Dirty Harry is a film that is almost beyond criticism. It is considered one of the greatest action films of all time, and in many ways signaled the end of Hollywood’s infatuation with westerns. After this, filmmakers realized they could transplant those themes into today’s world. It also signaled Hollywood’s return to violence, or rather renewed the discussion of violence in the media. Mostly though, it created a new genre and the archetype of the cop “who doesn’t play by the rules.”
So why am I bothering to review it at all? Simple. The film still has a point to make that transcends time. In a world where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is tried in a civilian court, it seems like Dirty Harry still has a place.
Most know the plot, but here it is again. Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood playing Clint Eastwood) is an inspector at the San Francisco police department. He is assigned to track down the Scorpio Killer (Andy Robinson). The Scorpio Killer enjoys writing to the police department and the press demanding exorbitant ransoms to prevent him from killing again (copying the modus operandi of Zodiac). After several attempts, Callahan tracks him down but Scorpio is not prosecuted due to Callahan’s unorthodox techniques. Callahan continues to use those same tactics in order to finally bring the killer to justice.
I could go on about how the film is one of the most artistically successful action films ever made. From the use of San Francisco (to the point where the city feels like a character in and of itself, in the same way Dante’s Hell feels like a character) to the depiction of the Scorpio Killer as the ultimate foil to Harry. Scorpio is a sick, depraved character, but so too is Harry in his own way. Harry taunts his “victims” in the same way Scorpio does (note the “do you feel lucky punk” speech). A man like Harry could easily become Scorpio if pushed hard enough. But these are all beside the point.
The point of this is to see if Pauline Kael was on the money when she referred to this as a fascist work of art. It is not. Fascism would imply that Harry follows the law to a letter and frequently targets anyone with the same force as he targets Scorpio (in the Judge Dredd/Joe Arpaio sort of way). He does neither. There is a scene in which Harry lets people go who clearly broke the law and assaulted a police officer. Harry does so because the people here were morally in the right; they assumed Harry was some sort of peeping tom. It would have been “fascist” for Harry or his partner to arrest them. Also, one could argue that Harry’s vendetta does not fit the definition of fascism. He clearly goes against the state and refers to them as crazy.
This is certainly a critique of liberal policies, which had eliminated the death penalty and focused more on the prisoner’s rights than the victim’s rights. These are debatable ideas that certainly have a place in the public sphere. And of course the film takes the approach that the film The prisoner here, Scorpio, is absolutely beyond redemption. He exists simply to be an antagonist. This may be heavy handed, but again it is based in reality. Keep in mind, Charles Manson had only been in prison for two years when the film was released. Laws were still passed in favor of Manson’s “rights.” And no one appeared to bat an eyelash, speaking for Sharon Tate’s rights.
Now, again, the question is not whether I agree with all of the film’s principals. The question is whether is presents those principles well. And it most certainly does. Harry still comes across as a sympathetic character who has clearly lost much in life. Scorpio is deranged, the system that Harry serves is broken, and the system Scorpio serves allows him to flourish. Change is needed, not to for punishment, but for honoring the rights of those who’s own rights were violated in horrendous ways. Also, for no moment does the film assume that you will be agreeing with it throughout. There are several times (if you are aware of Harry’s actions) that Harry does not come across as entirely sympathetic. This is particularly noticeable when Harry’s actions almost get his partner killed or when he openly badmouths the mayor of San Francisco. With that, the film makes its goals much more difficult to accomplish. The fact that it still managed is awe inspiring.