Skip to main content

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #184: Dirty Harry

“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?”


Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #70: Stand by Me

Another clear influence on Stranger Things, Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986) portrays American kids from a lost era in which they could go on an adventure away from home. Nowadays if children go missing for more than an hour parents try to locate them using cell phone apps, but in the story written by Stephen King four boys in 1959 Oregon go walking in the woods during a long weekend to look for, of all things, a dead body. Their lives are sometimes at risk, they have no way of communicating with their parents, but they will definitely have a story to remember for the rest of their lives.
For many North Americans adults this movie fondly reminded them of a time in their childhood despite the inherent danger. Not so for me since, first of all, there was no time in my childhood when I could possibly go out of the house for more than three hours without my mom getting in her car to go look for me. The there is the fact that I spent a good chunk of my childhood living in Chile and Peru, an…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #316: Trainspotting

In the 1990s Hollywood directors were the kings of cinema, whether it was for big summer blockbusters or smaller independent films. Guys like James Cameron or Michael Bay would blow up the screens while Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino put the emphasis on snappy dialogue that created relatable characters for the moviegoers. Then in 1996, as if to scream “we can do this too,” Danny Boyle released Trainspotting in the United Kingdom.
Based on a novel by Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh, the movie took the world by storm despite having no explosions, a cast of actors who were relatively unknown and a budget that today could barely pay for the catering of a Transformers movie. Furthermore this is not the story of young people going to college to enter a life full of promise, but about young heroine addicts meandering through the streets of Edinburgh. Despite introducing these characters during an energetic montage set to Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge in …

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #364: Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers (1994) is not so much a movie as an American nightmare come to life. Loosely based on a story by Quentin Tarantino, starring some of the wildest actors in Hollywood at the time, and boasting a level of violence that unfortunately inspired copycat crimes, it is the textbook definition of controversial. In all fairness there are important messages amidst all the violent mayhem, but director Oliver Stone throws so much content at the screen that these messages can sometimes get lost in the carnage.
Even though the movie came out more than two decades ago it still has a legendary status, which I learned about while reading a chapter in a book about Tarantino’s career. The book, Quintessential Tarantino, contained a lot of interesting facts about the making of the movie and also spoiled the ending, but reading a few words that describe a killing spree is very different than seeing it portrayed on screen. A few years ago the director’s cut became available on Netflix, wh…