…And Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) is one of my long-standing favorites of the form, even if the case it presents concerning civil liberties in the United States of the 1970s is undeniably…extreme. (Others have called it sick and “profoundly dangerous.”)
In fact, no less a respected source than film critic Pauline Kael had grave problems with the film. Similarly, Roger Ebert termed the Clint Eastwood film “fascist” in “moral position” at the time of the film’s release…just two days before Christmas Day in 1971.
Yet by today’s standards, Dirty Harry — though hardly a holiday, feel-good movie — seems pretty innocuous. If you really, really want to see a film that is fascist in tone, position and expression, check out 2008’s Wanted, an anti-human tract which suggests that super-human skills run only in the superior blood line of a murderous elite that knows better than the rest of us work-a-day “losers.”
Callahan apprehends the Scorpio outside the killer’s apartment, on the grounds of a local football stadium, but breaks four constitutional amendments in the process. Since Callahan has wantonly violated the killer’s civil liberties (without a search warrant, no less…), the City of San Francisco allows Scorpio to go free, and forbids Callahan even from tailing the madman.
When the Scorpio Killer inevitably strikes again, Callahan refuses to help the City bureaucracy catch the killer, and goes off on his own to confront the maniac. After rescuing a school bus of abducted children and shooting down the Scorpio Killer, Callahan finally tosses his badge into a lake. He’s finished with a system that puts criminals’ civil liberties ahead of victim’s rights.
Originally titled, “Dead Right” (a moniker which certainly expresses the film’s political leanings…) Dirty Harry makes the case that something is rotten in Denmark, or at least San Francisco. The fear expressed so palpably and vividly by the film is that traditional, “just” America has been overturned by, well, rampant liberalism, specifically by the activism of the Warren Court in the so-called “Civil Rights Era.”
In 1966, for instance, in Miranda vs. Arizona Supreme Court, the Miranda Rights of criminal suspects were enshrined in U.S. Law, establishing 5th and 6th Amendment protections for them
Director Don Siegel cunningly and cleverly utilizes film grammar and some fine mise-en-scene to argue this conservative perspective. Early, panoramic shots in the film over-look the vast, sprawling city of San Francisco. These rooftop moments visually establish Callahan as being positioned “above” the petty politics of the village below. At the same time, Scorpio is simultaneously positioned on the rooftops, “above the law” as well. The relative rooftop positions of the dramatis personae reveal that Callahan and Scorpio represent opposite sides of the same coin: a hero who won’t be sidelined by legal technicalities and a villain who won’t be restrained by a legal system that he believes favors his murderous activity.
Several night-time shots of San Francisco locales also successfully transmit the point that new laws — which allegedly protect criminals — have only created a society of excess, vice and moral turpitude. Repeatedly, Siegel’s camera captures real-life imagery of adult sex shops and theaters (with signage that blares “Totally Nude College Co-Eds” or “Amateur Topless Contest!”).
And in the scene during which Callahan (illegally…) tracks Scorpio to a nightclub, the entire interior scene is cast in a garish, lurid red illumination. It is literally a modern “red light district.” This accent on what the filmmakers apparently consider “out-in-the-open” vice is also suggested in a scene in a San Francisco park at night-time, when Harry is propositioned by an attractive young man who calls himself “Alice” and says he’ll take on “any dare.” Callahan sends him home with a dismissive one-liner. There are bigger fish to fry…
The action in Dirty Harry is also punctuated by several images of Old Glory, the American flag. We see the stars-and-stripes fluttering in the breeze over San Francisco’s city hall, in the mayor’s office and even — damningly — plastered on Scorpio’s refrigerator in his stadium apartment.
The Dirty Harry script (by Julian Fink, R.M. Fink, and Dean Riesner, with uncredited assists from John Milius and Terrence Malick) also builds the case that good men will no longer desire or continue to work in law enforcement so long as criminal rights are favored over victims’ rights; so long as they are hand-cuffed by bureaucracy. After being shot on the job, Chico Gonzalez — a clever, earnest and wholly sympathetic detective — decides not to return to the force. He’s going into teaching instead. And when Chico’s wife asks Callahan why he remains a police officer in this environment, Harry has no cogent answer. “I don’t know. I really don’t.”
By film’s end, in a deliberate reflection of High Noon’s (1952) denouement, Callahan tosses his police badge away. If he can’t protect the citizenry, the badge is meaningless in his eyes. By discarding his police badge, Callahan separates himself from a hierarchy that is more concerned with the letter of the law than the spirit of justice. He’s not going to be anybody’s “delivery boy” anymore.
One way of interpreting Dirty Harry — beyond the clear parameters of right-wing political polemic — is as a very modern-day transposition of familiar Western genre tropes (like the aforementioned tribute to High Noon). Harry Callahan is the lone “hero” who rides into town to defend a helpless, imperiled community. As the form demands of its cowboy protagonists, Harry can’t be a part of the established system when he saves the day. On the contrary, he becomes a vigilante who can only operate outside the system. The vigilante, according to Pramod K. Nayar, in Reading Culture: Theory, Praxis and Politics (Sage Publications, India, 206), “represents a symbolic escape-route for law-enforcers: it is only by stepping out of the bounds of the law that the law can be upheld.”
