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April 10, 2015

The Dirty Harry Films: Do you feel lucky punk?

I was recently reading Robert Greysmith’s books on the Zodiac killings [Zodiac & Zodiac Unmasked] and got so fascinated by the story that I watched Zodiac (2007), even though I don’t like David Fincher’s movies (and this was not an exception). Anyway, the meat of the story was that this person was killing just for the hell of it!

A few years ago I had seen The Zodiac Killer (1971). I still have the Something Weird DVD, but I didn’t revisit it, as I don’t remember it being particularly special. But I read that Dirty Harry (1971) was based on the real life murderer and chief investigator, and since it is one of those films that you have to see (because everybody has), I decided to not only give it a go, but review the entire franchise that was build on the success of the first movie. After all I love Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s westerns, so how wrong could I go?

The Dirty Harry films are action cinema masterpieces and should be praised as such. They may seem a bit problematic today as the cop worshiping scenario looks occasionally cheesy or at least dated, but they work perfectly as escapism adventures.

The Dirty Harry films proved very successful at the box office (well, not the last flick in the franchise, but the first four). Every Dirty Harry flick was made by a different director. Those five were Don Siegel [Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)], Ted Post [Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)], James Fargo [Caravans (1978)], Buddy Van Horn [Pink Cadillac (1989)], and star Clint Eastwood.

Dirty Harry (1971)

This cop worshipping film starts with a tilt down of a marble with the names of the S.F.P.D. officers that died in the line of duty. It’s obvious that we’re in for the police force glorification treatment. Then we cut to Scorpio [Andrew Robinson from Hellraiser (1987)] who’s shooting a woman in a swimming pool. She dies, and the title’s cop [Clint Eastwood] is assigned to the case.

Scorpio sends a letter to the police saying he wants $100.000 in order to stop the killings. You see, although this character is based on Zodiac, his motive is clearly different. We are now properly introduced to Dirty Harry, who doesn’t have any manners (even when he answers to the mayor, played by John Vernon from Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)], and doesn’t hesitate to kill some bank robbers.

Via a newspaper, the mayor lets Scorpio know that he agrees to deliver the money but he needs to be patient as time is needed to put them together. Dirty Harry now has a partners with which they participate in a shootout with Scorpio while on top of rooftops.

Scorpio now has kidnapped a girl and threatens to kill her if the good guys don’t give him $200.000. Dirty Harry happily takes the bag with the money and off he goes to deliver. His partner is nearby. The plan goes wrong and after some shootouts Scorpio escapes only wounded.

Dirty Harry finally manages to arrest Scorpio, but because he obtained evidence illegally, the murderer cannot be prosecuted. He walks away free. Scorpio pays a black man to beat him up and when he ends up in the hospital he blames it on Dirty Harry. The reporters are very interested, in the same manner that they were in real life with the prime suspect of the Zodiac killings.

The Zodiac had threatened that he’d blow up a school bus full of kids, and similarly, in this movie, Scorpio takes over a school bus and threatens to kill the kids. Then Dirty Harry gets heroic, jumps from a bridge on top of the bus, the killer runs away, and then the hero finds him and shoots him dead.

This essentially what the average Joe would have wanted to happen at the time to the Zodiac that was never brought to justice for the killings he committed. The families of the victims wanted a hero, but reality doesn’t work that way. And reality is not our concern in this review, but the film itself. This is a masterpiece of action cinema (that was initially banned in Finland) and the greatest thing about is the finale, which is all about location.

"You've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya, punk?"

Magnum Force (1973)

An S.F.P.D. traffic cop turns vigilante (without much of an explanation regarding his motives) and kills a variety of scumbags, from corrupt rich people of influence to low level pimp caricatures. Dirty Harry [Clint Eastwood] is solving a variety of crimes (including the hijacking of an airplane), but he’ll find the time to join the investigation of this case too. A high body count is to be expected.

In my opinion this is a much too long film (in fact the longest in the series), but everybody seems to see it as a masterpiece of action cinema (even though it was made based on ideas left over from the first instalment). Again, what I really admired was the finale, which similarly to the first movie, was all about location.

The Enforcer (1976)

Once again we are introduced to Dirty Harry [Clint Eastwood] who this time is killing robbers in a spectacular scene in which he breaks into a store with a city vehicle. The film’s main case though is about a variety of “terrorists” with all sorts of motivations. Towards the end they kidnap the mayor [John Crawford] and shootouts and explosions are the order of the day. This time around Dirty Harry has a partner [Tyne Daly] who for the first half of the film works as the humorous element and then becomes the strong sidekick.

