Note: This Week in the Box is a year-long series where Sam works through the entire Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection box set. To find reviews of the other films in the series and see the complete list, click here.
Dirty Harry opens remarkably darkly. It’s a ballsy move to open your movie through crosshairs, which is menacing enough, but for the first action in your movie to be a sniper killing a woman as she does some swimming, well, that’s something.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t sustain the momentum. Harry is a really interesting character– I mean, anyone who doesn’t stop chewing to react to a violent crime apparently breaking out across the street, or who responds to the idea of cutting off his pants to treat a wound with “for $29.50*, let it hurt” is pretty intriguing. He’s definitely the new archetype for the cop who doesn’t care who he hurts to get the answer, in stark contrast with, say, Bullitt, who manipulates the system, but who stays clearly within it.
But… that’s most of what I remember of the movie, and I’ve seen it twice. Some movies linger, some movies are in one ear and out the other. For me, Dirty Harry is in the latter category.
Record scratch sound effect! So the above is what I wrote at some point last summer after the first time I watched this movie. I’d watched it sometime in the past and it hadn’t really stuck with me, so I was looking forward to watching it again for this project. And I did, and it still didn’t really stick with me. So I watched it again recently, probably six months after I wrote the above, and something interesting happened. I watched the first maybe half hour, nodded to myself that I knew the movie, and kind of stopped paying attention. The main pursuit kind of tails off because Harry was maybe not within the letter of the law in his pursuit. I thought to myself, yeah, that’s how this movie goes, it kind of peters out. Then the movie kept going, and I looked up a while later, and realized that, oh right, there’s another instance of Harry doing what he thinks is right and what the department/media/whoever thinks is not maybe in line with proper procedure for policework. Huh.
So that’s when I realized I was watching this movie completely wrong. It’s not a conventional story where a bad guy does a thing, good guy pursues him, the good guy eventually gets him, and we leave happy. There’s a pursuit, but the movie’s more about the hazards of bureaucracy than it is about policework. Harry, for one, certainly doesn’t care about being a good cop if it means operating within arbitrary restrictions when innocent lives are on the line. When evidence is inadmissible under the law, it’s the law that’s crazy, not Harry. And we believe him, even if we know he wasn’t right to do what he did.
You have to love a character whose commitment to the truth and lack of concern for authority prompts other people to say things like “Damn it all Harry, that’s the mayor you’re talking to!” Harry doesn’t care. As they say, Harry doesn’t play any favorites: Harry hates everyone. It isn’t that he doesn’t give a fuck, it’s that he chooses what to give a fuck about using somewhat different parameters than the rest of us. When asked about a guy he shot and killed prior to the events of the movie, for which he was apparently in the wrong, he says the victim had the intent to rape. He’s asked, naturally, how you can discern intent to rape, and he cooly replies “Well, when a man’s chasing a woman down an alley with a butcher knife and a hard-on, I figure he isn’t collecting for the Red Cross.” Which is a pretty great line, and boy, is it delivered well. Such withering scorn, but mixed with a good wry kind of sardonic “obviously“.
He sure is a son of a bitch. After he delivers the famous line about firing six shots or only five, his potential victim pleads that he “gots to know.” And how does Harry demonstrate that he had in fact used all six bullets? By cocking the trigger and firing directly at the guy. Now, he probably hadn’t lost track at all and knew all along that the guy was in no danger. It’s an excellent bluff, and better for all concerned that the guy believe there’s a possible bullet with his name on it. But I’m still not completely convinced Harry knew, and I’m really not convinced he cared.
Man, is Harry Callahan a badass. He’s just so unconcerned, so seriously flippant, no wonder he remains a cultural icon (and, uh, you know, his movie ends up in this box set). I know I’m not contributing anything to the cultural landscape when I say he’s really impressively the quintessential badass, but he is, and people should remember that. Also, bureaucracy sucks.
*That’s $170 in 2014 dollars. Which is a lot of characterization in one exchange: we learn that he is the kind of person who buys very expensive pants even though he’s in a profession that occasionally has cause to cause harm to his person. Is he compelled to buy them? Does he just like them?