This critic didn’t know what to expect watching “Dirty Harry” again for the first time in, well, ages.
Famed liberal critic Pauline Kael waged a protracted war against “Dirty Harry,” making her Eastwood’s most persistent critic. The resentment, it appears, was mutual.
So I expected “Dirty” Harry Callahan to arbitrarily beat up strangers, spew racist language at every turn and treat the law like a doormat. He did the latter, to a degree, but he paid a sizable price for it.
So did society, one of many themes teased by director Don Siegel’s film.
Of course critics hadn’t seen anything quite like this Harry before, so the era’s outsized reaction shouldn’t come as a shock.
Critics then, and now, lean to the left.
The actual film proved far thornier, and more interesting, than the legend surrounding it. Yes, Dirty Harry bends the rules to preserve law and order. He’s also absurdly brave and short fused. Those qualities make it impossible to take your eyes off him. You don’t have to approve of his tactics … as many don’t.
Even when Harry gets nasty, be it belittling the mayor or calling an Hispanic cop a “spic,” the bigger picture is clear. He’s trying to do his job and protect those near him. The matter of his late wife, hinted at early in the film and revealed much later, factors into his dysfunction.
It also matters that Dirty Harry’s relationship with his new partner (Reni Santoni) defies an earlier slur meant to alienate the younger, less experienced cop. Again, context counts. The two develop a begrudging bond that doesn’t fit into a tidy category.
It’s called art, for those eager to slap a “Blazing Saddles” sized trigger warning on it.
In the early 1970s, criminals all but held San Francisco hostage, by some accounts, making the setting vital to the story.
Is Dirty Harry’s approach the best way to clean up the City by the Bay?
It worked wonders on screen at the time, in part because the nation feared what rising crime rates meant to their own well being. They found Harry’s “solutions” cathartic from the safety of a movie house.
It’s why Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish,” debuting three years later, snatched the vigilante zeitgeist from Dirty Harry’s calloused hands.
You could argue “Dirty Harry” is even more potent today given recent headlines:
- Soaring crime rates
- Cities decaying before our very eyes
- Cops treated like villains by politicians and reporters alike
Here’s betting New Yorkers wouldn’t mind Harry walking their beat at the moment. That doesn’t mean we’d vote for his methods to become the norm. Audiences are smart. They can process a cop veering into vigilante justice on screen without demanding their local law enforcement do the same.
Critics rob audiences of their agency in dismissing “Dirty Harry” as cinematic fascism.
Hollywood routinely reflects societal trends, but we shouldn’t expect anything quite like Harry from today’s Tinsel Town.
FAST FACT: “Dirty Harry” hauled in $35 million at the U.S. box office in 1971, according to Box Office Mojo. IMDB.com says the film came in fourth that year, behind “Billy Jack,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Diamonds Are Forever.”
Let’s start with the obvious.
In post-George Floyd Hollywood cops are now considered “problematic” at best. Our cultural betters ignore the inconvenient crime statistics to paint that unappealing portrait. “Cops” got the heave ho, as did “Live PD.”
Even an amiable cop show like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is feeling the pinch, with its screenwriters ditching recently produced stories presumably in favor of the new narrative.
“Dirty Harry’s” complicated themes, artfully framed by Siegel and Eastwood, are no longer welcome in Hollywood. Nuance, debate, reason and counter-arguments on crime could make compelling art, if allowed to thrive.
Progressive groupthink won’t allow it.
Dirty Harry is flat out wrong by breaking societal rules. But what if it means Scorpio, the film’s serial killer, erases even more lives? It’s a sophisticated question, and one a film like “Dirty Harry” sparks with every new watch.
Still, just imagine pitching anything Harry-like to a producer right now. The ensuing laughter might last longer than “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Today’s critics wouldn’t embrace any sort of “Dirty Harry” reboot, at least one that stayed true to the source material. This modern look at “Dirty Harry” is even more freedom-snuffing than the Kaels and Eberts of yore.
It’s the fantasy of a handsome, straight white guy trying to bring law and order to a city increasingly filled with people who don’t look like him or share his beliefs or sexual preferences. What’s more, the film’s almost laughable in the way it tries to anticipate and deflate concerns about that fantasy. Harry has a Latino partner and, after taking down an African-American bank robber* in the film’s famous “Do you feel lucky?” scene, he’s immediately shown getting stitched up by an African-American doctor established as an old family friend.
Remember, the serial killer in the original “Dirty Harry” is a white male. Woke critics look past that and other nagging facts, like the film’s diverse array of characters, to skewer the movie while sustaining their narratives.
This critic also watched “Sudden Impact” recently, the fourth film in the five-part series. That movie, directed by Eastwood, removes much of the franchise’s moral weight. It’s all cool catch phrases, one-dimensional villains and a fleeting love story courtesy of the late Sondra Locke.
It doesn’t make you think as much as it fires up your synapses. That’s not a bad thing, merely a “thing” to be considered.
A “Sudden Impact” style thriller might actually fly today, given enough virtue signaling moments got shoe horned in.
The real “Dirty Harry?” Not a chance, and we’re all the worse for it.