into a frenzy, and he drops dead of a heart attack on the spot. Harry quickly finds himself a target for assassination by Threlkis’s mob, and also by Hawkins, who wants revenge on Callahan even though he managed to get off scot free. Bullets and Molotov cocktails fly, and cars get shot up, burned, and dumped into the bay. It’s all in good fun, but Harry’s boss decides it will be safer for Harry and the rest of the city if he leaves town. He is ordered to go to San Paulo, the hometown of the shooting victim by the bay, to gather information on the case. San Paulo (in real life, Santa Cruz, California), is 75 miles south of San Francisco and presumably far enough away to keep Harry out of trouble. Naturally, that’s not going to happen. In fact, Harry’s trip to San Paulo puts him right in the middle of the homicide investigation.
Jennifer leaves San Francisco shortly after she murders the man by the bay, moving to San Paulo to restore the boardwalk’s antique carousel. In an uncompromising flashback sequence, we learn her true motivation for being there. Ten years before, Jennifer and her younger sister were lured to a party under the boardwalk by a nasty mess of a woman named Ray Parkins. They were gang raped by Parkins and a group of her loser buddies. The scene goes on for longer than what could be considered comfortable viewing, but it’s hard to imagine that Eastwood chose to be prurient in filming this sequence. Rather, he is tapping into the violence and horror of the crime that has psychologically damaged Jennifer and her sister beyond repair.
Harry introduces himself in San Paulo by foiling a robbery, which immediately puts him on the bad side of the local police chief, Jannings, played by Pat Hingle, who appeared with Eastwood in Hang ‘Em High and The Gauntlet. Instead of being thankful for Harry’s help, Jannings instead lets it be known that Harry is there to work on his investigation and nothing besides. Harry gets settled in San Paulo, and is given a particularly ugly bulldog by his police detective buddy, Horace, played by Albert Popwell, who makes his final appearance in the franchise having played three different characters in the three previous films. We are also introduced to Harry’s new toy, a .44 Magnum AutoMag model 180. This is the first time Harry wields a semi-automatic pistol in the series, and it is a devastating handgun designed to deliver the power of a .44 round in an automatic.
Jennifer continues scratching names off her revenge list, and Ray Parkins reaches out to the old gang to warn them. In his wanderings around town, Harry learns that the victims are connected to Ray and a nasty hometown menace named Mick. Even better, Jannings’s son Alby is also part of the group. As Harry tracks down leads, he also comes to know Jennifer, who is frightened off her bike by Harry’s dog. Their first meeting doesn’t go well, but when Harry meets her later, they have drinks and a flame is sparked.
[Callahan dares a crook to shoot his hostage]
Harry Callahan : Go ahead, make my day.
Harry starts putting things together as another body is discovered. He goes to Ray’s to get some more information, and discovers another car there. It is Jennifer, who is lurking in the bushes for her chance to kill Ray and Mick, who is also inside. She sees Harry, and waits while he goes inside. He gets into a fight with Mick and hauls him into jail. After Harry leaves with Mick, Jennifer enters and kills Ray. Harry and Jennifer meet up later and take their romance to the next level. But love waits for no man in an action picture, and when Harry leaves her house, he discovers that the car he saw at Ray’s was Jennifer’s. Meanwhile, Mick is bailed out and with two friends, sets a trap for Harry at his place. Unfortunately, Horace arrives instead of Harry, carrying a bottle of booze and hoping to knock back some shots with his old friend. Mick and his cohorts kill Horace and beat the dog, which is totally unconscionable. They track down Harry on the boardwalk and put a vicious beating on him. He escapes only by falling into the ocean. He stumbles back to his place to find Horace and his dog. Then Harry breaks out his .44 AutoMag.
Jennifer goes to Jannings’s house with the intention of killing Alby, who was one of her rapists. She finds Alby in a catatonic state much like her sister. Jannings disarms Jennifer and explains that the crime Alby committed tore him apart. He ran his car into a retaining wall, and has been in a vegetative state ever since. Jannings pleads with Jennifer to let justice do its work, but Mick arrives to make sure that it doesn’t. He kills Jannings with Jennifer’s gun, then takes her to the boardwalk where the nightmare happened a decade before. She puts up a fight and breaks free. By the time Mick and his buddies catch up to her, Harry has arrived. He casts a tall menacing shadow down the boardwalk, gun in hand. He dispatches Mick’s buddies in short order with thunderous firepower, but Mick escapes with Jennifer as hostage. The cat and mouse chase takes them up a roller coaster (literally), where Harry finally draws a bead on Mick and shoots. Mick tumbles to his death through the glass roof of the carousel, impaling himself on a unicorn. (Impalement was a very common way for villains to go during the 80s.) Jennifer fully expects Harry to turn her in, but he pins the whole thing on Mick, and keeps his mouth shut. As Harry walks off with Jennifer into the sunrise and end credits, we realize we have witnessed a first for Dirty Harry. He has let a killer go free, and he has let his moral compass be directed by something more than simply upholding the law.
Sudden Impact is a good cop thriller, especially if you are a Dirty Harry fan, and though it is a somewhat stronger film than The Enforcer, it still does not meet the high quality of storytelling in Dirty Harry and Magnum Force. While the renegade cop vs. the system theme had gotten a little old for this character, the film was a welcome departure in that we see Harry faced with making complex decisions he did not have to make in earlier films. There is more depth to his character, and when the film closes, there is hope that Harry might find a new peace in life. Having waited seven years for a new Dirty Harry movie, audiences had come to grips with the possibility that this might be the last, but they needn’t have worried. Sudden Impact made $70,000,000, the most profitable Dirty Harry outing to date, so, sooner or later, Harry would be back.