Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Dirty Harry (1971)

Director: Don Siegel                                     Writers: Harry Julian Fink & Rita Fink
Film Score: Lalo Schifrin                              Cinematography: Bruce Surtees
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Reni Santoni, John Vernon and Andrew Robinson

This is the film that launched a franchise. Dirty Harry began as a screenplay by Harry and Rita Fink. The story was originally set in New York City and in a later draft was moved to Seattle. The latter setting would appear a few years later in McQ, a similar film starring John Wayne. Because of the extreme nature of the role, the producers couldn’t find an actor to take the part, so the script was passed around to several other writers and went through a number of other revisions. When Eastwood was finally asked and agreed to do the film, he had a couple of demands. First, he wanted to go back to the original script by the Finks, and second that Don Siegel be his director. It was also Eastwood’s idea to cast Andrew Robinson as the killer. Eastwood had seen him in a play and felt he could play the crazed aspect of the character very well. Finally, Eastwood moved the action to San Francisco and that city has been associated with the franchise ever since.

The film proper opens with a woman swimming in a rooftop pool. A killer across the way on an overlooking building shoots her in the back and she dies. The next shot has Clint Eastwood coming through the door, looking up at the other building, then going across and finding the note left for him by someone calling himself Scorpio--a thinly veiled reference to the Zodiac killer. Mayor John Vernon reads the ransom note and decides to pay, in order to give the city more time to find him. Eastwood disagrees but is overruled. Next comes the most iconic scene in the film, as Eastwood leaves a lunch counter and walks across the street, his gun out, still chewing on his hotdog, to foil a bank robbery. When it’s over, Albert Popwell lies injured in front of the door. Eastwood walks over and delivers his catchphrase for the film, telling Popwell that he doesn’t remember how many shots he fired and asking him if he feels lucky. Because of his reckless manner, his partners have a habit of getting in harm’s way, which is why he’s not thrilled about breaking in Reni Santoni. But since he’s been order and there’s nothing he can do about it, Eastwood takes him along on the investigation.

Meanwhile the rooftop killer, Andrew Robinson, is foiled from making his next kill by a police helicopter. After a couple of set pieces involving Eastwood getting beaten up in an alley and rescuing a suicidal jumper, they get their first lead when they set a trap on a roof in front of a church. They exchange fire, but the killer gets away and in a rage kidnaps a girl and demands his ransom now. When Eastwood is elected to deliver the money and gets a knife in Robinson’s leg, it’s only a matter of time before he runs him to ground. While this is not the best film in the series--my personal favorite is The Enforcer with Tyne Daly--it does establish firmly the character and yet still allow for him to grow and not stagnate. That is certainly one of the reason for the continued popularity of the franchise. The other is obviously Eastwood himself. In retrospect the role seems made for him and propelled him to stardom. There’s no anger, there’s no vengeance, he’s just a cop doing what he believes is his job: protecting the good people from the bad. It’s only the bureaucracy that seems too timid to do what needs to be done.

One of the overlooked aspects of the film is the opening shot, a lingering view of a memorial to San Francisco police officers killed in the line of duty, one assumes at the hands of criminals. It’s that idea that sparked the initial popularity of the film. After the assassinations of the late sixties, the domestic unrest over the Vietnam War and the seeming powerlessness of the authorities to do anything meaningful about it, here was a character who was taking the responsibility in his own hands. He was unwilling to look the other way. He was willing to put himself on the font lines and do what needed to be done to protect citizens from criminals. Because of that, the film struck a chord. It’s actually unfortunate that this series gets lumped in with vigilante films, but it’s the farthest thing from it. Harry Callahan is a police officer. He never fires first, and has never been charged with any criminal conduct. Excessive force? Sure, but excess is in the eye of the beholder, and criminals who engage in lawless behavior have to accept the risk.

Eastwood is tough as nails in the opening salvo of the series, just coming off of his self-directorial debut in Play Misty for Me, and he’s assisted by a solid crew of supporting actors. Harry Guardino plays the police captain, while John Larch is the chief of police. John Vernon comes off as the most sensible mayor in the series, and rookie Reni Santoni holds his own with Eastwood, at least for a while. John Mitchum is Eastwood’s new/old partner and will make an appearance in the next two films, while Josef Sommer appears as the D.A. telling Eastwood he violated the killer’s rights and can’t be tried, a prelude to his greatest role a decade later in Witness. This sets up the final confrontation with Andrew Robinson, which is preceded by a wonderful sequence with Raymond Johnson beating him up so he can blame it on Eastwood. Don Siegel was also a perfect choice as director, as was composer Lalo Schifrin who wrote the distinctive jazz-influenced score. Dirty Harry, despite its beginnings as a genre police procedural has become one of the iconic films of the decade and continues to deliver on its status as a cinematic classic.

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