Friday, May 21, 2010

PERSONAL FAVES: Dirty Harry

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Clint Eastwood / In category: 8 of 10 / Overall: 34 of 100


It’s fair to say that Clint Eastwood has pretty much one style of acting: minimal. According to an Eastwood biography I read earlier this year – ‘Clint: The Life and Legend’ by Patrick McGilligan (actually it’s more a 600-page character assassination than a biography, which is why I haven’t bothered reviewing it for this month’s Eastwood-fest) – he’s that rarest of actors: a man who scours screenplays demanding his characters be given less dialogue, not more.

Fortunately Harry Julian Fink, R.M. Fink and Dean Riesner’s script escaped with its big speech intact, allowing rogue cop Harry Callaghan (Eastwood) to draw down on his nemesis whilst delivering the following immortal lines: “I know what you’re thinking, punk. You’re thinking: did he fire six shots or only five? Now to tell you the truth, I kind of forgot myself in all this excitement. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and will blow you head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

Am I pushing it by claiming this little monologue as the “to be or not to be” of action movies? Debate that one in the comments section; all I know is that it’s the first movie speech I ever knew off by heart. And Andrew Robinson’s Scorpio killer was one of the first movie villains who ever truly scared the crap out of me.

For all that Eastwood’s onscreen minimalism underpins his iconic coolness, credit must be given to those co-stars whose more effusive turns have provided the contrast against which said iconic coolness is emphasised. Perhaps the best example is Eli Wallach in ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, all jittery unpredictability, chewing his way through all the best lines in the script. Then there’s George Kennedy’s motor-mouth supporting role in ‘The Eiger Sanction’, Jaimz Woolvett’s piss-and-vinegar personifaction of the Schofield Kid in ‘Unforgiven’, Donald Sutherland’s prototype hippie in ‘Kelly’s Heroes’, Richard Burton’s magnificently sozzled man of action in ‘Where in Eagles Dare’ … hell, even the orang-utan in ‘Every Which Way But Loose’ and ‘Any Which Way You Can’ fits the bill.


Andrew Robinson in ‘Dirty Harry’ fulfils the same role as these others. He also emerges as one of the few antagonists in the Eastwood canon who provides a palpable threat; in fact, it wasn’t until the one-two of John Malkovich’s political assassin in ‘In the Line of Fire’ and Gene Hackman’s stone-cold portrayal of “Little” Bill Daggett in ‘Unforgiven’ that his protagonists were faced with such a challenge again.

Based on the Zodiac killer (David Fincher’s eponymous film includes a suitably satirical reference to ‘Dirty Harry’), Robinson’s Scorpio is the sociopath writ large: unhinged, obsessive and determined to drag Callaghan down to his level in a battle of wits that’s as psychopathic as it is psychological. His most grimly embittered scene – worse, in some ways, than the climactic sequence where he commandeers a school bus, pitilessly terrorising his tearful hostages – comes after Callaghan effects his arrest by flaunting due process. The legal system declares that Scorpio’s rights have been violated and he is released. He immediately hires a muscular gentleman of African American heritage to beat him to a pulp; as he’s wheeled into hospital on a gurney, reporters flapping around him, he weakly asserts that it was Callaghan who beat him up. It’s chilling enough that Scorpio goes to such lengths to score points against Callaghan, but what makes the scene gut-twistingly sickening is the way he racially goads his pugilist into really doing a job on him.

It would have been easy for Robinson to have walked off with the film, leaving only the title as a reminder of Eastwood’s part. Yet ‘Dirty Harry’ is one of the quintessential Clint titles. The aforementioned speech helps, but there are simply a plethora of iconic and cynically entertaining moments: Callaghan’s blunt verbal exchanges with both his long suffering boss Lt. Bressler (Harry Guardino) and the less-suffering but politically motivated Mayor (John Vernon); Callaghan persuading a potentially suicidal citizen down from the ledge by the unpretentious expedient of punching him unconcious and slinging him over his shoulder; Callaghan breaking off from his lunch to intercede in a bank robbery, turning an urban street into a war zone then wandering back into the deli to finish his sandwich.

‘Dirty Harry’ is easy to criticise nearly forty years after its original release: in its ethnic characters, its casual incorrectness and its throwaway violence, it’s very much a product of its times. It also feeds ammunition to a small but vocal encampment of critics who persistently and tiresomely dismiss Eastwood’s cinema as right-wing. Me, I don’t get involved in politics. I just dig movies. And ‘Dirty Harry’ – boasting gritty direction by Don Siegel and defined by Eastwood’s most in-yer-face and unapologetic anti-hero – is powerhouse movie.

