Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Film Appreciation - Go Ahead, Make His Day

Film Appreciation checks back in with Dirty Harry as Cody Hamman discusses 1983's Sudden Impact.

Dirty Harry franchise star Clint Eastwood would have been content to leave the series as a trilogy, but nearly a decade after the release of the third film, The Enforcer, Warner Bros. conducted a marketing survey that revealed the moviegoing audience was anxious to see the return of Eastwood as San Francisco-based Inspector "Dirty" Harry Callahan. So Eastwood agreed to pick up the .44 Magnum one more time, this time in a film he directed himself - as he had intended to do on The Enforcer, but his schedule wouldn't allow for it. When Sudden Impact was released, it confirmed that the results of that survey were correct: people really did want to see more Dirty Harry. Audiences were so glad to see Harry back on the big screen that they made Sudden Impact the most financially successful entry in the entire series.

Sudden Impact was written by Joseph C. Stinson, who would go on to write two more Eastwood films and the Elmore Leonard adaptation / Burt Reynolds vehicle Stick. Here he was working from a story crafted by Charles B. Pierce and Earl E. Smith, and if you're like me your reaction to seeing those names will be to wonder how the director of the low budget horror movies The Legend of Boggy Creek and The Town That Dreaded Sundown and his co-writer on those films ended up working on a Dirty Harry sequel. The answer is, Pierce also worked as a set decorator and had met Eastwood while working on the 1976 western The Outlaw Josey Wales.

It was while on the set of The Outlaw Josey Wales that Eastwood also embarked on a longterm relationship with his co-star Sondra Locke. While that relationship would end very badly, by 1983 Locke was in the midst of a long stretch of working almost exclusively with Eastwood - a collaboration that included her getting the female lead role in Sudden Impact.

In a way, the concept of Sudden Impact is sort of a replay of the second Dirty Harry film, Magnum Force. The rule-breaking police officer at the center of the series goes up against a vigilante who takes the idea of deadly justice further than he can condone. Rather than a death squad of rogue cops, here it's Locke's character Jennifer Spencer, a character who carries out her own rape revenge plot in the midst of this Harry Callahan story. She's killing the people who were involved with the rape of her and her sister ten years earlier, an assault that left her sister catatonic.

The movie is basically about Harry crossing paths with this vengeful vigilante, but for its first half the story is more about taking a look at how rough and dangerous Harry's life can get. Harry and Jennifer don't meet until 51 minutes into the movie, by which time she has only killed one person, way back in the very first scene. Up to that point, Sudden Impact focuses on Harry facing other criminals and butting heads with judges and higher-ups - and Eastwood made the strange decision of casting actor Bradford Dillman as a Captain Briggs, when Dillman had played pretty much the same character, a Captain McKay, in the previous film. They might as well be the same guy, so if Dillman was going to play the part why didn't they just call Briggs McKay?

Dillman isn't the only cast member of a previous film to return in a different role. The tradition of casting Albert Popwell as a different character continues here, with Popwell showing up as a police officer pal of Harry's who stops by to see him when he's briefly forced to take a vacation because of his destructive, boundary-crossing ways (much like he was briefly re-assigned to Personnel in The Enforcer), shoots targets with him, calls him a jive ass mutha, gifts him with a flatulent bulldog Harry names Meathead, and eventually gets killed by the true villains of the film - the rapists Jennifer is hunting down.

But before we get to that lot, Harry has other villains to deal with. His first action scene is just another variation on familiar scenes from Dirty Harry and Magnum Force; he stops by a favorite eatery and has to stop a crime in progress. This time the cafe he usually gets his coffee from (no sugar) is being held up, so he confronts the criminals and blasts them down... All but one of them, who ends up in a face-off reminiscent of Harry's interaction with the final bank robber in the Dirty Harry diner scene. Instead of asking this robber if he feels lucky, Harry encourages him to make a move that will allow Harry to justifiably shoot him. "Go ahead, make my day." Four films into the franchise and Harry delivers not only the most famous line in this series, but one of the most famous tough guy lines in cinema history. And like "Do you feel lucky?", this one gets repeated at the end.

A less impressive catchphrase that gets repeated many more times is "Swell". That's Harry's sarcastic reaction to a lot of things in this film.

Causing more trouble than the cafe criminals are a gang led by Hawkins (Kevyn Major Howard of the previous year's Death Wish II), a murderer Harry had arrested but who was released when a judge dismissed the case because Harry violated the killer's rights, performing a search when he didn't have enough probable cause. That gang comes after Harry in a fiery car chase sequence.

Harry also has to contend with gangsters, who are out to get him as a result of my favorite scene in the movie. In that scene, an elderly crime lord named Threlkis (Michael V. Gazzo), a man responsible for the torturous murder of a prostitute, is attending his granddaughter's wedding reception in a fancy venue. Harry strides into the venue - and when he's approached by a couple bodyguards, he tells the hostess to call an ambulance for "two sorry-looking assholes with multiple contusions and abrasions and broken bones." It reminds me of The Man With No Name pre-ordering coffins in A Fistful of Dollars. Wanting to provoke Threlkis into giving a confession, Harry then goes to the man's table and gives a graphic description of his crimes in front of his family. This does provoke Threlkis... provokes him to have a fatal heart attack.

Hawkins, Threlkis, the forced vacation, none of these have anything to do with the main plot of the movie, the Jennifer Spencer of it all, giving many of Harry's scenes in the first fifty minutes a sort of aimless, episodic feel. Packed into those minutes are the things you'd expect to see in a Dirty Harry movie, plenty of action and scenes of Harry getting in trouble, so they're fun to watch, but they ultimately don't mean that much. Eastwood and his writers could have cut back a bit on some of the more superfluous stuff, but that would have left the film with less action, and who really wants that?

Sudden Impact finally gets to the point when Harry is sent to the small fishing town of San Paulo to dig up more information on the man who was killed (by Jennifer) in the opening scene. Once he gets dropped into Jennifer's story, he gets to do some actual detective work and starts to figure out what's going on in this movie. He also develops a sexual, if not romantic, interest in Jennifer as they bond over their shared distaste for the justice system. That burgeoning relationship takes a hit when Harry realizes his new paramour is the murderer who is whittling down the population of San Paulo one rapist at a time.

By the time Harry figures that out, Jennifer has become a damsel in distress, which I'm ambivalent about. On one hand, I don't like that she ends up in a helpless situation, but on the other hand... at least the fact that Harry is saving her at the end keeps her vigilante story from seeming like a repeat of the Magnum Force story.

Once in San Paulo, the film takes on a film noir tone and style that helps it stand out from its predecessors. As Harry delves into the dark mystery and gets mixed up with the femme fatale, you'll remember that this is coming from the same director as the stalker movie Play Misty for Me. As entertaining as the earlier section of the film is, it reaches another level in San Paulo. This all builds up to a very atmospheric final sequence set at the town's boardwalk on a dark night.

One thing that brings the whole film down a couple notches for me is just the fact that Sondra Locke is the female lead. She does a serviceable job as Jennifer, I have just never been a fan of her screen presence, not even when that presence is in movies I love.

Even with that issue, Sudden Impact is a really good film and a solid entry in the Dirty Harry franchise. It's not my favorite film in the series or even my second favorite, but it sits comfortably right in the middle.

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