Right-wing tract or a more ambivalent study of two extreme characters (as the tagline said, "Dirty Harry and the homicidal maniac. Harry's the one with the badge")?
There is evidently an element of wish-fulfillment in terms of identification with the Callahan character; he is pro-active in a world where bureaucracy and injustice are endemic. As such he is presented, initially at least, with situations in which it is easy to be u unperturbed by his casual dispensation of violent justice (recounting how he shot a would-be rapist) or setting up iconic scenes of coolness (dealing with a bank robbery whilst eating a hotdog, delivering his “Did I fire… “ speech for the first time).
Pauline Kael disliked the film, and it’s easy to understand her distaste with its flirtation with fascist or right-wing attitudes. But it would be inaccurate to ascribe the film with the any kind of polemic intent. Harry’s attitudes are reactionary, but first and foremost the film is an expertly-made thriller. That said, there’s definitively more going on her than in your average Charles Bronson vigilante picture. Particularly in respect of the parallels between the psychotic antagonist the Scorpio Killer, played by Andy Robinson, and Harry himself.
It’s a performance which, if you’ve seen the film several times, easily becomes the most powerful thing in it. Immensely unsettling, contrasting frenzied, maniacal laughter, almost inhuman babbling, with methodical engineering of his situation (the scenes with the shopkeeper he takes a gun from, the man he employs to beat him up). Like everything here, the emphasis is on what will provoke the strongest audience he response. It’s unashamedly manipulative, but shrewd with it. Harry and Scorpio are broadly drawn, cartoonish even, when set against the same years The French Connection.
There’s likely a willfulness to make Scorpio such an extreme figure, such a grotesque, so encouraging the viewpoint that Harry’s behaviour in response is proportional or necessary. But it doesn’t ultimately make the scene in the football stadium, as Harry shoots his quarry down then tortures him while the camera pulls away in an aerial shot, any more palatable. That feels more like a trap the filmmakers want to pull on the audience; show them the unconscionable behaviour of the antagonist, such that they will the (anti-) hero to do anything and everything to stop him. Until he does precisely that (which is not to dismiss the possibility that an audience high on bloodlust may cheer Harry on as he extracts a confession from his prey). Then introduce the unlikely scenario of Scorpio walking free and top it off by having him heinously take hostage a school bus (in a number of nods to the real life Zodiac case) to enable Harry to have “right on his side” (if not the law) in executing him.
Siegel’s direction elevates the film at every turn, the location work oozing urban grit yet married to a heightened approach when shooting the action. And for all the cool of Eastwood’s persona (and hair!) and Lalo Schifrin’s score Siegel is quick to accentuate the sinister, which comes across in both music and performance.
Before he exits the picture, Eastwood’s partner (Harry Guardino) is also used to provide a contrast with the titular character; he is bookish and has a degree, and is quick to develop respect for street-wise Callahan. This is a varyingly effective device; he highlights a possibly seedy, voyeuristic side to Harry (Callahan’s wife is dead, and we see Harry showing possible peeping tom tendencies on several occasions – Scorpio also engages in voyeurism, to deadly effect). But he’s also use to emphasise the heroic in Harry, promoting the idea that the detective is given the jobs no one else wants. There is no real sense that Harry is at the end of his tether through repeatedly being put in that position, though. Rather, he gets a buzz from this on the edge lifestyle and rubbing authority up the wrong way.
The climax strays into overblown territory, making it look like a progenitor of the modern action movie (Lethal Weapon, please stand up) as Harry leaps from a handy bridge onto the ransomed school bus, and again it’s clear that any ideas (of any leaning) are at the mercy of what is most entertaining, not what is most believable.
Two years later Eastwood undid much of what made his character so interesting (so unyielding) by pitching him against a gang of motorcycle cops willing to go further than he does. This was a disappointing fudge, lessening the impact of a character whose unbending position is what makes him both attractive and repellant. Reformatting Harry into a more classical hero isn’t the only reason the sequels are fairly redundant. They’re workmanlike in production terms and repetitive in retooling set pieces to less and less iconic effect. They may have enable Eastwood to continue to make less commercial fare but it’s a shame he didn’t use such an inflammatory character for more interesting purposes. Or maybe all that could be said with him had been said.
Placed alongside Eastwood’s other collaborations with Siegel in that decade (The Beguiled and Escape from Alcatraz) provides a clearer perspective on a working relationship that was first and foremost interested in exploring strong subject matter and seeing where it would lead, not any political agenda. Dirty Harry is provocative, and given Eastwood’s recent Republican convention performance you might be forgiven for thinking their views are allied, but the key to movie's endurance is the filmmaking not its star’s politics. If another director had made it, with another lead (Irvin Kershner and Frank Sinatra?) it would most likely have resulted in a pedestrian, and forgettable, work. But I'd find it difficult to mount a solid defence against those who would wish to vilify it for what it may reduce to in terms of message; I can only attest that as a piece of cinema it remains fresh and vital 40 years on. Perhaps Harry brings out the fascist in one.