The world is a stupid place. It’s easy to go through life with a permanent grimace, the sort of glower that makes you down a hot dog before casually strolling across the road to foil a robbery. DIRTY HARRY embodies that cynical yet cavalier spirit and is one of the most influential cop movies of all-time.
Clint Eastwood is, of course, the title character. Long before the days of empty chairs at empty tables, the man was focused on making his way through a chaotic, violent world on the big screen. DIRTY HARRY is one of the best distillations of the Eastwood code, a hallucination of intent that would become more sophisticated over time but is bold and beautiful in this 1971 neo-noir.
There is a sniper on the loose in San Francisco. He wants money or he’ll kill more people. And his name is Scorpio. Harry Callahan (Eastwood) is a cop on the case, but he’s running up against the mayor (John Vernon) and that stupid chief (John Larch). All Harry wants to do is catch the bad guy, but there’s red tape and nonsense in his way.
Eventually, Scorpio escalates things and kidnaps a girl. He wants more money or he’ll kill her. Harry is dispatched to be the bag man but takes matters into his own hands. After a bloodstained showdown or two, Scorpio is nabbed. But there’s a problem: the evidence is inadmissible because Harry violated the sniper’s civil rights.
DIRTY HARRY is all about the ethics of law and order. Nobody denies that Harry earns his “Dirty” nickname, but there is debate about how he’s won it. The protagonist states that it’s because he does all the jobs nobody wants to do, a common statement made by those who cross the line. Callahan gets his hands grubby, but he gets results.
Director Don Siegel takes a pretty wild approach to DIRTY HARRY. Callahan is always solving one problem and creating another, a testament to both the screenplay and Bruce Surtees’ cinematography. The latter wisely starts the show above the city, looking down on it through the raw judgement of Scorpio.
DIRTY HARRY is one of those pictures that people quote and enjoy in spite of themselves. It’s not the tightest or smartest of thrillers, but Eastwood’s embodiment of a cop willing to cross the line is iconic. It raises questions about the role of law enforcement and has the gumption not to answer them, leaving behind a wreck of broken laws and busted faces.