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.