Title: Dirty Harry
Year of Release: 1971
Date Viewed: January 30th, 2011
MPAA Rating: R
For my father's Christmas gift, I had purchased the first four Dirty Harry films to add to his personal DVD collection. They fit in nicely with the stash of Clint Eastwood westerns and John Wayne classics. I sat down to watch the original Dirty Harry with him on the day he opened the package.
Clint Eastwood plays inspector "Dirty" Harry Callahan, a veteran of the San Francisco police force and someone that can always be counted on to get things done. His cold personality limits his friends while maximizing productivity. Harry has seen it all. His advanced insight into criminal activity is demonstrated in an early scene where he predicts a bank robbery minutes before it happens. He doesn't even bother to call reinforcements. A firefight ensues. Then there is only one thief left alive. He's left to face a fate worse than death; Harry's psychological torture. The helpless thief can only watch as Harry points his gun towards him and delivers one of the most chilling and memorable speeches in cinema history.
"I know what you're thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"
Harry delights in seeing the guilty punished. Especially if the result is stronger than what the justice system would typically provide. There is nothing he would love more than to capture the city's newest and most deadly menace it has ever seen, dead or alive. A mentally unstable individual that calls himself Scorpio (Andrew Robinson) is murdering random human targets from various rooftops with a sniper rifle. The killings will continue until a money demand is met.
From there, the story follows the typical cat-and-mouse, good versus evil, detective versus criminal routine that is all too familiar. But this movie is the reason that it's so familiar. Until this point, movie-goers have never been so enthralled by a policeman chasing a criminal with the latter behaving as evil as the devil himself. That's why so many movies have tried to copy the same formula. They crave the opportunity to have their audience cheer good conquering over evil. It's a money making formula.
For as wildly acclaimed as this film is, I must confess to being disappointed in its lack of technical prowess. The story is meant to be dark in nature, but director Don Siegel overcompensates the visual tone by shooting scenes with such dim lighting that it's often hard to judge where the characters are supposed to be located. Thankfully, many of the key scenes are set in daylight so it becomes less of a problem.
Before I know it, the movie ends and I prepare to type my review. I recognize its novelty and Clint Eastwood's brilliant performance. The role is so perfect for him that it's no challenge to see why he is so fondly remembered for it. Yet there was strong hesitation. Dirty Harry is considered a classic, yet I didn't understand why. Being the first of its kind is not enough to earn that title. It needs to hold itself up longer to be compared to modern films of a similar theme. Twenty minutes of outside research caused the epiphany to finally reach me. I had failed to see the big picture.
Five years prior to this film's release, the Miranda Rights have been implemented into U.S. law. These rights remain an important focal point on how criminals are arrested, detained and treated after arrest. This law has been met with controversy since it originated from a famous case known as Miranda versus Arizona where a man confessed to a kidnapping and rape charge. The confession led to a conviction. But it was later overturned because he was unaware of his rights to remain silent or consult legal counsel. As a result, the reading of the Miranda Rights is now required to be stated by all police officers upon the arrest of a suspect. It is widely believed that Miranda was guilty of the crime but found a legal loophole to get away with it.
A key scene in Dirty Harry shows the title character arresting the Scorpio killer. An enraged Harry detains him with punishment. This time it's physical rather than psychological. Harry shoots Scorpio, repeatedly beats him on the ground and steps on the wound. Questions are asked, but Scorpio refuses to cooperate until he sees a lawyer. This enrages Harry further and he continues the beating.
Scorpio is clearly a dangerous killer and must be held accountable for his crimes. But he never faces a jury. He is released because his home was searched without a warrant and his rights under arrest were violated. This information is revealed in a way that would anger every critic of the Miranda Rights and those with misgivings about a justice system that in their mind is already too protective of criminals.
Scorpio later takes another attempt at obtaining money through terror. He takes schoolchildren hostage and demands ransom money and a clean getaway. Harry is eager to confront his nemesis again but his superiors instead decide to give in to Scorpio's demands, deeming the situation too dangerous and fearing the children's lives would be in further danger if any deceptive actions happened. Finding this intolerable, Harry ignores orders and goes after Scorpio anyway. He saves the day. The children are safe. And this time, Scorpio has no chance of ever killing again. In the film's final moments, Harry throws away his police badge. The ultimate sign of his disgust with the justice system he no longer believes in. The argument presented here for less criminal rights and more old-fashioned law is a straw man case, but a convincing one nonetheless as evidenced by Dirty Harry's status of a cult hero. His way proved to be the best way in the end. Criminal rights be damned.
After reaching this conclusion, the "What If?" questions that I love to toy with came into play. What if Harry had not succeeded in detaining Scorpio the second time around? What if Scorpio had decided to kill the hostages when it became clear that he wouldn't be getting away easy? Would Harry still have been labeled a hero if he had failed in his mission? What if Harry had gone by the book from the very beginning? He may not have been able to save everybody, but at least Scorpio would have faced trial. Only one thing can be certain. If Harry could hear me pondering, I would have been scolded for even considering other options. In his mind, the accused are guilty until proven innocent. Justice is best left up to the field officers. Allowing a clean getaway for a criminal is never acceptable.
Bottom line. Harry knew what the book of law demanded. He gave it the middle finger. That's why they call him Dirty Harry.