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I think most movie buffs would agree that the Daddy of all badass cop flicks is Dirty Harry. Considered controversial and quite violent at the time of its release, some critics dismissed it as “reactionary” and some such as Roger Ebert went so far as to describe it as “fascist”.
To be sure there are some reactionary elements to Inspector “Dirty Harry” Callahan’s (Clint Eastwood) views on police procedural vis a vis the rights of alleged perpetrators and the rights of victims. But the movie also reflects its time and the fears and concerns of American society at large as well as law enforcement.
The movie takes place just 5 years after the Supreme Court made into law the Miranda Rights and only 2 years after the Manson murders as well as the killing spree of the Zodiac Killer who terrorized the San Francisco area and was never caught. In fact the villain seems to have been somewhat inspired by the Zodiac Killer as he calls himself Scorpio, leaves the police taunting notes and seems to pick his victims rather randomly.
The city of San Francisco is as much a protagonist in Dirty Harry as the actors. From the opening scene, following a zoom in of a stone memorial of the names of San Francisco police officers to have died in the line of duty stretching from 1878 to the current year 1970, we see the baby faced sniper atop the Bank of America building aiming his high powered rifle at the nearby Holiday Inn rooftop pool. A young woman in a one-piece yellow swimsuit is in Scorpio’s (Andrew Robinson) cross hairs. This is the serial killer’s first victim as he pulls the trigger while she’s swimming laps.
Scorpio leaves a note for the police demanding $100,000 or he will continue to kill one person per day until his demand is met. He further indicates that it will be his pleasure to murder a Catholic priest or an African-American as his next victim, although the word he uses to describe the latter starts with an “N” is not read aloud.
The Mayor (John Vernon) responds to the Chief of Police (John Larch) “The city of San Francisco does not pay criminals not to commit crimes. Instead, we pay a police department.” However, the Mayor contradictorily also seems ready to pay the Killer’s demand to an incredulous and incensed Inspector Callahan.
Roof top surveillance and helicopter teams are dispersed near Catholic churches and schools as well as primarily black neighborhoods. The Mayor responds to Scorpio as agreed in the personal column of the day’s newspaper agreeing to the ransom but asking him to be patient as he needs more time to gather the money. Scorpio’s having none of that. He sets his telescopic lens on an exaggeratingly effeminate black man. As he’s getting ready to shoot a patrol helicopter spots him and thwarts his plan but Scorpio still manages to escape. The killer undeterred does find his next black victim; a 10 year old boy.
Later in the day on a San Francisco street, Callahan walks into a local deli and orders a jumbo hotdog for lunch but not before asking the counter-server to call the police station and report “a 211 in progress”. He correctly suspects a bank robbery taking place across the street as he noticed a suspiciously idling tan Ford parked in front of the bank as he was on his way to lunch.
Sure enough the bank alarm goes off as well as gunshots while Callahan is in mid bite and the police have not yet arrived. Callahan calmly saunters outside while still chewing his hotdog and points his .44 Magnum at the bank robbers. One of the shots at the getaway car smashes the windshield and sends the car crashing into a flower stand and fire hydrant turning the car on its side.
Walking towards the bank entrance and glancing at a leg wound, Callahan is met by a wounded bank robber (Albert Popwell) sprawled on the sidewalk and reaching for his shotgun. Here is where Dirty Harry utters his most memorable line. The last 8 words now part of cinematic history and often quoted in popular culture.
“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’ve kinda 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 only got to ask yourself one question” ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya punk?”
Meanwhile Scorpio already having claimed a black victim, the police suspect he will follow through on his threat to kill a Catholic priest and disperse their forces to Catholic churches with Officer Collins disguised as a priest and standing at a church entrance as bait. Callahan and his partner Chico Gonzalez (Reni Santoni) is scouring the neighborhood with binoculars beneath a rotating “JESUS SAVES” sign.
Distracted by a naked hippie girl he spies through an apartment window, Harry doesn’t see Scorpio slip in. However, he does notice the rooftop door to the same building ajar. Scorpio has taken the bait and Callahan and Gonzalez are in pursuit. Gunfire ensues and Scorpio escapes yet again but not before killing Officer Collins who was disguised as a priest.
An incensed Scorpio sends the police another taunting letter informing them that he’s grabbed a 14 year old girl and she’s been buried alive with just a small amount of oxygen to sustain her. He now doubles his demand for $200,000 as ransom for the girl. As proof that he has her he also sends the girl’s bra, a hank of hair and a bloody tooth extracted with a pair of pliers.
Dirty Harry is the designated delivery boy who’s warned by Scorpio that if he even suspects Harry’s being followed he’ll kill the girl. Callahan is made to run on foot all over San Francisco to various pay phones to receive further instructions. Gonzalez is very discreetly following as Callahan is wire tapped.
Under the tall concrete cross at Mount Davidson Park, Scorpio instructs Callahan to drop his weapon and the bag containing the ransom money. The killer proceeds to humiliate and beat Callahan while informing him that he intends to kill him and the girl anyway. Gonzalez, listening through the radio wire, shoots at Scorpio and prevents Callahan’s murder but the killer fires at Gonzalez wounding him. With whatever strength he can muster a badly beaten Callahan pulls a switchblade that was taped to his leg, and stabs Scorpio in the thigh. With a painful howl the killer escapes yet again but this time he needs medical attention.
Checking all of the ER’s they come across a doctor who not only attended a patient matching both the physical description of Scorpio but the type of injury he sustained as well. The doctor recognizes him as the guy who sells programs at Kezar Stadium. He informs Callahan that he believes the stadium groundskeeper lets him sleep there.
Callahan and another cop head for the stadium. When the other officer points out that they don’t have a search warrant, Harry tells him to go take a walk. The ensuing scene is of Callahan chasing Scorpio onto the football field and then trying to get info on the missing girl’s location by grinding his foot on the killer’s wounded leg. Scorpio pathetically bleats about his rights while the camera pulls away in a spiraling aerial view of the field. Great cinematography!
The 14 year old girl is found at dawn. Her nude dead body is pulled out of a hole in the ground as Callahan and the camera overlook the Golden Gate Bridge.
Scorpio is soon released from police custody despite all the overwhelming evidence against him. An indignant D.A. (Josef Sommer) informs Callahan that they can do nothing as Callahan violated the killer’s civil rights. An outraged and shocked Callahan cannot believe Scorpio will be set free due to legal technicalities and there will be no justice for his innocent victims. The film doesn’t stop here of course but my synopsis does.
Some may find it interesting to know that Clint Eastwood was not the first choice. Frank Sinatra?! John Wayne and others were first approached. It’s a good thing they all declined. I can’t imagine that the Dirty Harry character would be the cinematic landmark it now is with anyone but Eastwood. As powerful as Eastwood is in this role it should be noted that Andrew Robinson as the baby faced psychotic Scorpio does steal some of his thunder.
Whatever one’s moral position vis a vis the civil rights of the accused and victims of crime and police procedure, Dirty Harry remains a great action film. A true classic.
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