If Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy made Clint Eastwood a star, it was the Dirty Harry films made him a legend. After watching all five of these classics over the course of a week, I can safely say there isn’t a single bad or even mediocre entry in this series—all of them are great films in their own right, and each has its own unique set of pros and cons. So instead of talking about the series in summary, I’m going to give each movie the attention it deserves, one at a time. In doing so, I hope to do justice for one of the most entertaining and influential action series in the history of film.
Dirty Harry – Although the level of quality within the Dirty Harry series is fairly consistent, nothing could ever surpass the original. Dirty Harry is a testament to what action-thrillers can and should be: it’s quick and easy to follow, but also smart and nuanced. Plus, it’s got plenty of kick-ass action and some unforgettable lines. Director Don Siegel brings a darker and seedier side of San Francisco into the spotlight, making the city a character of the film in its own right. Composer Lalo Schifirn delivers one hell of a soundtrack—the jazzy main theme perfectly compliments the movie and its titular character, and the haunting voices of Scorpio’s theme seem to echo from the villain’s own twisted psyche. And of course, you can’t talk about Dirty Harry without talking about Clint Eastwood, who inhabits the character of Harry Callahan in a performance that shaped the future of the cinematic action hero (especially the anti-hero). Eastwood makes this film and the series as a whole larger than the sum of its parts, and without him we wouldn’t have the Schwarzenegger’s, Stalone’s, and Willis’s of the 80s and 90s, not to mention a countless number of cop movies and characters. The appeal of Harry Callahan is flawlessly encapsulated in the unforgettable bank robbery scene toward the beginning of the film. Among the chaos of blaring alarms and panicking bystanders, Harry is perfectly calm. Pay attention to the way he walks in this scene—in pretty much every scene he’s in for that matter. He always goes straight forward, never circling around the issue at hand. When the bank robbers open fire, he doesn’t hesitate in firing back, handling his iconic .44 Magnum with laser-like precision. Before you know it, the situation has been taken care of, finished as soon as it began. To put the icing on the cake, Harry wasn’t even on duty when this scene started—he was on his lunch break. Hell, he hadn’t even finished chewing his hot dog. This brings up an important aspect of Harry Callahan’s character: although he’s on the side of the law, he’s more than willing to take matters into his own hands. He follows the rules until the rules stop working. He hates bureaucracy and the restrictions the system places on him, but he puts up with it for the sake of doing the right thing, sacrificing his reputation, his dignity, and maybe even his sanity to do the jobs that no one else will—“the shit-end of the stick”, as his partner Chico Gonzalez puts it. As great as all of the aesthetic qualities of his character are, it’s this defiant sense of individual morality that makes Harry a truly great character. The sequence ends with one of the most iconic moments in all of cinema: Harry pointing his revolver down at the incapacitated robber in an image of total power as he delivers one of the most cold-blooded lines ever written. I don’t need to recite it here. Even if you’ve never seen Dirty Harry, you’ve probably heard this line before, or at least a misquoted version of it. This scene has almost nothing to do with the main plot of the film, but it’s a testament to the character of Harry Callahan that hasn’t lost a fraction of its power after over 40 years. You may have noticed that, after over 500 words, I haven’t even provided a plot synopsis. Dirty Harry’s premise is so straightforward that it needs little explanation: the city of San Francisco is being terrorized by a rooftop sniper, a maniacal murderer who goes by the name of ‘Scorpio’ (played by Andrew Robinson in a haunting performance), and it’s up to Harry Callahan to put a stop to him. The simplicity of the plot could be seen as a limitation, but Dirty Harry is a film that shines within its limitations. Something that shouldn’t be ignored is the historical context in which Dirty Harry was released. This was 1971—the Vietnam War dragged on, becoming more and more unpopular with the American public. It was a time of political unrest that makes today’s political climate look comparatively stable. Liberals and conservatives called each other communists and fascists so frequently that the words pretty much lost their meaning. This was also a time when urban crime was on the rise, and the law enforcement system was making changes—some for the better, but some for the worse. The worst of these negative consequences was the rights of criminals overpowering the rights of their victims and of the police officers who pursue them. Upon its release, Dirty Harry became controversial for taking a more right-wing approach to these issues, and for defending the use of violence by the police. Some critics panned it as being ‘fascist propaganda. Looking back on the film today, these criticisms were obviously hyperbolic. Dirty Harry does present some conservative ideas, but it certainly isn’t fascist propaganda—hell, it hardly feels like a political film today at all. Above all else, Dirty Harry is a film which prioritizes being thrilling, entertaining, and undeniably cool above all else. It goes to show that you don’t always need to agree with the things you enjoy, and it never hurts to consider views that oppose your own. Today’s audiences seem to understand that better than those of the past, and the universal praise Dirty Harry receives today is testament to that. If you haven’t seen this film yet, add it to your watch-list—you won’t regret it.
Magnum Force – Part of the appeal of this series is how each film offers new insight into Harry Callahan, forming an extensive character study when it’s all put together. This is apparent almost immediately with the sequel to the original film, Magnum Force. Whereas Dirty Harry criticized the bureaucratic nightmare of left-wing law enforcement, Magnum Force tackles the other side of the issue by examining what happens when the police go too far. By doing so, director Ted Post and screenwriter John Milius blur the grey line that Harry treads, testing and ultimately reinforcing his moral code. Instead of the maniacal, peace-sign-garbed Scorpio, the villain this time around is the intelligent, calculating Lieutenant Briggs (played excellently by Hal Holbrook) and his rookie gang of vigilante traffic cops (who look ominously similar to Nazi stormtroopers). I suppose Magnum Force is also the most noticeable drop in quality within the series—as I’ve said, the original film stood above its successors, never to be surpassed. That isn’t to say Magnum Force is a bad film by any means. On the contrary, it’s a great sequel. If you enjoyed the first film, you’ll probably find yourself thoroughly entertained by this one as well.
