DIRTY HARRY: Counter-Counterculture Hero

Phil argues that Dirty Harry might be a relatively more nuanced character than many viewers credit.

The title character of Dirty Harry is often thought of as a prototypical rogue icon. He’s the original renegade cop, shirking his captain’s orders and doing things his own way, a true anti-hero. But don’t let the lone wolf swagger, the natty clothes or the shaggy head of hair mislead you: Inspector Harry Callahan is a staunch right-wing warrior, and the superiors against whom he rails are a pack of ineffectual bleeding heart bureaucrats, more concerned with a murderer’s rights than yours. (Yes, yours: the first scene opens with a sniper’s rifle pointed directly at the audience.) Meanwhile, your banks are being robbed in broad daylight, your children are being kidnapped by crazed hippies and when inky black night falls on the city, you can’t even traverse a public park without being accosted by crime and perversion. It’s a world gone mad, moving too fast in the wrong direction, and it’s Harry’s dirty job to swim against this septic tide.

That’s the party line, at any rate. Critics have looked at Harry Callahan through the binary pop culture prism of today and have dismissed him as irredeemably fascistic, a jackboot thug eager to march right over the Constitution on his way to empty his .44 Magnum into anyone who even smells guilty. But a closer look at his initial 1971 outing might surprise today’s viewers expecting a right-wing bloodbath. While it’s far from a sophisticated meditation on the justice system, and often clouded with reactionary, middle-aged future shock, its finale alone makes it an arguably more nuanced discussion than Dirty Harry’s spiritual successors are currently having in their own films.

Though Clint Eastwood was 41 in 1971, certainly old enough to represent a generation afraid and threatened by the remnants of 1960s counterculture, it’s no surprise to learn the character was originally written to be in his late 50s. The age-appropriate usual suspects -- Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra -- all passed on the role. Lancaster and Mitchum turned it down specifically for its politics (Mitchum was put off by how the script “pissed on the world”). It was then shopped to the next generation, including Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. Newman found it “too right-wing” and suggested Eastwood, who was resuming an American film career after his Italian-made “Man With No Name” trilogy turned him into an international superstar. His filmic output upon returning to America was thus far an eclectic, mixed bag, but in Dirty Harry Eastwood would find a role that would cement him as one of the consistently biggest box-office draws of the next dozen years, and provide the cornerstone of his cinematic legacy. Had Sinatra signed on, the film would today be little more than a creaky curio. But we watch and rewatch because of Eastwood, a movie star in full-on peacock mode, smuggling dicey politics in with his smooth one-liners, and very much planting a flag here as THE movie star of the ‘70s.

We get to know the titular homicide detective immediately after the opening credits, during a dressing down from his superiors. Turns out that Callahan and civil rights are old foes, and all the legal ass-covering and policy-making of the muckety mucks get in the way of Harry’s innate ability to instantly identify and punish evildoers. That’s not entirely fair; in Harry’s world, after all, the would-be rapists are naked, brandishing matching erections and butcher knives. And to Harry’s disgust, these transparently evil monsters are enabled and coddled by a broken system. The film’s iconic bank robbery scene is perfectly illustrative of Callahan’s attitudes about effective police work. Though he is drawn on before he starts shooting, the scene is largely comprised of Callahan, on a crowded street, casually opening fire on a group of fleeing black men. Within seconds all but one are dead at Harry’s .44 Magnum-wielding hands. Harry engages the surviving, bleeding robbery suspect in that infamous conversation about ballistics, arithmetic and luck, and the scene ends with the uniformed cops showing up like janitors on cleanup duty. The message is clear: as long as the system stays out of Harry’s way, he gets the job done quickly and efficiently -- and let’s not ask too many questions about procedure or due process.

