Harry Callahan is a detective for the San Francisco police department with a disregard for the rules. When a serial killer calling himself Scorpio starts killing at random, Callahan is the only man who can possibly stop him.
Dirty Harry begins with a tribute to the men who gave their lives for the San Francisco police force. However, unlike many of the other police procedurals of the time period, Dirty Harry was more concerned with the separation of the victims from the criminals themselves. It is in that area Dirty Harry proved to be a turning point in how detective movies would be seen, influencing men such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and creating a new subgenre along the way.
Clint Eastwood portrays Detective Harry Callahan in arguably his second greatest iconic performance of his storied career. Only the Man with No Name could be considered a better role, and only because when you think of Eastwood, the iconic spaghetti westerns come to mind first. The two men seem to be similar in many ways, as both are men with troubled pasts and a bleak outlook for their future. Whether they live or die is insignificant to them, and they rush headstrong into whatever dangerous circumstance stands in their way.
Callahan, after saving a jumper by talking him off a ledge, explains to his new partner that he is called Dirty Harry because he gets all the dirty jobs no one else wants to touch. When his partner repeats that quote to their chief, he is reprimanded, and it is clear that everyone on the force sees Harry in that way. He is the man they can send out to confront a crazed, serial killer, because whether he lives or dies is really a moot point at this time in his life.
Little is known about why Harry has reached this low point in his life. His wife was killed years before by a drunk driver and Harry doesn’t seem to have a life outside his detective work. Mel Gibson’s character in the original Lethal Weapon bears strong similarities to Dirty Harry and I would argue that it might have been based directly on the iconic Eastwood role. What makes Dirty Harry so interesting is that he does not drift along as a suicidal loner with a lack of concern. He fights every battle like it is his last. He is a brilliant detective that understands the criminal mind and can see things no one else can. He picks up clues and approaches criminals in a way that is both homicidal and humorous.
“I know what you’re thinking, “Did he fire six shots or only five?” Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”
It’s a line that has been quoted by anyone who has seen the movie. Andy Robinson, who played the serial killer Scorpio, mentions that everyone quotes the line to him when they meet him, almost verbatim. It is a line that makes Callahan an ultimate badass. As seen in Pulp Fiction, some twenty years later, nothing makes someone appear more like a badass than spouting off some quote to a person before plugging them full of lead. Callahan uses the quote twice in the movie, and each time the final result is different. What never changes is the fact that Harry Callahan is one bad mother.
The character of the Scorpio killer is an interesting antithesis to Dirty Harry. While Harry will look a man dead in the eyes and let them know they are about to die, Scorpio uses a high powered rifle from a rooftop in the distance to shoot an unsuspecting woman in the back. He shoots a ten-year old boy in the face from another rooftop hiding place. When he encounters Harry, he squeals and runs like a little girl, afraid of the confrontation. When Harry shoots Scorpio in the leg, Scorpio cries for his lawyer. He begs for mercy. Dirty Harry is a man straight out of the wild west, a man with little patience for bureaucracy and a man who does what he believes is right, regardless of the law. Scorpio is a coward who would slap a child in the face but beg for mercy from a man in a fight.
What makes the movie work so well is the fact that Scorpio, through all his cowardly antics, is able to use the law and the press to his advantage. He is able to kill three people and still go free thanks to his use and abuse of the legal proceedings. While Harry Callahan does everything he can to stop the murders, bring the killer to justice and save a young girl’s life, he is reprimanded for the lengths he goes to achieve what no other officer on the force is able to. The criminal becomes the victim and the hero becomes the goat. This leads to the final confrontation where Harry is finally able to do the only thing he believes is left to stop this killer once and for all. It is a near perfect crime story.
Director Don Siegel brought years of experience into this picture, bringing motifs from his earlier work such as The Killers and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as well as his experience working on such pictures as The Roaring Twenties and Casablanca. He crafted a picture that was both exhilarating and beautiful. His camera created a third character in the form of San Francisco itself and allowed the city to play as integral a part in the film as either Harry or Scorpio. The music as composed by Lalo Schifrin was perfect for this picture, presenting a touch of jazz and never becoming overbearing on the action.
Dirty Harry would spawn four sequels, as well as influence many other movies including Lethal Weapon, Red Heat, Die Hard and others. It is not simply a cult film, it is a masterful look at how a police film should be structured and remains a relevant and exciting film to this day.
There is an audio commentary track with Clint Eastwood’s biographer Richard Schickel. He talks with a calm, conversational voice, both relaxing and at times boring. However, he has some great insight to the film.
Dirty Harry: The Original is a documentary hosted by actor Robert Urich about the character of the Dirty Harry series. It includes current interviews with Clint Eastwood, John Milius, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Andy Robinson and Hal Holbrook among others. There is an interview gallery with Patricia Clarkson, Joel Cox, Clint Eastwood, Hal Holbrook, Evan Kim, John Milius, Ted Post, Andy Robinson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robert Urich. These interviews only amount to small pieces of trivia. Finally, Dirty Harry’s Way is another documentary, this one created at the time the film was made. It is a studio promoted making-of feature that compares Dirty Harry with classic police films involving Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and others.
There are also trailers for all of the Dirty Harry films.
The second disc has two features. The first is The Long Shadow of Dirty Harry. People influenced by the Dirty Harry films discuss what made the series so great. They talk to Joe Carnahan (Narc), David Ayer (Training Day), Shane Black (Lethal Weapon), Michael Madsen, Tom Fontana (Oz), Peter Hyams (Running Scared), George Gallo (Bad Boys) and John Badham (WarGames). It also talks to Hal Holbrook (Sudden Impact), Andy Robinson (Dirty Harry), John Milius (Magnum Force), Tyne Daly (The Enforcer), and Clint Eastwood. This is a really good documentary strictly about the character of Dirty Harry, his influences and the reasons that character influenced these filmmakers. It clocks in at around 25 minutes.
Clint Eastwood: The Man from Malpaso is the second documentary on the disc and is about Eastwood himself. It goes into detail on his career high points. Eastwood is interviewed for the documentary, which makes it better than most features over actors’ careers. Eastwood brings up a number of interesting topics, such as he agreed to do Fistful of Dollars because it was a remake of Yojimbo, his favorite Akira Kurosawa film. When the film production started, neither Segio Leone nor Eastwood could speak the other’s language. Leone also did not understand the Hays Code, and Eastwood admitted to not telling him so they could break all the rules. The entire feature is very interesting if you are a fan of Eastwood. It clocks in at about an hour.