Dirty Harry 40th Anniversary Recommendation: Dirty Harry

2011 marks the 40th anniversary of the release of the film and role that made Clint Eastwood into an unmatched Hollywood icon.  Sure, Eastwood had been a successful film actor, mostly in Westerns (Italian and American) for nearly a decade.  Yet it was his turn as “Dirty” Harry Callahan that solidified his status as a legend.  Over the last 40 years, Eastwood has done some remarkable things in front of and behind the camera, and, to be fair, he has also helped to create a fair amount of cinematic detritus over the years.  Blood Work (2002) is a recent, lamentable project.  Despite his numerous projects, good and bad, the veneer of Dirty Harry has never left.  Like a film that cannot be washed away, the residue of Harry Callahan will cling to Eastwood’s aging skin.  (And I can only hope that I look as good at 50 as Eastwood does in his 80s.)

What makes the character Dirty Harry so remarkable is that the vehicle that launched him to global fame, Dirty Harry (1971), is most unremarkable.  This Don Siegel directed effort is not bad, but there few moments of genuine quality.  The real quality is Eastwood’s ability to so dominate the film and make it about him.  Casting anyone else as Harry Callahan would have turned Dirty Harry into a standard issue 70s police/crime drama: car chases, gun fire, and gritty urban settings. (Steve McQueen might have been able to pull it off.) 

What Callahan as a character lacks in-depth, Eastwood the actor makes up for in dynamic presentation.  His eyes, broad shoulders, lengthy physique, sneer, and deep, slightly raspy voice make him the perfect object for the camera.  At risk of treading on dangerous ground, there is a “naturalness” to Eastwood on film.  He never has to roll up his sleeves or remove his shirt to display manly muscles.  P90x-style abs would make Eastwood actually seem somewhat less manly.  He already is what others attempt to be through their personal training and exercise regimens: unquestioned masculinity.

I honestly do not know if Eastwood is a great actor because he has truly only played one role throughout his entire career: Dirty Harry (and variants of Dirty Harry).   He is like the Ramones, who essentially played one song for 20 years.  While I do not know if the Ramones were great musicians or songwriters, I do know that I loved listening to the different versions of that single Ramones song just as much as I like watching Eastwood in his different interpretations of Dirty Harry.

Despite all the pleasures of watching Dirty Harry, my viewings of the film, at least over the last ten years, have been tinged with a growing guilt.  Despite the narrative attractiveness, I know (or think) that such a narrative is wrong.  Harry’s politics are comforting in the same way that bourbon and gin are comforting; they lull you into a sense of security and happiness, but you remain unable to think about the larger consequences.  In a famous review, Roger Ebert compared Callahan’s popularity with fascistic impulses.

Indeed, Harry does not care about law.  He cares about power; and just because he uses his power to bring down psychopaths and protect the innocent does not make him any less power-hungry.  Part of Harry’s, and Eastwood’s, allure is his power itself; it attracts us with its might and makes us feel safe from the threats that oppose it.  Harry triumphs in Dirty Harry precisely because he is undemocratic.  He openly disdains the laws that would govern his behavior and always asserts that he knows best.  He scorns any attempt by a regulatory agency to limit his power.  I imagine that Harry Callahan would be a proponent of targeted drone killings of American citizens.  In the end, the legality of those killings (and I suspect that they have no solid legal basis) would not mean shit to him.  The bad guy is dead.  Mission accomplished.  In Harry’s world, we have to hope that the good powerful people can defeat the bad powerful people.

The other thing that disturbs me about Harry Callahan’s vision of the world, which I do differentiate from Eastwood’s vision, is not only the disdain for democracy, but the disdain for community and communal efforts.  Eastwood and Callahan represent the fruition of Ayn Rand’s philosophy.  Society is filled with weak and miserable people who need the strength of Dirty Harry.  If throws his badge down and walks away, everyone is in trouble.  Society has the responsibility of making him happy enough to begrudgingly use his power to protect it. 

This is a strain of thought that runs through much of Eastwood’s acting and directing.  The fact that American conservatives have not yet seen Eastwood as preeminent conservative artist shows how far right the American right has moved and displays the lack of critical reading and thinking that occurs within the conservative movement.  If conservatives were smart, they would have championed Million Dollar Baby (2004) as brilliant representation of triumphant individualism and free enterprise.  But they were not, so they did not.

To make another, and a final, political point, I cannot help but think of Dirty Harry when I see reports of Occupy Wall Street.  Harry would have undoubtedly hated the fat cats and bankers, yet I cannot see him abiding by the community building efforts of OWS.  For him, it would be a waste of time.  If there are bad people, find them, torture them, and show them that you are more powerful than they. 

In the end, Harry’s power might limit our ability to enact change through communal efforts.  After all, not only is Dirty Harry attractive, so is the power of his and so many similar narratives.  When we close our eyes and imagine tectonic societal change occurring, it is always more vibrant to cinematically imagine such change occurring at the end of a Magnum rather than through point of process and intersectionality.

So on its 40th anniversary, I still recommend Dirty Harry.  Let it serve as a warning.  It should warn us not about the threats from which Dirty Harry will protect us.  Rather, it should warn us about the threat of Dirty Harry himself and the allure of power.

If you need to re-aquaint yourself with Dirty Harry, here is the famous football stadium scene.

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About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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2 Responses to Dirty Harry 40th Anniversary Recommendation: Dirty Harry

  1. F.T. Rea says:

    Nice piece. Mostly, I agree with you about Eastwood, the Ramones and “Dirty Harry.” I’ll never forget the first time I saw it in 1972.

    At first, I was flabbergasted. Afterward, in the lobby, friends said I was white as a sheet. When I explained my feelings, I told them the film sold its mean-spirited right-wing politics so effectively I feared its influence; the peace symbol belt buckle on the villain was the kicker.

    It took me a while to separate Eastwood, who I like, from Harry Callahan. Your comments here have helped me revisit my confusion between reality and light on a screen.

  2. Pingback: DEAR MR. EASTWOOD | James River Film Journal

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