Tuesday, December 22, 2009

'Long arms of the law' marathon: Dirty Harry

Dirty Harry (1971, Don Siegel)

3 years after Bullitt came a another movie with bad people on the loose in the beautiful city of San Francisco and yet another no nonsense cop doing what it takes to serve and protect the decent folk under threat, especially from a crazed sniper rifle shooter (Andy Robinson) randomly picking off people from city rooftops. This time however, the rules of the game have changed in that the rules are what detective Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) determines them to be. While Bullitt may have been that character’s real name in the script, detective Callahan is known to his colleague as Dirty Harry, and that’s a nickname he has truly earned.

In the previous review for the movie Bullitt, we briefly discussed how the filmmakers opted for realism as much as possible. Dirty Harry is a film that, while expressing a distinct political and cultural message, is mostly content with providing the viewer with a nice serving of ‘bad assery’ or ‘a can of whoop ass.’ There is a running joke throughout the story about why Callahan has earned the nickname Dirty Harry. It might be because he tends to sweep up all the small dirty jobs no one wants to do. It may be because of his attitude towards his fellow colleagues (including racist comments! Yay!). Or, it might be due to the completely off the top ways in which he carries his duties. To put it mildly, he won’t always follow the law if the law doesn’t serve justice. Imagine the can of worms that sort of philosophy opens. Therein lies the politics of Dirty Harry, that the system doesn’t always work and that certain, shall we say, more extreme measures (or at least measures that do not respect protocol) are justified to attain honourable means. The decision makers don’t always think about the moral nuances that litter the field of work. Following rules and regulations is one thing, but what of serving justice? What about taking matters into one’s own hands because, well goddamn it, it’s the bloody right thing to do? This comes into play especially during the second half of the movie when Harry learns that his less than gentle methods used upon arresting the psycho sniper shall lead to the man's quick release. Torture, illegal methods to obtain evidence, these practices mean little in the eyes of the law despite the fact that they are dealing with an incredibly dangerous man who will most likely cause havoc again once free.

Rules and the lawmakers who bring them about often incur the wrath of those who wish to defend similar ideals but through different methods (or altogether different ideals). This is understandable and it’s difficult to imagine anyone being immune to this sort of sentiment. The politics of lawmaking itself is a business of give and take and compromise. Not everybody will get exactly what they want and what they individually think is ‘best’ for society. There is however an important counter argument to those who take a liking, a real liking, to the philosophy championed by Dirty Harry. Who the heck is he to decide what’s right and wrong, what consists of proper justice? His badge I presume? Even so, the film doesn’t hide the fact that, when the circumstances are right, justice can be found in the old saying ‘an eye for an eye.’

The popularity of Dirty Harry rests in two significant elements among others. The first is that the character is an action man, a detective who lives with a bit of a devil may care attitude, a raw sense of humour and someone who accepts his responsibilities. He’s an anti-hero detective who can indeed prove to be mightily entertaining. The second factor, which for some may work on a subconscious level or for others may be a hidden fantasy, concerns this notion of going against the system, to do what one believes to be correct, to adopt the philosophy of the ends justifying the means. Tempting indeed, even among the more docile and conformist among us. In the context of the United States, and this is based on my limited knowledge of that country’s cultural and political history, Dirty Harry arguably taps into something found in the American psyche, albeit in a more violent and vicious manner. Life, liberty and and the pursuit of happiness, the Revolution which gave birth to the country, the less government the better, etc. I think (and I’ve been wrong before, mind you), Dirty Harry, in his own way, personifies and embodies some of those values. The system and its rules cannot always serve the people. To right some wrongs you sometimes have to get your hands dirty. Fuck the system. That isn’t to say the ideas exemplified by the character of Dirty Harry do not resonate among people in the world. A lot of people outside the United States not only recognize Dirty Harry but think he’s a marvellous character. I myself think he’s fun to watch mop the floor with hoodlums. What I’m trying to get at is how Dirty Harry feels like a typically American creation, almost unmistakably so.

Is the movie good? Yes, in many respects it is. There is a charisma to Eastwood’s performance that is reminiscent of what he showcased a few years earlier during his spaghetti western days, probably because he plays a similar character except not as rogue and with a few more lines of dialogue. The intensity and the earnest quality with which he delivers much of his lines are amusing. Almost every phrase he utters throughout the movie works as a thinly veiled ‘screw you’ to whomever he is talking to. Nonetheless, he is not a super cop at all times. When the antagonist of the story has kidnapped a young girl and hidden her underground somewhere, Harry must do as the villain says by running from check point to check point. If Harry slips up, there is little doubt that the victim shall suffocate. However, hypothetically speaking there is no guarantee that the psycho has any intention of keeping his word by revealing the girl’s location. Harry certainly sweats it out in this sequence, with stress and anger clearly all over his face. Apart from Eastwood however, the only other noticeable character in the movie is in fact the antagonist, played by Andy Robinson, but that has much to do with the oddball and twisted nature of his persona. He’s basically a nasty psychopath. Ham it up, have a freaky look in your eye, talk, mutter and whimper as if you are completely mad and your job is pretty much complete. That isn’t to say Robinson doesn’t do it well for he does, only that there isn’t much to it. The finale, which has Harry assault the villain from atop of a school bus and finally chase him though a factory, is well executed and satisfying conclusion. This is in contrast (sort of) with an earlier scene in which Harry prevents a group of bank robbers from escaping. He guns them down in broad daylight in downtown San Francisco while eating his lunch. To top it off, he confronts the last robber left alive with the immortal ‘Are you feeling lucky today?’ line. Entertaining to be sure, if somewhat silly. I think that is what takes Dirty Harry down just a notch from the other movies we’re evaluating in this mini marathon. While it does have its fair share of moments and Eastwood’s bad ass attitude is difficult to resist, I felt the movie takes itself a bit too seriously at times when, for me at least, what was happening on screen could have fitted perfectly into a comedy. The film has legions of fans and I can see why, it can be pretty fun, but I couldn’t help but find at least some of it cheesy.

Despite all its silliness, Dirty Harry has lived on as far more than a mere anecdote in American cinema history. To this day people still love the movie and quote lines without much effort. While I didn’t feel such an intense love upon first viewing, there is enough to enjoy. Just don’t take it all too seriously.

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