When a mad man calling himself ‘the Scorpio Killer’ menaces the city, tough as nails San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan is assigned to track down and ferret out the crazed psychopath.
For someone that has seen as many films as I have, it seems somewhat criminal that there are a range of ‘classics’ that I’ve never found the time to watch. ‘Dirty Harry’ is one of those films, directed by the great Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood in one of his most iconic roles, the film has been lauded as one of the classic’s of 70’s cinema and it spawned four sequels (of which I have seen none to this point).
Boiled down, ‘Dirty Harry’ has a fairly simple storyline. A sniper is prowling the roofs of San Francisco picking off random members off the public, whilst communicating with the authorities via the local newspaper with his demands. Detective Harry Callahan (Eastwood) is tasked with catching him. The elements that make ‘Dirty Harry’ more compelling than its contemporaries are in its direction, its performances (particularly Eastwood and Andy Robinson as the sniper) and its score. Siegel’s direction throughout is excellent, beginning with the depiction of the first murder of a lady swimming in a pool. The shot is largely taken from the sniper’s viewpoint and it feels very lurid, almost as if you’re viewing something you shouldn’t have sight off. Siegel has a great sense of his surroundings and uses this to get some great shots, and a particular triumph is how he seamlessly places San Francisco front and centre of the narrative, without it feeling forced. San Francisco is shot well in the movie, with Siegel really bringing a sense of place and utilising several key landmarks to great effect.
Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan is a determined old hardass of a detective, excellent at his job but constantly clashing with his superiors. From several throwaway lines we learn that Callahan hasn’t got much to go home to, with his job being his main passion. Whilst this detective archetype may have been repeated in countless films in the 40 years since ‘Dirty Harry’ was released, Eastwood’s snarling portrayal still feels fresh, even if his oft-quoted lines feel less natural as a result. The ‘Do you feel lucky?’ line is terrific and Eastwood sells the hell out of it, really making you believe that this is a man who would cross the line in order to get results. Harry Callahan may not be dirty or corrupt in the traditional sense, but there’s cues in Eastwood’s performance and policing style that have been replicated in countless corrupt TV or film cops, from ‘The Shield’s’ Vic Mackey to ‘Training Day’s’ Alonzo Harris.
The role of the sniper falls to Andy Robinson (this isn’t a spoiler – the film isn’t a mystery), and he’s not an actor I’ve seen in much beforehand. He comes across much like a rabid dog, constantly smiling but ruthlessly dangerous. We’re never really given much insight into why he’s stalking potential victims from the rooftops of San Francisco, although his first note references the race or religion of his next intended victim which would suggest racial or sectarian overtones. He is portrayed by Robinson as a dangerous loose cannon who is not one to be easily reasoned with and despite Robinson not having much to work with, his portrayal is enjoyable and he makes a good match for Harry Callahan.
One of the things that really struck me about the film was the excellent jazzy score, which really helped to heighten the atmosphere particularly when the sniper was on screen. When the tension was ramped up or it felt as if the sniper was getting closer to a victim, the noise levels were amplified and it complimented the direction superbly. In Siegel’s stylish and assured direction, San Francisco is shot luminously, and whilst Eastwood’s depiction of a cop who doesn’t play by the rules may be one of the most common tropes in film, in the character of Harry Callahan, it’s rarely been bettered. Despite being over 40 years old, ‘Dirty Harry’ still feels like essential viewing and an almost textbook example of how to create a good cop movie, and I really enjoyed it.
Directed By: Don Siegel
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Andy Robinson, Harry Guardino, Reni Santoni and John Vernon