• U.S.

Cinema: Outside Society

3 minute read
Jay Cocks



This is a real police movie. Where The French Connection was fundamentally a chase film, with lots of jolts and a good eye for police procedure, Dirty Harry is a genre piece: it has a fine feeling not only for the danger of a cop’s life but also for the monotony and frustrations. It is the best film about cops since Madigan, which, by no coincidence, was also directed by Don Siegel.

Siegel is a film maker who works mostly within the conventions of the action movie. His films move with a closely calculated, irresistible momentum. He also has an explosive talent for violence that turns his action scenes (like a bank robbery in Dirty Harry) into set pieces that pummel the senses.

His films are spare, the scripts laconic. This is partly a question of personal style and partly the approach best suited to his frequent leading man, Clint Eastwood. In Dirty Harry, Eastwood plays a maverick San Francisco cop named Harry Callahan who sasses everybody—his chief, his superiors, even the mayor. A psychopathic killer is on the loose, sniping from rooftops, kidnaping young girls to hold the city up for ransom. Callahan is against the mayor’s decision to pay the ransom. When he is appointed to deliver the $200,000, he typically decides to try to trap the killer.

Dirty Harry is bound to upset adherents of liberal criminal-rights legislation. Callahan holds such laws in contempt and violates them openly. He is compelled to act on his own. This only reinforces Siegel’s theme: that both cop and killer are renegades outside society, isolated in combat in their own brutal world. Siegel makes the point in eloquent cinematic shorthand, notably in the film’s opening, where a shot of a policeman’s badge dissolves into the muzzle of the sniper’s rifle, and later when Callahan catches up with the killer in a deserted stadium. The camera draws back from the hunter and his quarry in the middle of the field, then moves back farther until both are lost to sight and the whole stadium is swallowed up in darkness.

Eastwood gives his best performance so far — tense, tough, full of implicit identification with his character.

Harry Guardino is appropriately harried as Eastwood’s superior, and Andy Robinson, who plays the killer, is truly remarkable. The script is suitably hard boiled, and there is an excellent, eerie jazz score by Lalo Schifrin. They all help Siegel to make Dirty Harry the kind of movie that brightens up Hollywood’s tarnished name.

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