Skip to main content

Well, I'm all broken up over that man's rights!


Dirty Harry
(1971)

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.

*****

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies (2008)
(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

I didn't kill her. I just relocated her.

The Discovery (2017)
(SPOILERS) The Discovery assembles not wholly dissimilar science-goes-metaphysical themes and ideas to Douglas Trumbull's ill-fated 1983 Brainstorm, revolving around research into consciousness and the revelation of its continuance after death. Perhaps the biggest discovery, though, is that it’s directed and co-written by the spawn of Malcom McDowell and Mary Steenburgen (the latter cameos) – Charlie McDowell – of hitherto negligible credits but now wading into deep philosophical waters and even, with collaborator Justin Lader, offering a twist of sorts.