Dirty Harry (1971)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Dirty Harry</strong> (1971)

(On DVD, April 2018) A lot of baggage has been attached to the Dirty Harry character over the years, from the politics of the film and/or star, to Clint Eastwood’s iconic presence, to catchphrases and situations that would be introduced in the sequels rather than the original film. But the original Dirty Harry is quite a bit better than its modern perception would suggest. Executed at a time when Hollywood was getting grimmer and harsher as a response to the freed shackles of the Hays Code, Dirty Harry is still faintly shocking for its violence and gritty portrayal of early-seventies San Francisco. As a madman terrorizes the city, it’s up to Harry Callahan (a more than impressive Eastwood) to bring order back to the city … by all means necessary. It’s hard, in the current environment questioning police brutality, to watch Dirty Harry and be swept up by cheers for the hero. There’s a basic disconnect now between what we expect of heroes and what the movie delivers—and I certainly hope that the gap grows even bigger as time goes by. Still, the film does stack things up in favour of its protagonist, either by making the antagonist pure evil, or making it clear that the situation around him demands such extreme measures. Better-directed by Don Siegel than you’d expect from an early-seventies crime thriller (including two rather effective helicopter shots), Dirty Harry remains captivating largely due to good plotting and a character compelling despite obvious flaws. Eastwood is extraordinary here, but it’s worth noting that his character is flawed in many respects—beyond the vigilantism, he clearly loses focus on a stakeout and allows a situation to get even worse. Still, the film brushes much of these things aside in an effort to streamline the film’s impact on its audience. (It also multiplies contrivances to explain why the suspect is allowed to go free on those damnable “technicalities.”)  It’s certainly possible to disagree with much of the film’s message while being impressed by its impact, though, and ultimately that’s why Dirty Harry will endure even as it keeps being bothersome in its depiction of police violence.

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