Was Dirty Harry a right-wing fantasy of swift justice—or a cautionary tale about vigilantism?
In 1971, when a script called Dead Right landed in Clint Eastwood's hands, it was one step from the Hollywood graveyard. Steve McQueen had turned it down, as had Paul Newman. Frank Sinatra, well past his cinematic prime, stepped in then dropped out. Burt Lancaster passed, and so did Robert Mitchum, who later explained that he wasn't "a complete whore. … There are movies I won't do for any amount. … Movies that piss on the world."
Nobody but Eastwood wanted to play Harry Callahan, a San Francisco police inspector with an aversion to certain tedious elements of the Bill of Rights and a taste for vigilantism administered via his .44 Magnum. And nobody but Dirty Harry's creators was particularly happy when the movie caught on. Roger Ebert was one of many critics to call it "fascist." Pauline Kael—like Eastwood, a San Francisco native—was furious to see her hometown, already known as "the red center of bleeding-heart liberalism," exploited to focus the "unifying hatred of reactionaries." (Some things never change.) Kael called the movie a "deeply immoral … right-wing fantasy."
Warner's new seven-disc edition of the Dirty Harry series offers all five of the movies that, between 1971 and 1988, intermittently gripped the public, coined half a dozen catchphrases, and launched a long-running debate about their quaintly repugnant, strangely adaptable politics. The extras include five commentary tracks (though none by Eastwood) and six hours of documentaries. But the most fascinating artifacts here are the films themselves, particularly the first three, which offer a tour down a scuzzy side street of mainstream '70s cinema. With their helicopter shots, plasterboard sets, no-second-take performances, and light-jazz soundtracks, they're the kind of movies that, for critics at the time, seemed to define the decade as a low point in Hollywood filmmaking, no matter what they might have been seeing from Robert Altman or Francis Coppola.
Dirty Harry based its plotline on the same late-'60s murders that inspired David Fincher's Zodiac (in which Harry is unflatteringly referenced). The Zodiac killings went unsolved, but Dirty Harry reimagines them as the work of Scorpio, a shaggy-haired sniper who blends easily with the city's post-hippie community. In one shot that especially outraged the film's detractors, he's shown wearing a peace-sign belt buckle. The implication wasn't that the anti-war movement was sheltering murderers but, rather, that liberal peaceniks would never notice one more lunatic in their midst.
The movie's most inflammatory sequence is not Harry's famous, twice-delivered "Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?" monologue. It's the scene in which Harry traps Scorpio and then tortures him to learn the whereabouts of his latest victim (who, unbeknownst to Harry, is already dead). "Rights.… I have rights," Scorpio shrieks, sniveling as Harry's foot presses down on his bleeding leg. Because of Harry's literal overstepping, the killer eventually goes free; he then hires a large black thug to beat him up so that he can work the easily duped court system by filing a false police-brutality claim. While the city's brass wants to bargain with Scorpio, Harry knows the only solution is to hunt him down and kill him. Which he (spoiler alert) does.
In other words: Of course this is a right-wing fantasy. Ideologically, Dirty Harry was a well-calculated sop to the group of Americans that Richard Nixon identified in 1969 as the "Silent Majority" (though neither word was entirely accurate), those for whom everything about the period, from burning ghettos to women's lib to anti-war marches represented steps toward barbarism.
Over the years, though, some critics have given the film a bit of a revisionist free pass for its particular brand of malarkey. That's due in large part to its director, who claimed to be as appalled by Harry as many of the movie's fiercest critics. Dirty Harry was made by Don Siegel, a self-professed liberal whose Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Riot in Cell Block 11 had won him a kind of cult status among cinephiles who saw a through line in his work, which more than once depicted prickly, amoral, or even criminal outsiders in opposition to a corrupt or dimwitted establishment. Siegel shrewdly began spinning even before Harry's release: Calling the original script "terrible," Siegel proffered his take, which was that Harry was just as bad as Scorpio "in his way." He added, "We show that within the force there are 'pigs' like this."
Reinforced by the ads ("a movie about a couple of killers … the one with the badge is Harry"), some auteurists saw Harry not as a right-winger fighting wimpy liberals, but as a cowboy protecting a frontier that had succumbed to lawlessness. It's almost a legitimate reading—that is, if you ignore the actual screenplay, which was overhauled by hard-core conservative and noted munitions enthusiast John Milius. Harry, says Milius on the discs, was a response to "the liberal bureaucratic morass that we all live in." There's not much political ambivalence there, or in Eastwood's remark that in 1971, "everyone was so sick of worrying about [rights of] the accused … [the movie] was in resistance to out-and-out stupidity."
Mark Harris is an Entertainment Weekly columnist and the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood.
Still of Dirty Harry on Slate's home page courtesy of Warner Brother Classics.