Harry Callahan doesn’t walk the mean streets of New York City or Los Angeles; his beat is San Francisco, ground zero of the Summer of Love. The original script is set in New York and, while the story goes that the switch to the Bay area was dictated by the derelict football stadium that features in the story, mapping the unsavory action onto the epicenter of the free love movement sure feels like an artistic decision. Callahan’s San Fran is positively overrun with leftover ‘60s sleaze; it’s a town so filthy that Harry has to fend off both an attempted mugging and a gay hustler on his way to a ransom drop. But this street scum is a mere annoyance compared to the film’s central threat: a sadistic serial killer calling himself Scorpio. Though based in part on the real-life Zodiac killer, it’s telling that the middle-aged filmmakers have adorned this unknowable maniac in hippie signifiers, from his peace-sign belt buckle and paisley tie to his astrological moniker.

In the film’s second act, we spend a little time with Inspector Callahan and the world as he sees it. When a group of private citizens mistake him for a Peeping Tom and give him a vigilante ass-kicking, Harry refuses to arrest any of them. They’re his kind of people. When a suicidal would-be jumper high above a city street ties up traffic and municipal resources, Harry defuses the situation by popping him in the mouth. There’s an impatient weariness to the character, and indeed to the film itself: the world is changing, the movie seems to say, and sighs: enough already. All of the consciousness-shifting of the previous decade is presented here as mostly a pain in Harry’s ass. And while Harry is called out for his bigotry early on in an attempt at humorous self-awareness, the movie’s fearful agitation over the rising tide of otherness is always present, and can’t help but make the whole affair feel like the panicked spasm of a fading generation afraid that the world is going straight to hell.

Harry’s no-bullshit tactics would go on to inspire so many cheers, sequels and imitators that it might surprise viewers to discover that the original film, while an expert piece of cathartic entertainment, is no fist-pumping romp. This becomes clear during the film’s midway one-two punch: as he’s torturing information out of the killer in an attempt to locate a slowly suffocating kidnap victim, there’s no doubt that Callahan is going legitimately (if temporarily) insane, crossing a line forever. Lest this scene get the audience too effusive about the proceedings, it’s followed by a somber shot of a fully nude 14-year-old dead girl with rigor mortis being pulled out of a hole in the ground. Forgotten in all the one-liners and iconography of the franchise is that these two scenes show Harry Callahan as a good man permanently broken by the horror he’s tasked with facing. (Though it likely wasn’t forgotten by Christopher Nolan, who borrowed the sequence for 2008’s The Dark Knight.)

It’s only after crossing that line, after Callahan breaks, that we enter the realm of fantasy. Throughout the film, we’re reminded that all these laws protecting suspects’ rights are getting in Callahan’s way, holding him back. There’s a scene near the finale in which Callahan flat-out refuses to carry out his bosses’ orders -- yet another ransom delivery to the killer -- and stomps out, his career effectively over. In the very next scene, one that allows for no passage of time, Dirty Harry has somehow materialized miles away, standing on an overpass at an exit ramp just as the killer is driving on it -- in every sense a physical impossibility. Freeing himself from the system’s constrictive red tape (and his own sanity), Callahan has seemingly transcended the rules of space and time, and he’s ready to fly. This is a significant moment; in a certain context it feels like the wellspring from which many of our contemporary superheroes, unbound by the laws of mortal man, have flown.

The moment is freeing and exciting and cathartic, but temporary. In the end, Inspector Harry Callahan discovers he can no longer exist within the system to which he’s devoted his life. He’s lost his career, his sense of purpose and, if you believe in that sort of thing, his soul. It’s a curious inversion of the troubling finale of last summer’s Man Of Steel, which presents the exact same decision as a momentary downer before attempting to transition into a franchise-starting happy ending. Of course, Eastwood would soon undo his character’s fate, going on to star in four increasingly cartoonish sequels that alternately wallowed in and subverted audience expectations. But in his eponymous first film, one that still resists the binary “stand your ground” histrionics of today, Harry Callahan is a real, tragic character. And in our post-Dark Knight/Man Of Steel/Jack Reacher world, Dirty Harry sometimes feels like the last guy to bother having the conversation.

This was originally published in the March issue of Birth.Movies.Death. Watch Dirty Harry at the Alamo Drafthouse this month!