Dirty Harry

Film * Don Siegel * Social Degradation * 1971


Here we have another film in the apparently never-ending series: “Matt is surprised by the quality of a classic, oft-referenced movie.” To be fair, as a movie Dirty Harry has some significant flaws. Some of the story beats are a little contrived, the characters outside of Harry tend to be one dimensional, the antagonist is almost downright silly, and for an action flick it’s not very actiony. However, despite these things the film has made a significant cultural footprint. Everyone knows Harry’s catch phrase (the movie ensures that we do, considering it’s used twice in a clear attempt to craft a tagline), but I think that as a whole Dirty Harry is a window into America’s mindset of the time. The film reads as a declaration that society is teetering on the edge of chaos, and that it is only a matter of time before civilization falls and we’re all subsumed by criminal maniacs bent on destruction and mayhem. If you’ve been paying attention to the news cycle of late, this is a perspective that never really went away.

As for the story of Dirty Harry, there really isn’t that much to talk about. Harry Callahan is a San Francisco police detective. The San Francisco of 1971, by the way, is a grimy, gritty, nasty city filled with establishments of ill repute and roving gangs of miscreants. Callahan is brought in on a peculiar murder investigation. The killer is a rooftop sniper who seemingly chooses his victims at random, and leaves notes taunting the police department. His intention is to play games with the police while also securing an almost laughably low ransom. The suits at city hall argue about how to best comply with the serial killer’s demands, but Callahan is incredulous about their dithering.

Callahan, or Dirty Harry as he is known on the force, is not exactly patient with things such as ‘due process’ and ‘procedural police work.’ Early on we are shown how Harry does business. There’s a scene where Harry is chilling in his favorite diner. Everything seems cool, but old Callahan notices something odd. He tells the proprietor of the diner to call in a 211 in progress (I know what this means from Dr. Dre, so don’t ever tell me gangster rap never taught me nothin). Too late, though, because gunshots ring out and Dirty Harry is suddenly in action to stop the bad guys. There’s a shootout as Harry busts out his ridiculous hogleg of a sidearm, blasting away in public. He foils the robbery, walks up to one of the baddies he just plugged, and then Harry delivers his iconic (and surprisingly long and rambling) catch phrase. This is all very cool and boss.

Once the film has established how bad of a dude Dirty Harry is, it then focuses on the actual crime drama aspect. Basically, the Scorpio Killer is foiled in his next attempt (which considering that San Francisco is large, and the murderer works totally at random, seems a little convenient, but whatevs) so he ups the stakes. This time, he kidnaps a lady and runs Callahan around town just to fuck with him. Dirty Harry does not appreciate being fucked with. So Dirty Harry finally goes a step too far, (by which I mean he chooses to ignore about half of the Constitution) and even though he catches his man the Scorpio Killer is released. Of course the killer is emboldened by this turn of events, and pushes things even further. Don’t worry, though, because despite being reprimanded for his ‘irregular techniques,’ Harry eventually gets his man.


Dirty Harry is not simply a film about feel-good vigilantism. Which is good, because ambiguity is our friend. The character of Harry Callahan is obviously troubled – and troubling – but there is a curious depth to him, despite the lack of outward expression. I suspect a good deal of this has to do with Clint Eastwood’s performance. He makes it easy for the audience to read into his silence, and here as elsewhere his stoic intensity pretty much makes the film. Callahan is a cop who wants to do the right thing. He’s just not all that interested in doing it the right way. What Dirty Harry does as a film is to pose the question: is the right way right?

It will help if we put the film into the context of its time in history. From what I understand, the 70s weren’t great. I mean, I wasn’t there, but this is what I’ve gleaned from cultural osmosis. Crime was on the rise, the country was still dealing with all of the social upheaval of the previous decade, and everything was some hideous shade of burnt umber. Also, pea-green shag carpets. What the hell, The Seventies? Anyway, I’m glad I missed it. The important thing here is, of course, the perception of rampant crime in the big cities. The rise in the crime rate at this time was not imagined, it was an actual, serious problem (and actually didn’t peak until 1991) that was relatively new to the American experience. Our cities seemed to go from glittering, utopian beacons-on-the-hill to sprawling, grimy ghetto towns over the span of a few years.


And yet, I still prefer this filthy, gritty urban scene to… whatever San Francisco is now.