The myth of the American frontier, the myth of the cowboy riding into the helpless (and often corrupt) community to save the day is one that has been re-directed in recent years to the superhero genre, for instance, particularly the cinema of Batman. However, these tropes also inform the specifics of Dirty Harry to a remarkable degree.
In understanding this filmic tradition, it may be easier for some modern viewers to the film’s hard-right leanings. Siegel’s movie is simply adhering to the Western myth, finding modern corollaries for long-standing cowboy chestnuts. That it does so with great humor at times is to Dirty Harry’s everlasting credit. The scene in which a pistol-packing, hot-dog chewing Inspector Callahan single-handedly takes out a cadre of urban bank robbers plays as a parody of the Western or police drama far more adeptly than it functions as political agit-prop. After Eastwood glowers by a theater showing Play Misty for Me, sits down for a hot dog, and calmly — while eating — tells the chef to call in a 211 in progress — there’s a tongue-in-cheek vibe that’s easy to enjoy.
On the other hand, Roger Ebert and other writers accurately pinpointed Dirty Harry’s straw-man argument, a deliberate stacking of the deck to achieve maximum dramatic effect. Look at the film’s villain, for instance. The Scorpio is not merely a criminal, he is the most extreme case of psychotic imaginable.
Alone, he terrorizes an entire city (including crying school children…), but then — when confronted by the police — he whimpers and cries about his rights, about retaining a lawyer. So he’s both a maniacal genius and a sissy coward. Thus, I submit the Scorpio’s not very realistic; he’s at the far end of the spectrum of believable criminality. Most criminals aren’t such maniacal masterminds. And few law-breakers would have the foresight, resources or self-discipline to go out and find someone to beat them up so the police appear to be brutalizers and abusers. This guy — as a function of Dirty Harry’s political message — plays all the angles expertly.
Yet, oppositely, movies have never been strictly about realism; they’re about making the most dramatic case imaginable. And that’s exactly what Dirty Harry does; and does very well. The Scorpio is a great villain, contradictions and all. I love Siegel’s selection of shot or camera angle at the stadium, when Harry finally traps the Scorpio. After the Scorpio stops screaming about his rights, about his lawyer, the camera (apparently perched on a helicopter) retracts from the scene — up, up and away into the atmosphere (even leaving the stadium) — as though God Himself is utterly disgusted by his wailing about civil rights.
Another straw man in the film, of course, is the derided bureaucracy of San Francisco. Down to a man, everyone but Harry is depicted as an appeasing, legalistic boob. Every last one of these heartless souls is willing to let a diabolical criminal go free because the letter of the law was broken regarding the Scorpio’s rights. These characters are painted with an unnecessarily broad and simplistic stroke. In real life, lieutenants, mayors, and district attorneys also have the safety and well-being of the citizenry on their minds. They are not, everyone of them, all CYA-technocrats. But once more, this depiction — while udeniably one-sided — is also part of that Western tradition. By necessity, Harry Callahan must defeat the villain alone, outside the “legalities” of the corrupt system, and according to a higher natural law: true justice.
In other words, Dirty Harry puts down just about everybody so as to elevate Callahan — the every man — to the role of iconic defender of society and guardian of justice. Frequently, Siegel provides heroic low-angle views of Callahan too, or gazes at him down the barrel of his gigantic…pistol. In non-too-subtle terms, we are asked to worship this decent, uncorrupted man, and not just the girth of his pistol, either.
Many critics and audience members were legitimately upset and offended by the arguments that Dirty Harry makes with such power and cinematic aplomb. Philosophically, I certainly don’t agree with many of these arguments simply on the grounds that everyone — even police officers — can make a mistake. You don’t just want the police to catch anyone who looks guilty, you want to make sure they’ve caught the right person, the guilty party. Otherwise, innocent people will be tried, incarcerated, or heaven forbid, executed. In my eyes, society must balance some rights for those suspects not yet proven guilty in court with the freedom of the police to do their job effectively. I submit that recent History has proven that America pretty much has a good balance: we have seen violent crime rates go down and down since the 1970s — the era of Dirty Harry — even with those once-controversial Miranda laws in effect.
So yes, Dirty Harry indeed looks ultra-paranoid these days. And really, Harry Callahan is a trained, experienced police officer, so certainly he understands the importance of a search warrant. If he can’t play by the rules proscribed by society at large, he has no business being in the game. (And indeed, perhaps Callahan realizes that fact; perhaps that is why Harry discards his badge at the end of the film…he no longer wishes to play.) And yet — and I realize this may offend some people — I still like and admire this film.
Today, perhaps the best way to look at Dirty Harry is as the cinematic missing link between John Wayne and Christian Bale, between the Western Cowboy and the superheroic Dark Knight. I don’t have to agree with any (or every) argument or viewpoint in the film to make note of its significant artistry and skill. Stacked deck or no, straw man argument or no, Dirty Harry is still a great action film, a classic (if utterly reactionary) example of the genre.
So, how can a left-winger like me admire a right-wing cinematic effort like this? I guess I just feel lucky (punk…) to live in a country where our art has the freedom to argue a point, to debate the law, and to take a stand…even if I disagree with the conclusions reached.