Welcome back to San Francisco Crime Month. This time, I’ll look at Don Siegel’s 1971 classic, Dirty Harry. So many people quote and reference this film, but I don’t think that many people have actually seen it. It is a classic with a straightforward and manipulative message that’s somehow been misinterpreted since its release.
The film follows Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), a gruff cop who continually finds himself in situations where violence is the only resolution (one of the many speculated reasons as to why people call him Dirty Harry). A psychotic sniper who calls himself Scorpio, tries to get money from the Mayor (John Vernon), in exchange for ceasing his murderous rampage. Harry is sent in to “mediate.” The film plays out as a game of cat and mouse between Scorpio and Harry. Scorpio manipulates the legal system, in order to get the money while still having his fun, while the system continually interferes with Harry’s attempts to capture the mad sniper. This movie came out at a time when many US cities had a high crime rate, and the citizens felt the legal system was failing them. Dirty Harry’s world is a filmic homage to that concept.
The three main characters each represent a part of the system. Harry is a silent, no-nonsense protagonist, similar to Steve McQueen in Bullitt. The difference between Harry and Bullitt is how people react to their refusal to play by the rules. When Bullitt disobeys, the chief uses the excuse: “but he gets results.” Harry also gets results through his methods, but is still reprimanded. He is called a vigilante by characters from the movie, and the viewers. Harry’s faults are a matter of circumstance and the jobs he encounters escalate, even when he tries to avoid disastrous outcomes.
Harry takes matters into his own hands because the system tries to comply with Scorpio, who has no intention of keeping his word. The film makes Harry a vigilante, but a reluctant one. He wants to be a cop, but the system is legitimately flawed and working against the people it has sworn to protect.
Scorpio, played amazingly by Andrew Robinson, works as a representation of the criminals abusing the legal system. Scorpio takes visible pleasure in the crimes he commits; his entire existence revolves around these cruel actions. He’ll kidnap a fourteen year old girl, hold her for ransom, and kill her even if he gets paid. He keeps trying to hold the lives of the citizens hostage for his own personal gain, even going as far as to kidnap a school bus full of kids. This power he has over the system both creates and represents the helplessness citizens feel when the law cannot protect them. Scorpio is a character that is so evil, that the audience cannot help but take the side of the vigilante, who has done nothing but try to resolve the situation as quickly as possible.
The Mayor represents the entirety of the system. He tries to help, but his plans always end up failing. He is the weakness at the helm of the city. Vernon, all his officials, and the policemen that surround him are an extension of his incompetence, and the instability of the law. Scorpio and the Mayor are the elements that instigate Harry’s choice to act as a vigilante. The failure of the system and ongoing criminal threat forces the audience to root for Harry, the only sensible person in the entire film.
There is a clear sense of right and wrong present in Dirty Harry, but it is pushed to an extreme. The violence is often times implied, but it is still gritty and cold, like the world Harry and the citizens of San Francisco exist in. There is no sympathy for these people and there is no help coming to them; that is why Harry has to fight.
San Francisco functions as a battle ground. Early in the film, Harry looks over the city from on high (like many costumed vigilantes do these days). Scorpio also looks at the city from on high, through the scope of a rifle; Harry sees the city, Scorpio sees targets. Many SF locations are the settings for classic scenes: the robbery in the financial district, the fight at the cross on Mt. Davidson, and the chase and showdown at Kezar stadium. Two of these scenes offer the audiences the additional satisfaction of seeing Scorpio suffer for his crimes, yet sadly, he escapes each time.
I knew about Dirty Harry long before I’d seen it, but it was different than what I expected. The idea I received from others was that the film promotes vigilantism because of a violent protagonist who ran around shooting criminals (like Charles Bronson in Death Wish). This idea was reinforced by the commonly shown clips of Harry running around shooting people, but in reality these scenes are few and far between. When Harry raises his gun, he has a reason. The “do ya punk?” speech is there to stop people from shooting, though it looks like he is making a pre-kill speech when heard out of context. Dirty Harry condones vigilantism, not because of Harry, but because of every other person in the film. The plot, setting and characters, all support the notion that we need someone like Harry. Harry is a likable, and honorable character that people, including many film critics (which seems to be everyone these days) fail to understand.
I don’t believe some of the decisions made by the system could actually happen, for instance, when Harry first catches Scorpio, they would have arrested him, even if Harry did torture information out of him. The Mayor and Chief keep sending Harry to deal with Scorpio, even though they disagree with Harry’s methods. Then they keep blaming him for Scorpio getting away. These flaws work for the story, but undermine it slightly, because they are not plausible. Dirty Harry is still excellent and non-stop entertainment, just don’t get sucked in by its one-sided message.
Favorite Scene: Any time Scorpio is on screen, and especially when he suffers, I can’t help but feel happy.
Written by Tyler Ducheneaux
Images from Dirty Harry