(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.
(On TV, November 2017) One of the problems of approaching a movie education by going backwards in time is that you see the end before the beginning. You end up watching the revisionism before the classics that are being revisited, and actors at the end of their career paying homage to themselves at their prime. It usually makes sense in the end, but the first impressions can be strange. So it is that while I’m impressed by The Shootist’s approach to the last few days of a legendary gunman (John Wayne, in his final role), I can’t help but feel that I would have gotten far more out of the movie had I seen it after watching the dozens of essential westerns and John Wayne movies. Not only is The Shootist about a gunslinger counting down the days until cancer kills him, it’s explicitly about the end of the Far West as a distinct period—it takes place in a city where automobiles are starting to displace horses, water and electricity are changing the nature of living, and where civilization doesn’t have much use for killers, even righteous ones. The film explicitly ties itself to Wayne’s legacy by using clips from his previous movies as introduction to his character, and there’s an admirable finality to this being Wayne’s last role. I found myself curiously sympathetic to his gruff character, and easily swept along the plot even through (or given) I’m firmly in favour of modernity over the western. Other small highlights can be found in the film—Ron Howard plays a callow youth who learn better, Lauren Bacall looks amazing and there’s even Scatman Crothers in a minor role. Under Don Siegel’s direction, the atmosphere of a city entering the modern age is well done, and there’s a genuine melancholy both to the film and to Wayne himself as they contemplate the end of eras both social and personal. I’m not quite so fond of the specific way the film chooses to conclude, or the various action highlights that seem perfunctory as a way to alleviate what is essentially a contemplative film. But even as I head deeper in the Western genre, I think I’ve found its epilogue in The Shootist.