Director: Don Siegel
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Andy Robinson, Reni Santoni, Harry Guardino, John Vernon
Plot: A crazed killer holds San Francisco to ransom with his brutal killings. Detective Harry Callahan (Eastwood) is put on the case, but will the police department let him do his job?
There is a reason that the original Dirty Harry movie remains one of the most talked about cop movies out there, as well as one of Clint Eastwood’s finest pictures. Dirty Harry’s greatest strength is that it always seems a few steps away from being a brain-dead male fantasy vehicle, yet manages to resist the temptation of staying on that level. On the surface, it provides exactly that, giving us a no-nonsense, macho cop, portrayed superbly by Clint Eastwood, making good use of his world famous scowl. Eastwood’s Harry Callahan blasts his way through a hour and 40 minute movie, with quotes that put him on the map and sequences that remain with the audience for quite some time. However, on a second watch, you appreciate it for the underlying story behind the action. We can never escape the idea that Dirty Harry could probably wrap up this case in a matter of scenes if he was left to his own devices. There is no mystery as to who the killer is, Scorpio’s identity pretty much sussed out around the half hour mark. Harry’s plan of attack, for the most part, seems successful on paper. It is just the rest of the police department that lets him down. The helicopter patrols are incompetent, the Mayor ties Harry in red tape and the Chief of Police asks Harry to follow Scorpio’s demands so rigidly that there is very little time spent on actually investigating. Scorpio is hardly the world’s greatest criminal mastermind, Andy Robinson getting across the unhinged psychopath very well, and, other than a few late act moments of inspiration, Scorpio doesn’t really strike you as an arch-nemesis. This is a movie that asks how much police work actually involves police work and how concerned the police are about their public image. Harry is able to deliver the bad guy on a plate in the mid-way point of the movie, but because the law allows room for interpretation, Scorpio is able to manipulate his way out of jail-time. It makes Callahan’s miserable demeanour easier to understand – he seems trapped in a higher level of understanding than anyone else in the movie. Only at the very end is he allowed to follow his gut, which results in a terrifically satisfying climax.
Of course, Dirty Harry’s other big draw is that the fact that it proves a cop movie doesn’t need big explosions or complicated narratives to hit home. All we need is a tough character to get behind as our hero, cast a charismatic without ever trying lead, and let the direction do the work for us. Siegel dazzles not with big set-pieces, but with choice cinematography and a pulse-pounding soundtrack. Right from the opening sniper shot, we are aware that Siegel knows his way around a camera. It is the simple blemishes that make Dirty Harry such an appealing movie for its audience. The dialogue is fast and amusing. The quick routine police jobs like stopping an attempted suicide or threatening potential bank robbers with a Magnum breaks up the main plot and explores Callahan’s personality. Everything is done with precision and, as a result, it all works. And because Siegel isn’t bothered with creating a non-stop action, when he does give us some good fight scenes, they are all the more powerful. A chase across San Francisco to get to ringing phone booths is thrilling and tense, every ring symbolising the potential death of a young hostage. And the end fight scene with the school bus. As the villain rounds the corner and sees Harry waiting for him, standing atop a bridge, as casually as a man waiting for a train, it is the stuff of cinematic genius. I get chills every time.
Final Verdict: Sometimes simple works. It helps that Clint Eastwood is excellent as the love-to-hate hero, and Siegel understands how a cop movie should be.