Monday 16 June 2008

Dirty Harry (1971)

Another of those classic films from the seventies that I've seen, more than once, but never as it should be seen: in full 2:35 widescreen on a large screen. I wonder how I ever got by watching films taped off TV on a tiny little screen at the end of my bed. The current generation is spoiled, that's for sure. But beyond seeing far more of San Francisco than I ever did on TV, what else is new?

Well the truth is I can't tell because it must be so long that I've forgotten almost everything about the film. I remember Dirty Harry Callaghan himself, but then I've seen all five films and Clint Eastwood's portrayal is hardly something to forget. He's tough, he's quick with his gun and he hates everybody equally. He's a perfect hero for the dirty world that was the early seventies. I remember some of the dialogue of course, but then so does everyone who hasn't seen this film. Those of who have seen it merely remember the line as it was spoken not as it's passed down into our cultural heritage.

I remember Scorpio, the serial killer who threatens to kill a person a day until the city pays him $100,000. Yes, there are only six digits there; yes, this was before Austin Powers and yes, it was still serious money in 1971. Scorpio is played by Andy Robinson in his film debut who would go on to a versatile career including the lead role in Hellraiser and a recurring role on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. His character in that show, Elim Garak, was intended to be a one time character but Robinson impressed so much that it became a long running, even pivotal character, and that's not surprising given his depth.

He has a lot of fun with his role here too as an indiscriminate killer. Scorpio is bright and he's a good shot but he's more than a little on the crazy side. We see He's almost gleeful following victim number two through his sniper scope and almost heartbroken when he loses him. He's mostly in control early on but gradually loses it as the film progresses. It's a powerful performance and an impressive one. I'll certainly pay some attention to what else he's done since, though that doesn't include a lot of films.

And now we're well into territory I don't remember. There are further victims but this doesn't focus on the progression like most serial killer films. It's far more about character than you'd expect and far less fascistic than you'd expect too, given the negative view that may have taken in succeeding years. Harry is certainly not averse to bending the rules but he does so in good faith and it's not blatant disregard for the law, even though he has a healthy disregard for those running it.

He has a short timeframe to catch Scorpio before a 14 year girl he's kidnapped suffocates to death and he catches him in time, though it turns out the girl was long dead anyway. However what he does technically counts as illegal entry and torture, so Scorpio is free as a bird. The real story comes in catching him again and doing so in such a way that he won't get away again. The theme of the film is all about the difference between what law enforcement did and what Harry Callaghan did. Law enforcement was all about that: the law. Callaghan was about justice. What Dirty Harry proved to the satisfaction of the moviegoing public was that the two don't necessarily match and often don't.

There are other people in the film besides Harry and Scorpio. Reni Santoni plays his partner, Insp Chico Gonzalez, who I'd forgotten entirely, but on the police side of things, it's very much Dirty Harry's show. There's John Vernon as the Mayor of San Francisco, in another of those memorable John Vernon roles, one that he would effectively reprise in the pilot episode of Sledge Hammer!, which after all was a very deliberate comedic take on Dirty Harry. There's Robert Mitchum's brother, John Mitchum, as a fellow cop called Frank DiGiorgio.

Really though it boils down to three things: Harry, Scorpio and the law, but behind it is a lot of style. Harry and his .45 magnum have style, regardless of how wild Eastwood's hair got. He got a lot of the best shots too, shots in the sense of camera shots not gun shots, including some very stylish camerawork that is almost out of place in a film like this. There's a great shot of him standing on the bridge at the end waiting for the bus, but best of all is the awesomely long pull back shot away from Harry and Scorpio in the middle of the football ground. It seems strange to bring up odd camera shots when the film's impact came in very different ways. Every cop played in a movie since owes something to Dirty Harry, not just the obvious takes on the role but in franchises like the Die Hard or Lethal Weapon films or pretty much every Arnold Schwarzenegger role. They're all Harry Callaghan with a little twist.

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