I am not really equipped to really dig into the civic sociology behind urban decline. I know, and I’m sorry, but my causal reading on the subject is not a substitute for advanced research and study. So I can’t really answer why the crime rate began a steep uptick in the 70s and kept climbing until 1991 before falling off significantly. What I can do is examine the ways in which society expressed their anxiety over this new, unpleasant phenomenon. Dirty Harry is a major American film that paints a disturbing picture of urban life while simultaneously not having any easy answers. If this were a worse film, Harry Callahan would simply go on a rampage without consequence. There would be no question to Callahan’s fundamental goodness, and in the end he would be vindicated by the system which spurned him.

That’s not what goes down here. First of all, Callahan is not a cool guy. This aspect of his character is made abundantly clear by how his coworkers treat him. There’s a scene where he’s introduced to a new partner, Chico Gonzales, whom Harry immediately dislikes. That’s okay, though, because as another cop points out, Harry hates everyone equally. This is accompanied by a long list of racial slurs to describe the kind of people that Harry doesn’t like. Gonzales asks, understandably “how does he feel about Mexicans?” Harry’s answer: “especially spics.” WINK. All of this playful racism is really beside the point, because the only real racist in the film is Scorpio, who is a psychotic douchenozzle that we’re supposed to hate anyway. Anyway, Harry doesn’t like anyone, and everyone pretty much steers clear of Harry. He has fractious relations with his superiors, and despite getting results, Harry is troubled by life within the system.


Note how Callahan is the menacing figure in this image, not the rampant serial murderer. 

What complicates the film the most is Harry’s relationship with the rule of law. As an audience, we understand his frustrations. The Scorpio Killer is a repulsive murderer. He is also a bit of a ham, so it’s difficult to take him all that seriously. Anthony Hopkins he is emphatically not. Still, as an antagonist he is able to exploit the loopholes in the criminal justice system in order to terrorize the community. Callahan has no patience for this, and voices the frustration of the community being terrorized.

The scene after Harry catches Scorpio the first time is particularly important. In order to find the killer, Harry had to first illegally break into Scorpio’s house. He then chased the killer down and proceeded to kick the living shit out of him. Understandable, under the circumstances. All the while Scorpio is petulantly whining about his rights. All of this is designed to get under the audience’s skin, because we all just watched this garbage person murder some people for no reason. Shortly after this, Harry is brought into the District Attorney’s office and is informed that Scorpio is going to be released. This does not sit well with Harry or the audience, because Scorpio is clearly guilty. The DA and a judge, however, correctly point out that the accused does, in fact, have Constitutionally protected rights. Those rights were violated, therefore the killer walks.

Well, shit. How are we supposed to feel about this? Harry’s answer is to ask about victim’s rights, which would be a valid point except for the fact that some of Callahan’s transgressions could be dealt with if Harry had not lost his composure at the end. There are exceptions to search warrant requirements in emergency situations – which is pointed out by the film – but Harry screwed that pooch by needlessly beating up the killer. It turns out there is no real answer to this issue, at least not one given within the movie. Is the Constitution too lenient? Should there be amendments to give police more power to prosecute criminals on their own? Is there a way to balance both the rights of victims and the accused? Harry has no time for any of that egghead nonsense. He grabs his .44 and hunts down his man. In the end, he throws his badge away. The system is too much for Dirty Harry Callahan, it seems.


This seems fine. Gotta break a few eggs to make a justice omelette, eh?

As for the rest of us, we’re left with a grand statement of ambiguity. Everything is terrible, and the only easy way to fix it is to let the Dirty Harrys of the world shoot things right. Yet the easy way isn’t always the best way, which the film actually takes the time to explain. This aspect of the film is what keeps Dirty Harry from being a cheap exploitation flick. There’s an actual conversation to be had here, and the movie kicks over a lot of rocks in order to bring up unpleasant topics for discussion. Dirty Harry might not be a masterpiece, but it is nevertheless an important film, especially in the light of 2016 where we once again find ourselves questioning the role of police in society. It’s worth remembering that in this instance, we know Callahan’s character and motives (mostly). We know he’s right because we watch the events happen in real time. Callahan can act as judge, jury, and executioner and we can feel okay about it because there is no doubt that the Scorpio Killer is guilty and justice has been served. Real life is not so clean and simple.

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