Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dirty Harry Movies and Vigilantes, Misogyny and Race

Between 1971 and 1988 Clint Eastwood starred as San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan aka Dirty Harry in five different movies. Watching all five films over the span of a few days recently, I was fascinated by how each movie has different degrees of morality – sometimes even contradicting previous movies in the series. There is no doubt that the original film, 1971’s Dirty Harry, is far and away the best film in the series – a masterpiece in its own right. The film, along with William Friedkin’s The French Connection released the same year, pretty much started the renegade cop genre. And while Friedkin’s film went onto Oscar glory (winning Best Picture, Director and Actor for Gene Hackman among others), Dirty Harry is quite clearly the more watched film today.
All five films follow the same basic formula – Harry Callahan usually runs afoul of his superiors early in the film – who complain about his “methods” and the damages they cause, and Harry takes no shit from them. He is transformed out of homicide to some other department – personal, surveillance, etc. – and gets a new partner – who will always either be killed or at least seriously hurt by the end of the movie. There are always several unrelated shootouts during the course of the movie – where Harry just happens to stumble upon a robbery, and ends it – with his .44 Magnum.  Harry gets assigned a case, and does anything necessary to close it – he never seems to make any arrests, because the killers are all dead, again by Harry’s .44 Magnum, by the end of the film. All the movies follow a similar plot – but the details change each time.

Dirty Harry is the best movie in the series for a few reasons – one of them being that it was directed by Don Siegel, far and away the best director the series had (yes, Eastwood himself directed the fourth film, Sudden Impact, and Eastwood is overall a better filmmaker than Siegel – but the Clint who directed Sudden Impact wasn’t quite the filmmaker he would become, while as in 1971, Siegel was at the height of his powers). The other reason is because Dirty Harry was inspired by society at the time the film was made – and the rest of the films seem inspired by the previous films in the series – and more accurately, the reaction to those films.

Dirty Harry was a commercial success back in 1971, but critics were divided on it – Pauline Kael said it flew in the fact of liberal values, and while Roger Ebert praised the craft of the film, and Eastwood’s performance, he also said the film was “fascist”. Others felt the film was racist because all of the films black characters were criminals – and in the film’s most famous sequence, when Harry breaks up a bank robbery, the one black character who talks to him does so in a stereotypical, none too intelligent way. Feminists were also outraged by the film – saying the women in the film were treated as mere sex objects, including one girl who is kidnapped, beaten, raped, buried, and left for dead (although we don’t see any of that).

I’m not sure I would describe Dirty Harry as “fascist”, but it certainly is right wing. The film is clearly a response to the 1960s, when the rights of the accused and civil liberties were a cause taken up by the left. The film thinks this has gone too far – placing the rights of criminals over that of society and the victims. Harry does in fact torture a confession out of the villain, Scorpio (clearly based on the Zodiac killer, making headlines in Northern California at the time) – by standing on the killers wounded leg – that Callahan had previously both stabbed and shot – even after he’s asked for a lawyer. He does this to find out the location of the girl he has buried – and demanded a ransom for, which the Mayor has agreed to pay. To Harry, getting the girl back alive – which they still fail to do – is more important than the suspects civil liberties. Because of this, and the fact that Harry searched the suspect apartment without a warrant – meaning the rifle he finds there, that can be tied to previous murders – is inadmissible, meaning the killer walks. When he gets out, Callahan tails him, and confronts him when he kidnaps a bus load of kids, again demanding a ransom, which again the mayor agrees to pay, and eventually killing him – pretty much in cold blood. The message of the film is clear – there is too much red tape in law enforcement – and all the concern for the criminals rights puts the lives of innocent people in jeopardy.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t agree with Dirty Harry’s politics, but yes, I do believe the film is a masterpiece. Siegel does an excellent job at portraying the seedy, sleazy underbelly of San Francisco, which in this movie is essentially a crime ridden cesspool. Eastwood is excellent in the film as well – a no nonsense, take no prisoners, action oriented, man of few words who gets results. The film is gritty, intense, exciting and while I don’t agree with its message when I think back to the film, when you’re watching it, it’s impossible NOT to agree with it. Of movies of its ilk, Dirty Harry is pretty much impossible to beat – and not only that, it remains one of the most influential films of all time. It is a great film.

If the film is racist or misogynistic, it is more by omission than anything else. Yes, all the bank robbers that Harry guns down are black – but the movie doesn’t suggest all black people are criminals – at least not any more than anyone else. There is hardly a character in the movie – aside from Harry, and his superiors, who IS NOT a criminal. The only  overtly racist character is Scorpio himself – who uses the “n” word when a black man he has paid to beat him up, so he can pin it on Harry,  is actually beating him up. As for misogynistic, I think the film is saying the seedy underworld it is portraying hates women – true, the women in the film are all sex objects, but not to Harry – he just sees what is going on.

