Saturday, April 20, 2013

Review: "Dirty Harry" is a Famous Mediocre Film (Remembering Don Siegel)

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 126 (of 2005) by Leroy Douresseaux

Dirty Harry (1971)
Running time: 102 minutes (1 hour, 42 minutes)
WRITERS: Harry Julian Fink & R.M. Fink and Dean Reisner, from a story by Harry Julian Fink and R.M. Fink
EDITOR: Carl Pingitore
COMPOSER: Lalo Schifrin


Starring: Clint Eastwood, Harry Guardino, Reni Santoni, John Vernon, Andy Robinson, John Larch, and John Mitchum

The subject of this movie review is Dirty Harry, a 1971 crime film from director Don Siegel. The film stars Clint Eastwood in what would become a signature role for him, that of San Francisco Police Department Inspector Harry Callahan A.K.A. “Dirty Harry.” Dirty Harry would yield four sequels, beginning with 1973’s Magnum Force. Writers Jo Heims contributed to the story and John Milius contributed to the screenplay, but respectively did not receive screen credits.

After a decade of political assassinations, the Vietnam War/conflict, social upheaval, rising crime rates, etc., perhaps America was ready for Dirty Harry, the police thriller starring Clint Eastwood in his seminal role as Inspector Harry Callahan, also known as “Dirty Harry.” Harry is a tough-talking, streetwise, pop-a-cap-first homicide detective who is a far-right wet dream. In this first film in the (thus far) five-part “Dirty Harry” series, Inspector Callahan must learn the identity of a rooftop sniper known as the Scorpio Killer (Andy Robinson), who has killed two people. Scorpio eventually buries a young woman alive and threatens to let her suffocate if the city of San Francisco doesn’t pay him a $200,000 ransom. Harry is determined to nail the killer – even if he has to break some police rules and violate some inconvenient Constitutional rights.

The film plays loosely and sloppily with police procedures and what are the rights of criminal suspects and the accused, doing what most films do – change real life facts for dramatic impact. The screenwriters (and for all I know the director and star) go to ludicrous extremes to show that murderers can get away with murder if an aggressive cop doesn’t get a warrant or read some criminal “his rights.” When Clint Eastwood says the word “rights,” it’s like he has fecal matter on his sneaky tongue. Less than a decade later, presidential candidate and later President Ronald Reagan (via his speechwriters and puppet masters) would play up the idea that criminals had more rights than victims to good effect, as the U.S. public just sits back and watches the country increasingly become a police state.

As for the film, it’s neither a good police procedural nor an effective right wing political screed simply because the script is garbage in spite of its good central concept. The characters (with such well-thought out monikers as The Mayor and The Chief) are wispy, and Harry, except for a few revealing moments, is little more than a cipher. In fact, it is Andy Robinson’s intense, passionate, and crazy performance as Scorpio that gives life to the cop/suspect dynamic. Eastwood handles his half of the cop/villain conflict with his signature acting style for this film – a snarl and half-whispered lines delivered through bad teeth – lines that usually end with the word “punk.” Don Siegel’s direction doesn’t help much; the first half of the film is a listless detective film, while the second half struggles drunkenly to be a good police thriller, which it occasionally is.

Although Eastwood’s best work as an actor is in westerns, a genre for which he seems tailor made, Dirty Harry is the role for which many film fans still fondly remember him. However, this first Dirty Harry film is little more than a cultural curiosity and a sign of its times. Except for a few moments that stand out as exceptional, Dirty Harry is a famous, but mediocre film.

4 of 10

2012 National Film Preservation Board, USA: National Film Registry

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