Make My Day – The Dirty Harry Series (1971 – 1988)

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I know what you’re thinking, punk. You’re thinking “did he fire six shots or only five?” Now to tell you the truth I forgot myself in all this excitement. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and will blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself a question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?

 

Dirty Harry (1971)

Dirty-Harry-1971

Hugely influential, very cool, and very dark, Dirty Harry remains a giant among action thrillers thanks to a perfect mix of entertainment, grit and the undeniable charisma of Eastwood in the main role. It may have been released at the perfect time, when people were no longer as trusting as they once were and when ordinary Joe Public had been exposed to some major serial killer scares, but it holds up just as well today as it did back in 1971.

Everything is here that viewers have come to expect from this kind of film. Harry Callahan (Eastwood) is a good, tough cop who plays by the rules, but is happy to break them when he knows that he has a scumbag in his sights. Reni Santoni is Chico, a young officer partnered up with the veteran, much to Callahan’s annoyance. The Mayor (John Vernon) stresses out at the Chief (John Larch), who stresses out at his subordinate (Harry Guardino), who then stresses out at Harry. But they’re all united by their desire to catch the Scorpio killer (Andrew Robinson). Unfortunately, Scorpio is one slippery sonofabitch.

This is a film boosted by the star power of Eastwood, but that shouldn’t detract from every other element that the film gets just right. The script, written by Harry Julian Fink, Rita M. Fink and Dean Riesner (with some uncredited help from Jo Heims and John Milius), is full of great lines, a few of which have become classic quotes, and director Don Siegel weaves the material through terrain that is gritty and tense one minute, and then beautifully haunting the next. Just watch a camera move that pulls away from Callahan in the middle of a football field and tell me I’m wrong. Replace “gritty and tense” with the words “funky and lively” and you also have a summary of Lalo Schifrin’s fantastic score, which is up there with his best.

Eastwood gets to excel in another iconic role, but every hero needs a good enough villain, and Dirty Harry works as well as it does thanks, in no small part, to the performance by Andrew Robinson as the Scorpio killer. Robinson made his feature film debut, and was unsure of himself, but he was hired because the film-makers wanted someone with “the face of a choirboy”, as Robinson says in a number of interviews. Thankfully, he also brings some great qualities to the killer, always making him a fascinating character, as well as being a particular loathsome piece of work. The rest of the cast all do good work, especially Santoni, Guardino and Vernon, but the heart of the film is Eastwood versus Robinson.

Very much a product of its time, but also pretty timeless, Dirty Harry remains one of the very best cop thrillers ever made, a situation which looks unlikely to change while so many modern movies remain influenced by it.

DIRECTOR: DON SIEGEL
WRITER: HARRY JULIAN FINK, RITA M. FINK, DEAN RIESNER,
STARS: CLINT EASTWOOD, ANDREW ROBINSON, HARRY GUARDINO, RENI SANTONI, JOHN VERNON, JOHN LARCH
RUNTIME: 102 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★½

Magnum Force (1973)

Magnum-Force-1973

In the first of four sequels to Dirty Harry, writers John Milius and Michael Cimino obviously wanted to give a bit more shading to the main character, forceful anti-hero Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood). But they also wanted fans to know that they would still get to see everything they loved from the first movie, which would explain why the opening credits take place while showing off a large gun that then points directly to the camera/viewer.

A bunch of murders are happening, but the victims tend to be major criminals who haven’t been properly punished by the courts. Harry Callahan is on the case, but it’s not long until he starts to formulate a theory that he hopes isn’t true. Are the victims being killed by cops?

An interesting counterpoint to the first movie, and an understandable development of the central character, Magnum Force shows that while Callahan is a man who can be pushed to break the rules when lives are at stake he is not just a crude vigilante. He seems to love shooting perps when he can, but he always does so during intense moments that boil down to “him or them”.

Although it’s not as accomplished as the first movie, Ted Post does a competent enough job in the director’s chair, but he’s let down by that script from Milius and Cimino. The movie has some great ideas, but doesn’t really make the most of any of them. The best thing that can be said about the whole endeavour is how good it is to see Harry’s character fleshed out when juxtaposed alongside others who can either bring out the worst or the best in him. This is an idea that would turn up in every one of the sequels, with varying degrees of success.

Eastwood already owned the role of Harry by the start of the first movie, and he’s on fine form here, but it’s great to see a cast chock full of so many familiar faces. David Soul, Tim Matheson, and Robert Urich stand out from the crop of young cops who look up to Harry, Mitch Ryan does well in a small role, playing an embittered veteran who may want to break the law in order to punish some major law-breakers, and the great Hal Holbrook does his usual fine work. Christine White is also very good as a frustrated wife of a policeman, and Adele Yoshioka helps to show that Harry doesn’t always just think about police work.