The Enforcer – In Dirty Harry and Magnum Force, the dynamic between Harry and the main villain was a major factor of what made the films great. Unfortunately, the Vietnam-vets-turned-terrorists of The Enforcer are probably the weakest antagonists in the series. What instead carries this movie is the chemistry between Harry and his newest partner, Inspector Moore (played by Tyne Daly). This is an aspect of the Dirty Harry films I’ve held off on talking about until now. In each film, Harry is assigned a new partner. All of these partners have one thing in common: they always end up in the hospital or in their grave by the end. Aside from giving Harry someone to interact with throughout the film, the partner adds a tragic element to his character. It’s as if Harry is doomed to fight an endless battle, the inevitable fate of lonesomeness always haunting over him. Dirty Harry‘s Chico Gonzalez and Magnum Force‘s Early Smith were fine characters in their own right but The Enforcer stepped up its game with Kate Moore. Out of all of the partner characters, she’s the only one to go through a complete character arc. We first see her at her final test for becoming an Inspector, then struggling to keep up with the far more experienced Harry in their attempts to get to the bottom of the terrorist case, and then finally proving herself by helping him take down the terrorists and rescuing the mayor. All the while, she develops a strong bond and charming chemistry with Harry, which makes her tragic fate at the end of the film all the more heartbreaking. In spite of its forgettable villains, The Enforcer still stands as a solid entry in the series.
Sudden Impact – Six years after the release of The Enforcer, Clint Eastwood returned to the series once again, this time as both actor and director. What resulted was perhaps the most unusual of all the Dirty Harry films. A small town outside of San Francisco has become the hunting ground for Jennifer Spencer (played by Sondra Locke), a gang-rape victim looking for revenge, and it’s up to Harry (on a forced vacation) to find her and get the situation under control. Although the original touched upon some similar ground, Sudden Impact stands out as the darkest film in the series. If Magnum Force blurred the thin grey line between right and wrong, this film nearly destroys it all together. The “victims” of the killing spree arguably deserve their punishment, but Jennifer isn’t exactly in the right, either. This dilemma comes to a head when Jennifer discovers that one of the rapists has been left in the same comatose state as her little sister (who was also a victim of the gang-rape). Besides moral ambiguity, the way this film approaches the character of Harry Callahan is also quite unique—he’s still the same badass as always, but we get to see a not-so-‘Dirty’ side to him. Clint Eastwood was reportedly tired of playing the same role over and over, and decided to spice things up a bit. Harry empathizes with Jennifer in a way he never could with Scorpio, Lt. Briggs, or the terrorists. He even becomes romantically involved with her, completely unaware that she’s the one he’s after. I suppose I can’t avoid the fact that Sudden Impact is also the most flawed film in the series. The most glaring issue is something it shares in common with The Enforcer—a bland and forgettable antagonist. Instead of sticking with Jennifer, the film does a sudden 180 by making one her past aggressors a downright cartoon villain. But I can’t really put all the blame on Eastwood—a majority of casual viewers didn’t go to a Dirty Harry movie to see thought-provoking moral complexity—they went to see Clint Eastwood blasting away criminals with his .44 Magnum. You could accuse Eastwood of having his cake and eating it too, but doing otherwise would have been too great a risk. And even if the villain is as flat as the great plains, the film still delivers a kick-ass finale and a powerful ending. Harry ultimately decides not to arrest Jennifer, giving her a second chance. Don’t let the mediocre score on Rotten Tomatoes scare you away from this one—Sudden Impact is well worth a watch.
The Dead Pool – Where Sudden Impact focused on the darker side of the Dirty Harry series, The Dead Pool focuses on the fun, light-hearted side. After his latest escapade, Harry unwillingly becomes a local celebrity, and subsequently finds himself a target in a series of murders. The only clue in catching the serial killer is a celebrity-death betting game called The Dead Pool, created by a B-movie director named Peter Swan (Liam Neeson). Why this film has such a low score on Rotten Tomatoes is beyond me—in terms of sheer entertainment value, The Dead Pool is probably the sequel that comes closest to rivaling the original Dirty Harry. Just take a look at what this film has to offer: Harry’s new partner is a Chinese-American karate master; Jim Carrey makes a cameo appearance as Johnny Squares, a washed-up rock-star who becomes the serial killer’s first target; there is an undeniable romantic tension between Harry and TV reporter Samantha Walker (Patricia Clarkson); the movie makes a thrilling chase sequence out of a remote-control toy car (which just so happens to be rigged with explosives); Harry takes out the main villain with a harpoon gun from the set of Swan’s latest film. To make a long story short, The Dead Pool is an absolute blast from start to finish. And in spite of its lighter tone, the film is also an insightful look on all things media and its obsession with death and violence. It’s fascinating to see a series which is known for being violent and controversial tackle this sort of topic. For me, it made the film all the more enjoyable. I’ll admit that The Dead Pool was a strange way to conclude Harry Callahan’s story, but at the same time, a neat little bow-tie ending would be unfitting for him anyway. For as much as I enjoy the series, all good things must come to an end.
Conclusion: What’s not to love about Dirty Harry? Its impact on the modern action genre is immeasurable, and the films are still great after over 40 years. Even among the unhealthy amount of media I consumed this summer, Dirty Harry stands out as one of its highlights. If you’re as interested in the legendary Clint Eastwood’s career as I’ve recently become, you owe it to yourself to watch all 5 of these classics as soon as possible.