While Eastwood dismissed the criticisms of Dirty Harry, they certainly had an impact on the film’s follow-up – 1973’s Magnum Force, directed by Ted Post (who went onto a long career with Law & Order) and written by John Milius and Michael Cimino – who went onto direct some interesting films themselves. While the film still has black criminals – especially a brutal pimp who murders one his prostitutes, also black, with drain cleaner in the film’s most savage sequence, Harry also finds himself with a black partner – who he respects. This is mainly lip service though – the partner is an underwritten character, but at least you couldn’t accuse of all the black characters being portrayed as bad – they are both good and bad, which would seemingly be fair. As well, the women in the movie are more than just sex objects – again, it’s mainly lip service, but effective. Aside from the one scene with the aforementioned prostitute, there are two other female characters – the ex-wife of Harry’s former partner, and Harry’s neighbour = both of whom responded sexually to Harry. This time, Harry is the sex object, which is a clever way to handle things. Neither of these characters are major, but they are there.

 But the major change in Magnum Force is the main case that Harry is investigating. There is someone going around murdering criminals – and all the signs point to four rookie cops that Harry meets, and initially thinks highly of. But then he figures out what is going on, and tries to put a stop to it – eventually resulting in the films climax, where Harry has to take them out one at a time – and realizes it goes much higher than just them. This is a direct response to the people who accused the original film of glamorizing a cop who was “judge, jury and executioner” all rolled into one. The film is in essence defending Harry, by showing us people who are much worse – the exact kind of person critics thought Harry was, and having Harry coming down against them. The films signature line is “Man’s gotta know his limitations”, which Harry utters twice, and essentially means that everyone has to know where to draw the line – and while Harry will bend, or even break, the rules sometimes, he is not for all out anarchy. As he says late in the film “I hate the system, but until someone shows me something better, I’ll stick to it”.

This makes Magnum Force a fascinating movie – and it too, deserves praise for Eastwood’s performance and Ted Post’s direction. It adds a layer to complexity to Harry – showing him as a man with a rigid moral code which he will not violate. Harry does not want the country to return to the ways of the Old West, he just wants justice – to do the right thing, and cold blooded murder isn’t the right thing.

Magnum Force is not as good as Dirty Harry, but it is quite good – entertaining, fast paced and well-acted – by Eastwood as well Hal Holbrook, as Harry’s superior who Harry constantly pisses off. It does go off on too many tangents and side trips – and takes too long to solve the case, especially when the audience knows, well before Harry, who the real killers are. But to flip Dirty Harry the way it does makes this an interesting movie – and the type of sequel I like most – not just trying to repeat the successes of the first films (although to a certain degree, it does), but responds to it. Like The Godfather Part II, which sought to de-romanticize the Mafia after the first film romanticized it, Magnum Force seeks to de-romanticize the idea of the vigilante, after Dirty Harry made it seem heroic.

The third film in the series, 1976’s The Enforcer, leaves the question of vigilantes and taking the law into your own hands, out of the film. Yes, Harry still kills a whole lot of people with his .44 Magnum, but no one in their right mind would question his actions – it is always kill or be killed in this film. The case itself, about an underground terrorist group holding the city in fear in the hopes of collecting a ransom – which one again, Harry’s cowardly superiors want to give in to (like they did in the original) much to Harry’s chagrin, is not overly interesting, even if it does allow for some good, tense action sequences.

Instead, The Enforcer addresses the other criticisms of Dirty Harry – that Magnum Force merely paid lip service to – that is that the film was racist and misogynistic. First of all, the film gives Harry a new partner – of course – this time a woman played by Tyne Daly. Harry resents being saddled with her, not really because she’s a woman, but because she’s never been on the street over the course of her police career – spending it all before a desk. But Daly gradually earns Harry’s respect – proving herself to smart, resourceful, and willing to do what it takes to get results. The film is certainly against affirmative action – women getting promoted simply because they’re women – but does believe it’s possible for women to be smart and skilled as police officers.

As for the racism charge, The Enforcer also responds to this. When the first member of the underground terrorist group is killed – by Harry of course – everyone jumps to the conclusion that a black militant group is responsible – everyone except Harry. Instead of jumping to conclusion, he goes to see the leader of the black militant in question – and finds a man who wants nothing to do with violence, but is rather waiting for the “honkeys to kill each other off” before gaining power. He even makes an agreement with him to help out on the case. And the group responsible is multi-racial, but led by a white former pimp.

The Enforcer is one of the weakest films in the Dirty Harry series. Yes it is entertaining, and decently made by director James Fargo. It also doesn’t overstay its welcome, running a swift 90 minutes. Eastwood is great as always as Harry Callahan, and Tyne Daly is well matched to him, making a convincing partner for Harry. It isn’t nearly as serious as either of the first two films or as challenging, but it is still a decent film.

After making three Dirty Harry movies in six years, it took seven years for Eastwood to return for a fourth time to the role – he even directed 1983s Sudden Impact, the first and only time he directed a Dirty Harry movie. The film returned to the theme of vigilantes this time – but not a cop, but a victim. The film opens with Sondra Locke shooting a man in the testicles, before shooting him in the head. Harry, of course, is assigned the case – but once again runs afoul of his superiors – first, for violating a suspects rights, leading to his dismissal, and second for confronting a mobster at his granddaughters wedding, causing him to have a heart attack. With the mob after him, as well as that murderer now free, the department decides to send Harry to San Paolo, a small town to run background on the ball-less murder victim. And wouldn’t you know it, but Locke has gone there as well. She wants to kill the rest of the people who raped her and her little sister – who has essentially been in a vegetative state for 10 years since the attack. Harry meets Locke without knowing that she is the murderer he’s looking for, and they have a flirtatious relationship. But the bodies keep turning up, and eventually, Harry pieces it all together – and has to save her from the final psycho she wants to kill. But when it comes time for Harry to arrest her – he instead lets her go and places all the blame on that final, now dead, psycho.

