Dirty Harry (1971)
Succeeded by: Magnum Force (1973)
In essence a simple crime movie, deploying the classic cat-and-mouse, cop vs. felon hunt. But due to its timing, groundbreaking action nature and subsequent implicit interpretations, the film has achieved legendary status. Dirty Harry is to some extent the character on which every action-hero from Rambo to Martin Riggs and John McClane has been modelled.
First and foremost, however, the strength of Dirty Harry is as an exhilarating, high-octane suspense-vehicle. Don Siegel's direction is crisp, fresh and slick. The film is like a tourist brochure for the 1970s – from the amazing opening scene, through the guided tour of a San Francisco in the midst of modernization. The old meets the new – in more than one way. Intended or not, the character of Dirty Harry is a comment on a society about to detach itself completely from the way of life on which it was originally based. Harry Callahan is a reactionary rebel whose moral values may or may not be supported by the film.
There's no doubt that the character of Dirty Harry could only have originated in the United States. Explicitly, the film hails the freedom of the individual, blasts bureaucracy and applauds vigilante justice. However, one can't help but note that Harry and his nemesis Scorpio are actually two of a kind; both sadistic, selfish misanthropists. Seen with subtle eyes, it's hard to believe that Harry's dubious, morally corrupt methods are actually uniformly embraced by the audience. The final scene, in which he risks the life of a kid made hostage by Scorpio, reduces the fine line between hero and villain down to sheer luck. It's as if we're made to accept that we can't help identifying with both Harry and Scorpio. Embracing Harry Callahan means embracing Scorpio, because they both act on irrational emotion, on selfish needs – they torture and kill and both use women.
The film is relentless and self-indulgent from start to finish. It is arrogant and abrasive, but so full of confidence that it dodges any criticism. It simply thrusts forward with the help of Lalo Schifrin's magnetic, trendsetting score and Fink/Riesner's crisp dialogue. Andy Robinson is brilliant in the role of Scorpio, and Clint is creating a new standard with his unlayered, shallow coolness.