Sudden Impact (1983)

Dirty Harry [Clint Eastwood] enters a cafe and orders a cup of coffee. The waiter is pouring too much sugar in it, but he doesn’t notice because he’s reading the paper. When he leaves he takes a ship and spits it out. He takes a look back at the cafe and he sees “Closed” signs. He goes in through the backdoor and he finds armed robbers threatening the staff and the customers. One of the criminals is asking Dirty Harry why he came back, and the cop’s answer is that for 10 years he’s ordering black coffee and this is the first time he got it with loads of sugar in it, so he came back to complain. Needless to say Harry kicks ass and guns down the bastards. This is my favourite scene in the entire franchise.

But we are properly introduced (again) to Dirty Harry in another scene (who for once doesn’t have a partner), in which he enters a club and threatens a gangster who is a suspect on the murder of a high class prostitute. Dirty Harry holds some papers saying that they’re the poor girl’s diary that will send him to jail. The old gangster gets a heart attack and dies. We then see that the papers were blank; Harry was bluffing his way through this one. This results to some shootout between Harry and angry gangsters, but the heroic cop walks unharmed.

But the above are not the main case. This film is about a woman who shoots men’s dicks and then their brains. Said killer [Sondra Locke from Willard (1971)] was raped by those men and so was her sister (we learn that via a flashback). You see, rape & revenge flicks [such as Meir Zarchi’s Day of the Woman (1978) and Abel Ferrara’s MS. 45 (1981)] were very popular at the time (especially in the home video market) and this action moniker decided to jump into the bandwagon.

Another thing about this particular installment is how director Clint Eastwood decided to sweeten the character of Harry a little bit (probably due to the box office success of the previous installment), by having him raising a puppy and flirting with the vigilante girl. And there’s even a scene in which he’s chasing a criminal, and he uses the bus of a retirement facility full of old people; obviously this is played for laughs.

But that’s not all; Harry has trouble convicting three street punks, so he roughs them up. Said punks look for revenge and throw a couple of Molotov bombs in Harry’s car. He manages not only to escape the fire, but to throw back one of the bombs to the punks’ car. The driver is losing control and they end up in the port where they drown. This is hands down my favourite flick in the series, and at the same time the highest grosser of them all.

The Dead Pool (1988)

This film kicks off with the successful prosecution (for a change) of a gangster [Anthony Charnota] by inspector Harry [Clint Eastwood]. His boys are not too happy about that and try to kill Harry in a spectacular shootout which results to their asses being kicked. The gangster will be later threatened in jail by Harry and this will change his mind and put men in charge of the cop’s protection, but this happens much later.

The film’s main case is very different. It is about a film called Hotel Satan, which is directed by horror auteur Peter Swan [Liam Neeson from Gangs of New York (2002)]. The star of the picture [played by Jim Carrey] is a junkie and he is murdered. This happened straight after the filming of a sequence in which the young actor was lip-syncing Guns N’ Roses’ Welcome to the Jungle in a setting that was supposed to be an homage The Exorcist (1973); or a rip-off, it’s up to you to decide, but it’s quite funny either way.

Anyway, at the guy’s funeral members of Guns N’ Roses are attending. This was the Appetite for Destruction Guns N’ Roses line-up, but the band had more celluloid success a few years later when the You Could Be Mine single was featured in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992) and they made an impressive music video out of it. Axl Rose with a new Guns N’ Roses line-up tried to do something similar with their Oh My God song in End of Days (1999), again starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, but thing just weren’t the same. They’re still my favorite hard rock band though.

But I digress. The cast and crew of Hotel Satan play a game (it is called Dead Pool) in which they bet on which celebrity is going to die. They bet according to educated guesses, such as who’s on drugs or who’s old, but there seem to be a maniac on the loose who takes the game too seriously and makes it dangerous as he seems to be killing people on the list.

Dirty Harry is on that list too and he’s trying to save his ass and solve the case at the same time. He finds time to flirt with Samantha Walker [Patricia Clarkson from Shutter Island (2010)] who’s a television reporter interested in the cop’s story who has now become a celebrity. His superiors will even team him up with a Chinese American cop in order to make the police department look better to the press.

This is a very good film to wrap a franchise with and the legacy of Dirty Harry is safe as the series stopped when they were still on top (even though this installment bombed at the box-office, but who cares?). Let’s just hope that nobody gets any ideas about a PG-13 reboot.

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