John Robb on Dirty Harry, American outsider

“I know what you’re thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

Perhaps one of the most iconic film quotes of all time, that thirty second spiel by from the first Dirty Harry film instantly defined the character of maverick cop Detective ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan

He had a gun. A big gun. And he was prepared to use it. He was operating beyond the law and he wasn’t afraid who got shot. He was wiping the scum from the streets without a rulebook and he was darkly funny with it.

Dirty Harry was the scowling anti hero, the misanthropic misfit, the monosyllabic outlaw cop. Dirty Harry was a lot of things to a lot of people. He was irreverent, gritty, rude and witty in a granite-jawed way. He would shoot criminals in the back, beat the shit out of them and antagonize everyone, and so what. He got the job done!

His gratuitously un-PC personae would make 21st century filmmakers twitch uncomfortably, finding the ugly side to his character hard to deal with in goody-two-shoes contemporary Hollywood. But then who hasn’t felt like slipping on the Dirty Harry mantle at some point and getting that .44 Magnum out to wave it at some of the scum who crawl around our streets in 2008? One wonders what he’d make of those cowardly miscreants who kicked the Goth girl, Sophie Lancaster to death in a Colne Park last year.

Dirty Harry was certainly an antihero and a mean motherfucker, but he was fighting for the good guys and that’s why his personae resonates strongly through the decades. This is why the current DVD box set of the Dirty Harry films hasn’t dated – as tough as Eastwood himself, they easily transcend the decades.

The first film, called Dirty Harry, was made in 1971 and directed by Eastwood’s buddy Don Siegel. Setting the tone for the rest of the series, Dirty Harry was the Western come to town, Callahan the San Francisco cop who was tired of the rules and regulations. He would seethe at the too soft judges and the office bound bosses who had no idea what things were like on the streets. They wanted things done by the book and they would throw that book at Callahan when he stepped too far out of line. He didn’t speak much but one squint spoke a thousand words. He cared more about justice than the rules; a few terse and witty one-liners spat from that jaw were enough.

Eastwood’s sheer presence dominated the films. At the time people derided his acting ability, claiming that Eastwood relied on one-liners rather than his talent for the craft. This is misplaced, for it’s what remains unsaid, combined Eastwood’s sheer presence, that makes the films. His is a genuine charisma that conveys all the dark-hearted qualities of a crime fighter going too far to get results – the results craved by those who live on the streets and put up with the shit, the knives and the crack heads.

The tense and gripping plot of Dirty Harry saw Callahan track down a serial killer called Scorpio, also finding the time to foil a bank raid with a spaghetti western style gun battle. When he finally shoots Scorpio and unflinchingly watches the serial killer’s corpse drop in the water he chucks his badge in to the murky lake in disgust with the law. It looks like the end but with a character as darkly compelling as this there had to be more films.

In fact there were four more. 1973’s Magnum Force saw Callahan take on organised crime and corrupt bike cops while spitting out the classic “a man’s got to know his limitations” line. As well as more shootouts, there was plenty of gritty violence and some more deadpan sneering from the anti hero. 1976’s The Enforcer sees Callahan saving the Mayor, while for 1983’s Sudden Impact Eastwood himself took the director’s chair for the dirtiest and most violent film of the series, which comes with yet another classic line – “Go Ahead make my day” – in a roadside café stand-off. The plot of Sudden Impact revolved around Callahan following the trail of a rape revenge serial killer who he lets off at the end with the finding of mutual respect, and a typically weird hint at the loner cop’s respect for women’s lib. 1988’s The Dead Pool saw Callahan now a celebrity cop embroiled in a film that looked at the power and the vulnerability of fame with added love interest as the gritty old sod falls for a woman reporter. There are plenty of digs at the media and critics with a movie reviewer finding himself a victim.

The reviewers may have hated the series but Dirty Harry resonates in popular culture. He cuts through the bullshit. He goes from A to B while shooting C. He was the man of action, a loose cannon who had had enough. Dirty Harry is the great outsider; the lone gunman on the high plains of modern America.

Dirty Harry is so imbued in American culture that he is almost become its foreign policy. When George Bush does his funny macho walk he thinks he’s Dirty Harry taking a magnum to far-flung oil rich lands looking for ‘bad guys’. Of course, Dirty Harry would have hated Bush, seeing him, like he might his detested bosses, as a smooth-handed cowardly office boy with rich parents who made him the President.

In America gritty good guys defy the law and tough-talking cowboys haunt the psyche. Arnie made millions reworking this role under several different guises and a whole host of other lesser action heroes have milked it dry, but these DVDS remind you of where the power really lies.

No wonder the general public love Dirty Harry. He doesn’t trust the authorities. He’s tough, he’s cynical and he doesn’t like those lily-livered liberals who are giving the bad guys too much space. He not only strikes a chord with the gun loving Americans but also the city dwellers who see fear and crime in every shadow. The man with no name had come to town in the urban unrest of the seventies and, like some kind of superhero in a cheap suit, found a solution to all the problems of the world with his steely stare and .44 magnum. The next time a bunch of oiks stick a hunting knife in your throat and get let off because of the law, let’s see which side you’re on.

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