Cinema & Movies

Of Empathy & ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan


By David Beilstein

SAN FRANCISCO Police Inspector Harry Callahan, his lunchtime hog-dog interrupted by gunfire, and a bank alarm, leisurely marches across a street brimming with violence, and shoots one bank robber after another with his iconic 44 Magnum. “Dirty Harry” Callahan emerges from wafts of smoke and spewing water from a broken fire hydrant, and stares down at a prone bank robber. The bank robber reaches for his shotgun. Dirty Harry grins and levels his 44 Magnum on him. The bank robber gives hands cease movement. While squinting, Dirty Harry taunts the bank robber and squeezes the trigger on an empty chamber. Click.

It was 1971. The Vietnam War was all but lost. Race riots exploded and burned down storefronts and set fires to cityscapes. With rising crime and the Miranda Rights act of 1966, a dreary unease enveloped much of American life. Bureaucracy and the rights of victims seemed unimportant in the face of the rights of criminals. Warner Brother’s 1971 film, Dirty Harry, enshrined Inspector Dirty Harry Callahan into the American pantheon of rugged individualists who would stop at nothing for the cause of justice.

‘Dirty Harry’ Callahan’s primary concern was the rights of victims. In the film, Inspector Harry Callahan is hunting a ruthless serial killer named Scorpio who has begun a private war on homosexuals, blacks, and the public at large. Toward the end of the film, when Scorpio claims his last victim, a teenage girl, Dirty Harry snatches Scorpio’s rifle during an improper search and seizure. The evidence is disavowed and the District Attorney threatens Inspector Callahan with charges. Dirty Harry squints through his anger and asks about the rights of the teenage girl.

Dirty Harry realizes the only way to stop Scorpio is to go beyond the limits of the law and his oath as a Police Officer by whatever means necessary. And we as an audience understand his reasons. We want him to stop Scorpio. And when he does do it – asking Scorpio if he feels lucky before shooting him dead, we as a collective audience become enthralled.

Dirty Harry is a loner. The audience is brought into the environs of sadness Dirty Harry keeps hidden from public eyes. When a police departmental Surgeon sutures up Dirty Harry’s wounded leg, he absent-mindedly inquires about Dirty Harry’s wife. The look between the two men and the surgeon’s apology reveal to us Dirty Harry’s wife is recently deceased.  At home, Inspector Callahan survives on a diet of fast food and an off duty beer. There is a sense in which Dirty Harry’s wife is a metaphor for all victims and serves as a raison d’etre for Dirty Harry’s decisive actions. Dirty Harry understands victims because he is one.

Audiences live vicariously through Dirty Harry Callahan. He is the most empathetic character in the film because he is the most decisive. The entire film is a panorama of injustice that enables Inspector Harry Callahan to create justice out of shear action. He does not stop until justice is met. We know natural law as people. “Dirty Harry” Callahan is empathised with because he is a symbol of the scales of justice weighed fairly.


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