Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Film Appreciation - Do You Feel Lucky?

Cody Hamman exercises his right to show Film Appreciation for 1971's Dirty Harry.

Remember in Lethal Weapon, when Martin Riggs saved a man who was threatening to jump off a building by getting him down to the ground in an unconventional manner? Remember when the villain of Die Hard with a Vengeance had John McClane racing around a metropolis, desperately trying to reach certain pay phones at a specific time? Or remember when Leo Kessler was following the killer who had been released due to Kessler's own actions in 10 to Midnight? It's not likely that any of those things would have happened in those films if versions of those scenarios hadn't already happened in director Don Siegel's 1971 crime thriller classic Dirty Harry.

Of course, that title character is played by Clint Eastwood in what may be his most iconic role. It's tough to beat the Man with No Name from the Dollars trilogy, and when Eastwood is brought up there's a good chance that the image of the Man with No Name in his poncho is what comes to mind, but when it comes to character popularity I think Dirty Harry takes the win.

Harry Callahan is an Inspector for the San Francisco Police Department, and there are a few reasons why he might have earned the nickname "dirty". As he explains it, it's because he handles "every dirty job that comes along". But the interest he has in spotting naked women through their apartment windows isn't exactly clean. Fellow officers also seem to think he hates everybody, but that's not quite true. Whatever the reason is, it's not that he's corrupt. Harry Callahan seems to be one of the most noble men working in law enforcement, so dedicated to doing what's right, serving and protecting, that he butts heads with higher-ups and occasionally violates the rights of the criminals he's busting. But only if they really deserve it.

Harry is all business in this film, we find out very little about who he is outside of work. We don't get a glimpse into his personal life. There are a couple passing references to the fact that his wife was really killed by a drunk driver, but it's not something that weighs so heavily on him that it's an extremely important piece of the Harry Callahan puzzle. He's not in a Martin Riggs pit of despair. But maybe it is why he's throwing himself so fully into his work, keeping himself so busy that he doesn't even have time for a haircut.

It's easy to support Harry when he's bending the rules and using excessive force here, because he's up against one of the slimiest villains ever put on film, a killer who calls himself Scorpio (a play on the real life Zodiac Killer who was terrorizing the San Francisco Bay Area at the time) and is played to disgusting perfection by Andrew Robinson.

The film begins with Scorpio aiming a rifle from the roof of a building, shooting a woman who's swimming in another building's rooftop pool. Scorpio then leaves a note for the police, much like the Zodiac Killer would. In this note, Scorpio demands that he be paid $100,000, threatening that he'll be killing one person every day until he receives this money. The image of this random act of gun violence may be even more jarring today than it was in '71, given the epidemic of mass shootings the United States has been enduring. The real villains of today are even worse than Scorpio, setting out to kill dozens of people at a time rather than one.

Harry Callahan and his new partner Chico Gonzalez (Reni Santoni) work the case. Harry wasn't too pleased to be given Chico as a partner, but they work well together - this isn't a butting heads buddy cop movie dynamic - and come to respect each other. While focusing on the Scorpio case, Harry also does some side jobs to keep things lively, like the aforementioned scene in which he gets a jumper off a building by riling the guy up and then knocking him out.

Harry's most famous side job in this film comes within the first 15 minutes. He stops by a burger joint to get his usual meal, a hot dog, and notices suspicious activity at the bank across the street. He tells the restuarant's proprietor to call the police department and say there's a robbery in progress, hoping he'll be able to enjoy his hot dog and the other officers will show up before the bank robbers can get away. But the robbery goes quicker than Harry was hoping and the thieves come rushing out of the bank, wielding weapons, as soon as Harry takes the first bite of his hot dog.

Still chewing that bite, Harry pulls out his .44 Magnum and strides out into the street to confront the bank robbers. Gunfire and mayhem ensues, building up to a standoff between a wounded Harry and a wounded robber whose shotgun is within reach. The moment in which Eastwood was able to deliver some of the most iconic lines in cinema history, telling the robber "...you've gotta ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya, punk?" Harry will repeat these lines later, in an excellent callback at the end of the film.


As dedicated as Harry is to stopping crime, Scorpio proves to be equally dedicated to killing random innocents. Despite being thwarted a couple times, the killer continues to claim victims. After escaping a shootout with Harry and Chico when they catch him in the act (Harry and Chico are positioned below a rotating blue and red neon "Jesus Saves" sign during this shootout, making for a cool visual), Scorpio just switches up his methods. He abducts a teenage girl and buries her alive, notifying police that she only has a limited supply of air - and warning them that the only way she's going to survive this situation is if he is paid $200,000. This guy is working the worst "get rich quick" scheme of all time.

It's during the $200,000 drop-off that Scorpio sends Harry running around the city in a way that would eventually inspire Die Hard with a Vengeance. Of course, that situation doesn't go well for Scorpio when he and Harry come face-to-face later that night. When Harry steps on the gunshot wound in Scorpio's leg to get him to tell where the teenage girl is buried, desperately trying to save her life, it seems completely reasonable... but it's that violation of rights that allows Scorpio to walk free.

That's when Harry goes rogue and starts stalking Scorpio. That's also when the film starts spending more time with Scorpio, allowing us to see how insane he really is. And what a weasel he is. Every passing minute makes the viewer more and more anxious to see Harry bring this homicidal twerp to justice once and for all.

Dirty Harry still holds up exceptionally well nearly fifty years after its release. The only issues I could really point out is that it's paced a little slowly, at least by today's standards, and the night scenes are overly dark - and that one isn't a new complaint, as reviews at the time of its initial release also said it was too dark. The darkness does work, because it looks like true night rather than well-lit movie night, you can only really see the things that visible sources are shedding light on... but it would be nice to be able to see more on the screen.

Beyond that, this is a true classic that pits an iconic, tough, likeable, no-nonsense hero against a thoroughly hateable villain. Eastwood could have made Harry iconic on his own, but Dirty Harry still wouldn't be nearly the film it is if it weren't for Robinson's performance as Scorpio. It's tough to imagine that anyone else could have brought that character to life in such an effective way. Robinson takes the movie to a whole other level of greatness. And then the movie gives us the pleasure of seeing Scorpio get what's coming to him. Rest assured, it's not $200,000, or even $100,000.

It's easy to see why this would spawn a franchise, because it leaves you wanting to spend more time with Harry Callahan than its 102 minutes. Thankfully, Eastwood would go on to play the character four more times.

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