As a symbol, Dirty Harry has been abused by everyone from Ronald Reagan to Arnold Schwarzenegger — but don’t hold that against him. The righteous renegade, Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan stands as one of the most influential (and satisfying) screen characters of all time, marking a turning point in cop movies after which hard-boiled officers freely erred on the side of excessive force. But the series itself was incredibly conflicted, questioning the very notion of vigilantism even as it established a character who meted out justice via his own personal peacemaker, a .44 Magnum (“the most powerful handgun in the world”).
Though Warner’s latest Blu-ray edition hardly represents the first time the franchise has been packaged together, public perception of Eastwood has radically changed since the studio last released the films on disc in 2003. In that short time, Eastwood has cemented his standing as an Oscar-caliber filmmaker first and movie star second, a transition that predates the original “Dirty Harry” (the title of his directorial debut, “Play Misty for Me,” graces a theater marquee in the 1971 film).
The wealth of bonus materials included in this latest edition (most heavily loaded on the “Dirty Harry” disc, for those who don’t buy into the series’ commercially motivated sequels) are of two minds. There are a half-dozen or so short docs dedicated to exploring the iconography of both the Dirty Harry character and its star (among the curios unearthed is an early trade ad announcing Frank Sinatra for the role). And then there are the commentaries, including two by film critic and Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel, which explore Eastwood’s role as the series’ true auteur.
That designation is not to strip credit from director Don Siegel, who served as Eastwood’s most significant mentor and established the look of the franchise. But it was Eastwood, via his Malpaso production shingle, who tapped his old friend to direct. For the sequels, Eastwood surrounded himself with professionals who could deliver the subsequent films in the most efficient, inexpensive way possible. And when the time came, he even helmed an installment himself, tackling 1983’s “Sudden Impact.”
The original boasts fresh currency today thanks to David Fincher’s recent “Zodiac” (both films fictionalize the notorious Zodiac killer’s reign of terror over San Francisco). But “Dirty Harry” — and this is true of all five films — also emphasizes a near-constant atmosphere of law-breaking, alternating between its central serial killer and all manner of perceived degenerates: bank robbers, swingers, homosexuals and so on. Harry can’t even eat a hot dog in peace without a firefight breaking out.
Though unmistakably urban, Eastwood’s San Francisco was still the West, wilder now than ever, and as gunslingers go, Harry came with his own ambiguities (John Wayne asserts why the character disagreed with him on one of the featurettes). As Schickel delicately puts it, Harry was “not particularly careful about the rights of criminals and particularly caring about the rights of victims.” He didn’t play fair, extracting confessions through force and shooting bad guys in the back if necessary. Even his trademark .44 Magnum feels like bringing a bazooka to a spitball fight. “That ain’t no cop’s gun,” one hoodlum hisses. By “The Dead Pool,” Harry has upgraded to a laughably oversized spear gun (“But the audiences loved it,” producer David Valdes shrugs).
The character was an equal-opportunity bigot, and in one movie after another, the series provided him with the least compatible partners imaginable: a Mexican-American (Reni Santoni in “Dirty Harry”), an African-American (Felton Perry in “Magnum Force”), a woman (Tyne Daly in “The Enforcer”) and a Chinese-American (Evan Kim in “The Dead Pool”) — although only the latter is referred to in such politically correct terms onscreen. He could even make a progressive sentiment sound unpopular, as when he sneers, “If the rest of you could shoot like them, I wouldn’t care if the whole damn department was queer,” in “Magnum Force.”
Partners have a nasty way of ending up dead or severely hospitalized around Harry, although it’s interesting to watch how each manages to redeem him- or herself in Callahan’s eyes shortly before being gunned down, suggesting that they might be overturning Harry’s tightly held stereotypes one by one (remember, the opening image of “Dirty Harry” is a monument to fallen San Francisco police officers, and the series never veers in its respect for fallen cops). The recurring theme, of course, is the “system’s” inability to deliver justice and Harry’s willingness to break the law in order to put the criminals in their place. And yet, this time it’s never personal with Harry, who draws the line at vigilantism.
That tension is most apparent in the first two films in the series, “Dirty Harry” and “Magnum Force,” after which the political subtext yields to all manner of nutty serial killers. In one of the set’s many extras, Eastwood explains “Magnum Force” was crafted in reaction to the behavior presented in the first film: “All of a sudden you go, ‘Wait a second. Where are we heading with this?’ So socially it probably has more to say than ‘Dirty Harry,'” he says. That first sequel pits Harry around a ring of truly dirty cops who abuse their power, executing the criminals who slip through loopholes in the legal system. It also features the immortal line, “You’re either for us or against us” — another zinger with echoes in contemporary politics.
It’s remarkable that for all the unforgettable lines Dirty Harry has uttered over the years, it’s not until the fifth and final film that the character resorts to corny James Bond-style quips. And though his opponents grew progressively more cartoony as the series progressed (“The Dead Pool” finds Harry speeding through the streets of San Francisco as the killer chases him with an explosive remote-control car), Eastwood maintained his iconic status through them all. Of course, the very notion of sequels contradicts a character who tossed away his badge at the end of the first film, and yet, as countless voices insist across the set’s various commentaries and featurettes, “The world needs Dirty Harry.”
And so Eastwood obliged them, entering into a shrewd arrangement with Warner Bros. by which he was able to alternate between starring in commercial hits (Dirty Harry was one of the studio’s most bankable characters) and directing passion projects. It’s no coincidence that appearing in “The Dead Pool” helped justify the existence of “Bird,” for example. Of the features Eastwood directed, that Charlie Parker biopic was the first in which he did not also appear (though his role in 1973’s “Breezy” was technically little more than a cameo), ushering in a new era of creativity for the director — just one more way in which Dirty Harry made the world a better place.
Read the original Variety reviews: