Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Quick Review: Dirty Harry (1971)

Dirty Harry has had just about every accusation leveled towards it: bigoted, fascist, misogynist, racist and shallow.  All of which is possibly true to some extent. Directed by Don Siegel and released in 1971, it's right-wing stance sits uncomfortably in a period of outward liberalism in Hollywood.  Hippies were making films influenced by European and Japanese cinema with morally ambiguous content - Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde were the defining films of the era. It's strange to think that in the time since Dirty Harry has smashed its way into the canon of great 70's films, even if it isn't really a '70's' film.

A lone cop trying to catch an a unscrupulous criminal who could strike at any time. Dirty Harry's traditional  cat and mouse game between it's two main players forms much of the plot. Harry Callahan, nickname 'Dirty', is a no nonsense cop. Less policeman, more avenger - slightly obsessed with catching his man  through any means necessary. Going some way to explain the film's popularity, Harry is immensely likable - charismatic and straight talking - he wants to get the job done effectively as possible but higher-up's stand in his way.

Scorpio is the horrific villain - based on the real life Zodiac Killer - he's sick and twisted - sniping from rooftops and kidnapping victims selected at random. He enjoys killing and toying with the police. He feels very much like you'd imagine a real serial killer to be.  Very few film villains have come close to matching him.

The film attacks liberalism. In an iconic scene, Harry tortures out the confession he wants from an injured Scorpio.  When he is released without charge due to the lack of a search warrant, Harry demonstrates scorn towards the bureaucratic and soft nature of  American law enforcement. The film openly lauds police brutality in an era where the heavy handed nature by which the police were dealing with certain situations and sub-cultures was under sharp critical focus.

 Filled with repeatable lines, machismo violence and great use of setting - Dirty Harry has become a cultural icon, influencing nearly every police film since. It's a great film, but that's more due to it's style, memorable script and characterisation rather than it's questionable message.