Some better editing would have helped – at 124 minutes, this is the longest entry in the series – and the grand finale isn’t really all that grand, but there’s a lot here to enjoy, be it the exchanges between Harry and his superiors or the ideas being thrown around. Magnum Force  makes viewers think about just where the line should be drawn when it comes to the kind of swift retribution dealt out by characters like Harry. The kind that is so often cheered on by cinema audiences.

It’s an exploration of justice and violence that the series would return to, and it’s this that makes the Dirty Harry movies so much more than just a big gun and quotable chunks of dialogue.

DIRECTOR: TED POST
WRITER: JOHN MILIUS, MICHAEL CIMINO
STARS: CLINT EASTWOOD, HAL HOLBROOK, MITCH RYAN, DAVID SOUL, TIM MATHESON, KIP NIVEN, ROBERT URICH, CHRISTINE WHITE, ADELE YOSHIOKA
RUNTIME: 124 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: USA

Film Rating: ★★★½☆

The Enforcer (1976)

The-Enforcer-1976

This is the one in which Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) has an extra reason to grimace when he finds himself paired up with a female partner (Kate Moore, played by Tyne Daly). It’s not that he’s against women on the force, however. Oh no. Harry just sees it as another political move that could cost lives when the heat is turned up.  His new partner has no actual experience of being a street cop, but it doesn’t take her long to show Harry that she has plenty of pluck and tenacity. And that’s just what’s needed as San Francisco is threatened by a terrorist group.

Although this seems like a more flippant, gimmicky movie than either of the two that preceded it, The Enforcer actually follows closely in their footsteps, using the character of Harry to look at the politics of justice, and how many different viewpoints are available when it comes to violence being used as a means to various ends.

Directed by James Fargo, this is, arguably, the lightest instalment in the entire series, but that’s not to say that it’s a happy-go-lucky affair. The script, by Stirling Silliphant and Dean Riesner, mines some obvious humour from putting Harry alongside an inexperienced female partner, but it also sprinkles some moments of harsh violence throughout. In fact, the opening scene is an effective warning that things are going to get a bit bloody.

It’s hardly worth mentioning how good Eastwood is at this point, but there’s extra pleasure to be had from watching his interaction with Daly, who acquits herself admirably, bringing a blend of smarts, grit, and vulnerability to proceedings. Harry Guardino reprises his role from the first movie, Bradford Dillman is the main authority figure who is often too distracted by politics, and DeVeren Bookwalter makes for a decent villain, mainly thanks to his piercing eyes.

It’s a shame that things couldn’t have been tweaked ever so slightly to give the movie a better atmosphere. Most of the film lacks any real tension, and the finale is particularly disappointing, feeling both flat and a bit rushed. Those things aren’t so bad when the rest of the movie is so easily entertaining, but they do stop The Enforcer from being as great as it could have been.

DIRECTOR: JAMES FARGO
WRITER: STIRLING SILLIPHANT, DEAN RIESNER
STARS: CLINT EASTWOOD, TYNE DALY, HARRY GUARDINO, BRADFORD DILLMAN, JOHN MITCHUM, DEVEREN BOOKWALTER, JOHN CRAWFORD, SAMANTHA DOANE, M. G. KELLY
RUNTIME: 96 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: USA

Film Rating: ★★★½☆

Sudden Impact (1983)

Sudden-Impact-1983

Men are dying, and it turns out that most of them were involved in a nasty incident of gang-rape. One of the victims is in hospital, but the other victim (her sister, played by Sondra Locke) is out for revenge. Harry Callahan is put on the case, mainly to stop him from causing trouble elsewhere, but when he arrives in the small town of San Paulo, where the murders are occurring, Harry finds an unhelpful Chief (Pat Hingle) and a few hostile locals. And let’s not forget the other people who follow him into town with the express aim of killing him.

The fourth movie in the Dirty Harry series once more puts the main character into a situation that allows viewers to see the difference between his particular code of conduct and the actions of others seeking justice on their own terms. The fact that the warped reflection of Harry this time around is a victim of a horrific crime puts another pleasingly different spin on things, but it’s hard not to view much of the film as a trip back to a drying well.

Writer Joseph Stinson does a good job when it comes to the main storyline. It’s just a shame that the diverting offshoots, with Harry being . . . . . Harry, aren’t as interesting. There’s still fun to be had in seeing Clint be a badass, of course, but it’s just not as enjoyable as it was the last time around. Or the time before that. Or, indeed, in the first movie.

Director Ted Post finds himself bogged down in the same way, although it’s admirable to see just how unflinching he is with many individual moments. The traumatic rape isn’t lingered on, although it’s no less effective, but the general sense of unpleasantness and potential violence gives the movie a layer of grit and grime more often associated with less subtle exploitation fare.