9 comments:

Bryce Wilson said...

Great write up Neil.

Siegel wasn't the world's most subtle director but he knew how to get in your guts. Especially as he was allowed a harshness that todays filmmakers wouldn't (I'd love to see someone try to get a naked fourteen year old getting dragged out of a sewer grate past the MPAA now).

I don't think this movie really gets it due for the influence its had. While perhaps not as pervasive as Leone, Siegel's film has certainly had its descendants. Particularly by things that consciously ape seventies style. I've always thought Cowboy Bebop took alot from Siegel in its technique.

Scott Kos said...

Ditto what Bryce said about the naked-14-year-old-being-dragged-out-of-a-sewer-grate scene. Not only would such a visual be verboten in today's action film, but there's no way they'd even let the girl be killed. Of course, Dirty Harry would swoop in, just in the nick of time, to plug Scorpio full of Magnum slugs, as the tip of his knife touched her throat.

Seminal '70s filmmaking, though. And when I caught Dirty Harry on the big screen awhile back, something else struck me about this era of movies: they look and feel "real", precisely because they're so devoid of that overly glossy $60 million look you see in everything now.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Saw this movie for the first time a couple of years ago, when I decided to see most of Eastwoods best movies, and I kicked myself in the ass for not having seen it sooner! Its such a classic, as are most of the dirty harry movies, they are a really well produced series of movies.

Eastwood personifies that kind of hard as balls type of guy on these movies.

I like the way the situations are set up in the film, like that whole trick the villain pulls to make Callahan look bad.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for the comments, gents. 'Dirty Harry' is definitely one of the archetypal 70s movies, and even though some elements of the story are larger-than-life there is - as Scott notes - a grimly realistic quality to the film.

Another really effect aspect of the film is how Siegel suggests some telling similarities between cop and killer, such as the way Scorpio's POV shots as he peers through the sights of his rifle are mirrored by Callaghan's tendencies to voyeurism while on stakeout.

The Film Connoisseur said...

I agree with Scotts comments about the look of movies from the 70s. They have this "real" look to them, and that realism has to do with the film not being over produced. I mean, nowadays Hollywood wants everything colorful, shiny, well lit, and reality just aint like that!

I think it could also have something to do with the fact that these films were all shot on film and not on digital. Film just gives everything that crystal clear look.

This happened to me as well while watching The French Connection. The film just looks crystal clear, a clarity and definition you cannot get on digital filmmaking.

Aaron said...

Cool review, Neil. I've been enjoying these Eastwood reviews so much that I've been itching to watch some of his movies as soon as possible. I'm gonna try to squeeze in a re-watch of SUDDEN IMPACT and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER this week. May as well check out GRAN TORINO since I haven't seen that one yet. As far as the DIRTY HARRY movies, I haven't seen any of them since I was a little kid and watched them with my dad. And thanks for the heads-up on that book, but I got worried for a second because I thought you were talking about a different book that just came out called "American Rebel" which I had planned on buying and reading for my book challenge.

Keep up the great work, my friend.

AMIT said...

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David Pascoe said...

I totally agree with you about Andrew Robinson's performance in this film. I first saw the film on a Friday night in 1988 on the day before the Seoul Olympics started (indeed Jimmy Greaves mentioned that he saw it on the following day's episode of Saint and Greavsie). I was 12 years old and to someone who considered Bond villains as the height of evil, Robinson's Scorpio killer was a revelation, simply because the character didn't give a fuck. Such a shame that his performance in this role pretty much killed his future prospects, though his turn in Charley Varrick is very good and he is also the best thing in Hellraiser.
As for Dirty Harry, the movie, well it's a classic in so many ways. Did you ever read the Kenneth Williams Diaries? He saw it in April 1972 and was extremely impressed. I showed it to a friend of mine a few years ago and he really liked it. After the long pull out shot from the scene at Kezar Stadium where Harry tortures Scorpio for information, he said simply "Wow!" which sums things up nicely I think.

egfilla said...

Love this review and the discussions. I am a huge Eastwood fan but as you get older you begin to look a little deeper. He has made some god awful movies and really I think The Dead Pool was probably a work of evil that Eastwood should have been hung drawn a quartered for. One thing that I think that is overlooked so much when I read blogs on Dirty Harry is Lalo Schifrins score. What an amazing piece of work! Right from the beginning the music flawlessly intertwines with the action on the screen. Even the noises from the bay, the first victims lasts gasps of air and simply the air conditioners fit in with the music ... when you watch it again keep in mind how that score is affecting you and how well it sits within the film and not separate from it ... on a par with Morricone in my opinion.