I sometimes forget the impact that Dirty Harry had on me as a kid. I was expecting it to be some stupid exploitation flick from the 70s, but it turned out to be much more.
Unlike other gritty crime films from the 70s, like The French Connection or The Taking of Pelham 123, director Don Siegel and DP Bruce Surtees shot the movie like it was a western. Clint Eastwood looms large in mythic form over the screen, but he never completely dominates it. Like how the rough and tumble deserts and mountains are a major character in westerns, the streets of San Francisco play a similar role.
But Dirty Harry was slightly ahead of its time. While westerns were fading away, and with it the gunslingers delivering justice on the prairie, Clint Eastwood was offering the a audience a new hero: the pissed off cop that’s tired of rules and regulations and the constant whining from bureaucrats over the rights of individuals. Dirty Harry fit the mood of white conservatives during the age of Nixon and those that wished to return to a simpler ethos of good guys vs bad guys. In short, Dirty Harry was the predecessor to the Cannon Film craze of the 70s through the 80s.
But in my view, the unsung genius of the film is Andrew Robinson as the crazed villain. Even now, it’s an unnerving character…one that no one could get away with today. The closest comparison that I can think of is Heath Ledger’s Joker, but no sensible writer would permit Batman’s arch nemesis to kill, rape, and abduct children. THAT would be crossing the line. But Robinson’s Scorpio does it numerous times throughout the film.
Which is why the ending was so effective. Sure, it’s a cliche to hear Eastwood utter “do you feel lucky?” before blasting his last round into the bad guy. But you actually feel his rage as he asks Scorpio “well do ya? PUNK!!”. In my view, that was Eastwood’s finest moment as an actor.
While Dirty Harry might be synonymous with Clint Eastwood, I think it would be interesting to see the character return to the screen given its political undertones. Obviously Clint Eastwood is too old, and casting someone like Karl Urban to replace him would seem like parody. But now that the nature of masculinity on film has come under scrutiny, and the zeitgeist has turned skeptical towards law enforcement, it would be fascinating to see Harry Callahan return…especially to such a divisive city as San Francisco.