The Dirty Harry series were the hit crime films of the seventies that appealed to to everyone, despite having a protagonist who was very narrow-minded. Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan became an essential pop culture icon after his debut in the titular Dirty Harry in 1971. For those not familiar with the mythos, Callahan is a gruff cop in the same vein as Eastwood’s signature man-with-no-name character. He stretches the rules of the law, much to the chagrin of his superiors, but in the end, the good guy always wins by shooting the bad guy. It calls back to many classics of American cinema including the aforementioned westerns, as well as the pulpy traits of classic noirs.
Drawing from this type of American folklore, as well as current events of the era involving corrupt police officers, it’s not a surprise that the series caught on and spanned a franchise consisting of four sequels. The series is also probably due for a little dust off in times when some of the themes ring true once again. If this isn’t reason enough, then it’s also just nice to have some simple, fun, thrillers in stressful times.
Dirty Harry (1971)
While the sequels that followed are not bad, the picture that started it all is likely what the series will be remembered for and the strongest as a stand alone film. The plot is very straight forward, involving Harry tracking down the rooftop sniper known only as ‘Scorpio,’ who keeps getting more and more deadly with his ransom offers. The stuffy officials insist on just giving Scorpio what he wants, but Callahan won’t have any of it and wants to bring him down before he can cause more harm.
It has all of the elements that make the Harry films irresistible, the breakneck pacing, the funky score, Callahan coming down hard on the bad guy, and then getting scolded by the higher ups. It has a great villain in Scorpio. While he is very over the top, he is an evil creep and a killer. He is so cartoonishly bad that you have to see justice delivered to him by the good guy. Don Siegel is a very fine director who doesn’t get nearly enough credit and he delivers some of his finest work here. It’s the classic formula executed to perfection.
Magnum Force (1973)
With the sequel we have already taken a step down from the last film. But it is only one step, and a very small one at that. Magnum Force lacks the sleek perfection that makes the first film a classic, but it makes up for it with the most simple pleasure delivered by film: good entertainment. Harry Callahan is once again demoted from homicide, but upon the murder of one of his old friends he is enlisted once again by the department to solve the case and soon uncovers a group of officers taking the law into their own hands. The plot is quite interesting in that it actually questions the ethics of Harry. In fact, it was specifically aimed at people who had accused Callahan of being a fascist in the first film.
As interesting as this is, the plot unfolds unevenly. The first fifty minutes alternate between the rogue officers killing people and Harry working on unrelated cases. It isn’t until roughly an hour in that Harry is actually assigned to the case and begins to solve it. While the plot is constructed sloppily, the movie is consistently entertaining from start to finish. There are some great bits in the first half, including Harry taking care of a hijacking place at the airport mid lunch (because the airport food court is the best lunch spot in town?). Not a masterpiece of story or character, but a good action flick and entry in the series.
The Enforcer (1976)
With the third Dirty Harry film, The Enforcer it’s basically the same game as last time. Harry is demoted again, this time to records department. Meanwhile, a group of hippies led by an angry Vietnam veteran steal weapons and in the process kill yet another old partner of Harry’s. Callahan is put back into homicide and assigned the case with his new partner, a rookie woman who he’s sure is just there to make the force look diverse. Once again, the villains have flipped. Now we have crazy liberal hippies. This was the ongoing game with the series, flip the villains from movie to movie to show that Harry himself really doesn’t have any convictions to one political side: he’s just a tough cop looking out for himself and his city.
This time the plot is even thinner than last time. But the runtime is shorter, so everything is tight and fast paced. It’s not a particularly well constructed or original plot but that’s not the point. It moves swiftly and allows for a lot of great set pieces and scenes. Eastwood has his strong presence as always, and it’s put to a lot of good use here. There is a fantastic scene where he is just burning up inside at a press conference. The scene following this where he blows up at the chief and has to turn is badge in is also hilarious. Once again, the plot is very thin and has almost no validity. But it delivers all of the classic tropes that you crave.
Sudden Impact (1983)
Sudden Impact is Dirty Harry’s entrance to the eighties, and this is very apparent from it’s opening credits, a helicopter shot of San Francisco at night with jazzy synth music blaring over it. The film is notable for a couple reasons. First of all, it introduced the immortal line “Go ahead, make my day,” which has since become Harry’s signature phrase. Secondly it is directed by the star himself. While this may seem insignificant, over the years Eastwood has made a name for himself as an acclaimed director. He brings his typical subtle flair to the film which gives it a fresh look, without diverging from too much from the style of the previous films.
Eastwood is great on camera as well. He’s been playing the role on and off for thirteen years at this point, but he brings all of the same presence and dry world weariness to the film that he did on his first outing. The villain in this film, a rape victim seeking revenge on those who harmed her and her sister, is played quite over the top (she shoots her victims in the balls). However, I appreciate how they tried to make a more well rounded and sympathetic antagonist, If she can even be called one. On the whole, this is not a groundbreaking film in the series. But it’s takes some new turns, has the distinct Eastwood style in it’s direction, and is a fun action flick.
The Dead Pool (1988)
No, not that Deadpool. I’m talking about the tired fifth entry in the Dirty Harry series. Released five years after Sudden Impact came a sequel that no one asked for. The plot involves a self centered director (an early role for Liam Neeson) who becomes the prime suspect once one of his actors (a young Jim Carrey) is murdered, because of a ‘Dead Pool’ he has. This is a list of celebrities he’s betting will die soon. Soon it turns out this was a red herring and he’s not the actual villain, just a huge douchebag. The real villain is a crazy person who believes that Neeson has stolen the ideas for his movies from him. All of the supporting cast plays it over the top. Nothing can be taken seriously. Neeson is just playing a real one sided character who’s only out for himself. When the real killer is revealed, it’s actually kind of underwhelming. He only has a couple scenes and eats so much scenery in them that it’s hard to keep up. Is he on drugs too?
The whole film has a bad look about it too. There is a lot of high energy handheld camera and POV shots that seem at home in a music video. The director, Buddy Van Horn only has two other “classics” under his belt. Pink Cadillac and Any Which Way You Can. Both with Eastwood, the latter featuring him co-starring with a monkey. So it’s not a surprise he was responsible for the weakest entry of the series. And yet, despite the Jim Carrey music video, and very cringe worthy model car chase scene, the film on the whole is never downright awful. It still has Eastwood and he does a pretty good job. The film just feels out of place and forced. In the end, it’s just a disappointing end to an otherwise very consistent series.
Many series lose steam right after the second film and in the end we know they should’ve just ended with the original. But Dirty Harry, despite being a very formulaic series has a sort of classic feel to it that we love to see over and over again. It might be Eastwood’s grit and dedication to justice, even if it’s his own brand. It might be the fact that there are to this day many dirty cops on the force, and that the films, especially the early ones, ask some questions that are still debatable. Eastwood himself said that,“It’s fun, once in awhile, to have a character you can go back to. It’s like revisiting an old friend you haven’t seen for a long time. You figure ‘I’ll go back and see how he feels about things now.” I think that this sentiment has some truth to it. There is some comfort to going to the multiplex every few years or so, and having characters like Rocky Balboa and Harry Callahan to revisit. It’s a similar formula played out every time, sure, but it’s always satisfying to see this formula played out to perfection. The Dirty Harry series, is an examples of a truly enduring series that stayed consistent throughout it’s run more so than its counterparts.