“Do I feel lucky? Well do you punk?” You know a movie is iconic when one of its lines of dialogue still sounds just as badass over 40 years later. Dirty Harry (1971), directed by Don Siegel, cemented Clint Eastwood’s status as a movie star after he had conquered the Western genre in the 1960s with Sergio Leone. As San Francisco Detective Harry Callahan he plays somewhat of a modern gunslinger, taking out bad guys with a .44 magnum revolver, and often working outside the bounds of the law in the process. He may not be a model for real-life cop, but Callahan served as the template for hard-boiled cops for decades to come.
Eastwood’s characterization and dialogue from the film has been so ingrained in pop culture I had a rough idea of who Harry Callahan was long before ever seeing Dirty Harry. Jim Carrey parodies the “feel lucky” speech in The Mask (1993) and in the 90s I would watch the Lethal Weapon movies, which essentially had Mel Gibson playing a modern-day Harry Callahan. Then during a family vacation in Italy I watched the ending of the movie when it was playing on TV, because of course Eastwood is big in Italy, and yes that speech is just as badass in Italian even if you don’t understand every word. I got to fill in the blanks when I received the whole Dirty Harry movie collection one Christmas. Added bonus: it comes with a replica of his badge. Sadly, no .44 magnum included.
The explanation for Harry’s nickname is a point of contention throughout much of the movie, but the implication is not that he is a dirty cop despite the many times he breaks the law. In all fairness the man he is pursuing, a crazed sniper who goes by the name Scorpio (Andy Robinson), is quite the despicable and slimy criminal. Murdering a woman in her swimming pool by shooting her from a skyscraper in a beautiful opening shot, he then threatens to drop more bodies unless city hall pays him a ransom. When the police make his plans more difficult by deploying cops on the roofs and patrolling the skies with helicopters, he kidnaps a girl and buries her alive in a box asking for more money.
In order to catch his prey Harry initially works much like any police detective, which is to say by finding evidence and going on long stakeouts with his partner Gonzalez (Reni Santoni). However when Scorpio kidnaps the girl and seriously wounds his partner during a money drop, Harry does whatever it takes to make Scorpio reveal the location of the girl before her air runs out, even if that means torturing. The scene where a district attorney (Josef Sommer) tells Harry everything he did wrong and why they have to let Scorpio go is both frustrating and slightly amusing. From not having a warrant to not reading Scorpio his rights, Harry made a bunch of mistakes every cop out of the academy should not know, but in his black and white mind he did it all for the victim so he is justified. Who cares about the rights of the killer?
If you only watch the first movie in the series, Harry can be seen as somewhat of a fascist as he dispenses his brand of justice with his revolver while finishing his hot-dog. However the first sequel, Magnum Force (1973), has him squaring off against a rogue group of police officers who are not content with violating criminals’ civil rights, but would much rather break into their homes and murder them. That is a line Harry will not cross.
The political pendulum would keep swinging until the last entry in the franchise, The Dead Pool (1988). That sequel somewhat veered into self-parody, but had a role for Liam Neeson who would become yet another incarnation of Dirty Harry later in his career as Bryan Mills, he of the special set of skills. Like many actors portraying tough men doing bad things for the right reasons, Neeson owes a great deal to Eastwood for asking one simple question with the right tone and the right pistol: “Do I feel lucky?”