EMPIRE ESSAY: Dirty Harry Review

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A San Francisco cop with little regard for rules (but who always gets results) tries to track down a serial killer whom snipes at random victims.


Thank heavens for masturbation. Had it not been for Frank Sinatra's sprained wrist (okay, so sadly it is only speculation that this was due to an RSI), Dirty Harry Callahan would have turned out a very different incarnation indeed. In fact, having been turned down by Ol' Blue Eyes himself, the role was subsequently offered to both John Wayne and then Paul Newman before Josey Whales blasted into town. And so it was that Clint Eastwood became Dirty Harry, the renegade detective ("He doesn't break murder cases. He smashes them," boasted the poster) with his heart in the right place and pistol pressed firmly to the temple of San Francisco's grimy underworld. Loosely based on the still unsolved real-life case of the "Zodiac Killer" — a serial killer who had terrorised the city since the 1960s and continued to do so as filming started — the plot sees our titular SFPD maverick track infamous psychopath Scorpio (Robinson) and try, in vain as it turns out, to save his latest victim, a 14-year-old girl who has been buried alive. But while Eastwood delivers a virtuoso performance — one that would spawn four sequels — Robinson steals a fair share of his thunder, turning in a display of visceral intensity.

Not that it came easy, thanks to the combination of his deep-seated pacifism, and a personal phobia of guns which would make him flinch everytime he had to pull a trigger (to the point that Siegel was eventually forced to shut down production for nearly a week and enlist a firearms expert to teach him to realistically fire a gun). Couple this with the death threats he later received and Robinson may well have wished in hindsight that the part had gone to first choice, Audie Murphy, an American war hero who was killed in a plane crash before he could accept.

Regardless, the end result was landmark cinema. A violent (it was banned in Finland for over a year) western-set-within-city- walls, laced with homage — look out for a theatre in the background featuring a Play Misty For Me (1971) billing; a wall which bears the graffiti "Kyle", the name of Eastwood's son; and the final scene, in which Harry throws his badge into the river, that is a deliberate nod towards High Noon (1952). It is also, of course, quite unrelentingly cool. To wit the oft-repeated, eternally adored:
"Iknowwhatyou're thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I've kinda lost track myself. But being as this is a 44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've only got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya punk?"

Most notable, however, was Dirty Harry's timing. Tapping into the public's pervading mistrust of the authorities — principally courtesy of the massive NYPD corruption scandal that was ripping through the US police force at the time — Siegel's ambivalent masterpiece laid down a template (1. Kill someone in the first five minutes 2. Stage your finale near water 3. End with a pull shot — usually helicopter — away from the action) that would not only be strictly adhered to by its own sequels, but, generally, by copycats ad infinitum.

It's been referenced in everything from Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) to Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995). It's been spoofed well in The Naked Gun (1988), and not in Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992). And it marked the continuation of a beautiful mentor/protege friendship between Siegel and Eastwood. A friendship which saw them work together a total of seven times, and one which would finally be commemorated in 1992 when Eastwood dedicated Unforgiven to his lifelong compadre.

As idols go, Eastwood chose well with Siegel, the Cambridge university educated director who started out as an editor, before helming classics such as Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956). He developed a penchant for cameos (here he is credited as "man running down street") and along with Robert Totten became the first to be credited with the Director's Guild Of America's universal pseudonym Alan Smithee — for Death Of A Gunfighter (1969). Of all his 38 films, though, Dirty Harry is up there with the best of them. A perfect blend of Bruce Surtees' stark, grainy cinematography, Lalo Schifrin's original score, In a real sense, Harry Callahan gets stitched -up oscillating between twangy pseudo-porn and haunting melodies, and Siegel's own, undisputed knack for orchestrating action that would forever establish its hero as the toughest cookie ever to grace the screen. As for anyone in any doubt, well, they can always ask themselves one question.

Trigger happy coppers have never been so appealing.