At least staying consistent with other aspects of the movie, the acting is also a bit of a mixed bag. Eastwood? Pah, I don’t even need to say it at this point. Hingle is great as the Chief, armed with plenty of reasons to dislike Harry from the start. Locke does okay in her role, but I wish we could have seen a better actress get to grips with it. Mind you, I tend to think this every time I see Locke in a movie. The main villains are a bit nondescript, unfortunately, but Audrie Neenan stands out, playing a woman who was there during the rape and did nothing to help. In fact, she seemed to engineer and encourage the whole thing. Her character is irredeemably unpleasant for almost every moment that she’s onscreen, which also makes her thoroughly entertaining to watch.

Not a terrible film, by any means, Sudden Impact at least has the courage of its convictions from start to finish, and does enough to make it worth a watch. It just fails to reach the standards set by the previous movies in the series.

DIRECTOR: TED POST
WRITER: JOSEPH STINSON
STARS: CLINT EASTWOOD, SONDRA LOCKE, PAT HINGLE, BRADFORD DILLMAN, PAUL DRAKE, AUDRIE NEENAN, JACK THIBEAU
RUNTIME: 117 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: USA

Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Dead Pool (1988)

The-Dead-Pool-1988

The swansong for Harry Callahan is a bit of a disappointment, admittedly, but it’s also not as bad as you might remember. I guess, first of all, I should briefly explain what a dead pool is. It’s a wager that allows people to pick a bunch of celebrities that they think will soon shuffle off the mortal coil. Whoever picks the person who actually dies, or whoever predicts the most deaths, wins.

Harry is as mean as ever, although he’s also older (of course) and even less concerned with what others think of him, as impossible as that sounds. Politics are once again getting in the way of police work, but this time around it’s a different kind of politics. The politics of celebrity. It all starts with the death of a drug-addicted movie star (played by Jim Carrey), but Harry soon finds that while he’s trying to solve the celebrity murder he’s viewed as quite a celebrity himself. There’s at least one journalist wanting exclusive rights to his story. Unfortunately, there’s also at least one person who wants to see him dead, because his name is listed with some others on a dead pool that seems to be more accurate than most.

Written by Steve Sharon, and directed by Buddy Van Horn, everything onscreen is handled competently enough, but it’s never asgood as it could be. The Dead Pool is every inch a Dirty Harry movie desperately trying to compete in a field already densely populated by numerous films that owe a hell of a lot to the 1971 original. I don’t think it’s pushing it to draw a direct line from Harry Callahan to characters like Martin Riggs, John McClane and Marion Cobretti. It’s clear that everyone involved with The Dead Pool wants to retain the essence of the main character while dragging him into the present (well . . . . . the late ’80s anyway), but it’s also clear that Callahan/Eastwood can’t keep getting away with the same schtick with so many upstarts keen to take his crown and go on, in turn, to inspire a new generation.

Unlike the previous four movies, this doesn’t have much in the way of thought-provoking ideas. There’s nothing here to show a counter-point to Harry’s actions, although there is plenty to reflect his attitude and show how he’s willing to move with the times, to a degree.

It’s still good to watch Eastwood in the main role, older and crankier, though no less effective at his job, but The Dead Pool remains a decent bit of fun today thanks to the supporting cast, and one or two enjoyably bizarre moments. Jim Carrey mimes along to a classic Guns ‘n’ Roses song (and the band members make a cameo appearance – keep your eyes peeled), Liam Neeson plays a stressed director with an English luvvy accent, Evan C. Kim keeps willing me to “concentwate” (okay, that might be just me, but it may also affect everyone else who knows him best from The Kentucky Fried Movie), and there are a couple of scenes involving small, radio-controlled cars that are as entertaining as they are ridiculous. And let’s not forget Patricia Clarkson, who puts in a decent performance as the journalist who wants to know more about Harry.

What about the villain? Well, that’s the other big problem for this movie. A lot of the film is set up as a bit of a whodunnit but a) it quickly becomes obvious who it ISN’T and b) nobody stands out enough to make a memorable villain anyway. Considering the perps that Harry has come up against in the past, that’s a great shame.

Despite many flaws, The Dead Pool remains a fun film. And, for the final Dirty Harry movie, I’ll take fun over any alternatives that could have been a lot worse.

DIRECTOR: BUDDY VAN HORN
WRITER: STEVE SHARON
STARS: CLINT EASTWOOD, LIAM NEESON, PATRICIA CLARKSON, EVAN C. KIM, DAVID HUNT, JIM CARREY
RUNTIME: 91 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: USA

Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

 

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