Sudden Impact is more in line with the original Dirty Harry, which embraced the idea of the vigilante, than it is with Magnum Force, which rejected it. Locke has more in common with Dirty Harry in the original, who broke the rules only because he felt it necessary, than she does with the cops in Magnum Force, who do not even let the system try and work. The rape of Locke and her sister was covered up by the local Sheriff, because his son was one of the rapists – albeit, the only one who felt any guilt about it, and actually destroyed his own life because of it. Like in the case of Scorpio in the first film, the system had its chance to punish the perpetrators, but didn’t. It is only then, and years later at that, that Locke finally takes the law into her own hands. And Harry feels sympathy for that – and hence lets him go. There is a line he will not cross - as he showed in Magnum Force, but for whatever reason, he does not believe that Locke has crossed that line.

Sudden Impact could have been the equal of at least Magnum Force, if not the original, except for two flaws. The first is that there are too many side trips –the mobsters, the other kid killer, even the robbery that Harry spoils to begin the film, which gives Eastwood his most famous line as Dirty Harry "Go ahead, make my day". This simply serves to make the film run a little too long, but it’s a minor flaw.

The other flaw is much more serious – and that’s the fact that Locke is simply horrible in what should have been one of the most interesting roles in any Dirty Harry movie. She simply stares wide eyed off into space for much of her role, and she’s not convincing either flirting with Eastwood or when she is killing people.

But Sudden Impact is still a very good film – perhaps the most morally complex of any of the Dirty Harry films. Eastwood, yet again, is great as Harry Callahan and as a director, he also does a great job. This really is where the Dirty Harry series should have ended.

Five years after Sudden Impact, Eastwood returned for his final go-ahead as Harry Callahan in The Dead Pool – easily the weakest of the five movies, yet still an entertaining cop thriller in its own right. Having explored vigilantes in every possible way, and having addressed the criticisms of racism and misogyny, there really wasn’t anything left for the series to address – and The Dead Pool really doesn’t address anything.

The film does play a little bit on the well-worn formula of the series – this time with Harry not being seen as a liability to the image of the SFPD, but as one of their shining stars – after his work put a mobster in jail. He is still transferred, albeit briefly, to the PR department, and yes, he gets a new partner – this one a Chinese American, I guess so the series can diversify a little bit – but considering his partner has Chinese characters tattoo all over his body, and is, obviously, an expert at karate, the attempt to expand really doesn’t work as much as it just confirms a stereotype. The only message The Dead Pool really has is a rather obvious one about the media selling violence – and the effects that the media obsession with violence can have on a damaged mind.

By the time of The Dead Pool any complexity in Harry Callahan was gone – like in The Enforcer, Harry is more of a hero than as the morally complex character he usually was – someone whose actions you could question. It would have been better to let Harry rest at the end of Sudden Impact – with his most controversial action, letting Locke walk, as his final onscreen act – and keep that complexity intact.

While The Dead Pool isn’t complex in any way, it is an entertaining cop film – even with Eastwood on cruise control, it’s still fun to see him play him Harry again. The film has some good action sequences – especially a car chase through the streets of San Fran with a remote control car chasing down Harry. It is also fun to see three future stars in supporting roles – Jim Carrey in a one scene role as an over the top, drugged out movie star, Liam Neeson as a sleazy horror film director and Patricia Clarkson as a reporter, and Harrys love interest. But when the film ends with Harry dispatching the bad guy, but not with his .44 Magnum but with a giant spear gun, it’s time to put the series to rest.

Overall, the Dirty Harry movies are all well-made, well-acted and entertaining. While only one of the films, the original, is a truly great movie, Magnum Force and Sudden Impact come close as well, and at the very least are fascinating, morally complex movies. The series is one of the most influential in history, and while we still get a lot of renegade cop movies to this day, hardly any can approach the level of Dirty Harry – and give us a character as fascinating, as complex, as Harry – someone whose actions you always understand, even if you don’t always agree with them. Most movies today would either define him as an outright hero, and justify everything he does, or paint him as much more one dimensionally bad – where Harry isn’t the hero, but the villain. It is precisely this fact – that Harry Callahan is neither one dimensionally good or bad – that makes this series interesting, and rewarding even now, 24 years after the series came to an end – and over 40 years since it started. Clint Eastwood has gone onto become one the best, most celebrated filmmakers in the world since Dirty Harry ended – including films such as Unforgiven and Mystic River which look at violence in much more thoughtful way than most films -  but to many, he will always be renegade cop Dirty Harry. And if Dirty Harry defines Eastwood, he could do a hell of a lot worse.

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