Cinema & Movies

Screening Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry, 1971

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By David Beilstein

WE are introduced to the sadistic serial killer Scorpio right away … on a roof, overlooking the panorama of San Francisco, and below, through the scope of Scorpio, we bead in on a young woman swimming in the azure waters of a roof pool across the street.

Scorpio sights in his rifle and shoots the girl dead.

With a cacophony of upbeat jazz drums, San Francisco Inspector Harry Callahan comes to us onscreen— marching, all dirty brown sport coat and cheap slacks of him, through the downtown streets, looking up at the glass towers of a modern metropolis plunged into a politically correct pogrom.

Directed by Don Siegel, The Killers, 1964, Madigan, 1968, Dirty Harry, 1971, is a leviathan of a police thriller, gleaming in the reality in which it was made in the early 1970s. Siegel perfects his magic from his earlier crime films inspired by grim devotion to duty — of loyalty and honour in an increasingly impoverished Americana. San Francisco, seemingly Babylon here, needs the high priest of constabulary justice. So in steps plainclothesmen “Dirty” Harry Callahan, played with gritty excellence by Clint Eastwood.

Eastwood wears Dirty Harry’s gloom of frustration well.  Inspector Callahan tries to wipe the city clean of unrepentant sacrilege. In the wake of Harry’s virtuous justice, wades Scorpio, protected by Miranda Rights gone amok, and political correctness gone astray. In this cinematic universe, the victim has become the culprit, the culprit the criminal, blending together in this visual feast of quality motion-picture craftsmanship.

Of course, Harry tracks Scorpio — that is until the political system and laws interfere. Contrary to far too many modern films, — chalked full of blood and guts and explosion, — Dirty Harry centres on the brooding of characters.

After watching the film, I looked up Roger Greenspun’s 1971 review of Dirty Harry in the New York Times, where Greenspun underwhelming misses the point of the film. Due to the constraints of present time viewing, Greenspun missed the emotional import of the film in favour of focusing on the more anachronistic elements of the movie. That, and Greenspun sees the film within the purview of a straight story, uncomplicated.

But stories, even the great ones, are often uncomplicated. What they are — as old man Hemingway was wise enough to express — was about something true.

Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘good writing is writing truly.’ The same is true in moviemaking. Whilst I agree to a large extent with Stanley Kubrick that movies are more symphony than literature, even music must convey the sense of truth — truth being, that which corresponds to reality.

It does not matter, therefore, Dirty Harry is fantastic, rising above realism in its expression — but within its representative image, it conveys the truth of a city under siege by the imperfections of an evil and wicked man. As human beings, we can relate to that — and because of such reality, Dirty Harry is immensely realistic in an artistic perspective.

Greenspun’s cold review gets some things right. That is, the city, once grand and alluring, upon which Dirty Harry Callahan carries his iconic 44 Magnum seeking justice for a city of victims. Siegel does a fantastic job rendering this theatre of humanity and action.

Concluding, Greenspun wrote,

What does succeed, and what makes Dirty Harry worth watching no matter how dumb the story, is Siegel’s superb sense of the city, not as a place of moods but as a theater for action. There is a certain difficult integrity to his San Francisco, which is not so beautiful to look at, but is fantastically intricate and intriguing—a challenging menace of towers and battlements and improbable walls.”

I’m in love with the movie Dirty Harry … it never gets old despite being more than 40 years aged. It hits all the right notes and it is complete fiction becoming true and real the more the struggle between good and evil descending wherever men and women live. Dirty Harry is more than a collection of oft-remembered one-liners, but is a picture of humanity; the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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