12. Dirty Harry (1971)

Roger's Rating :

Should be :

In his 1971 review Roger writes "The movie clearly and unmistakably gives us a character who understands the Bill of Rights, understands his legal responsibility as a police officer, and nevertheless takes retribution into his own hands. Sure, Scorpio is portrayed as the most vicious, perverted, warped monster we can imagine -- but that's part of the same stacked deck. The movie's moral position is fascist. No doubt about it."
The movie and Harry have issues with the individual rights of the suspect vs. the rights of society as a whole. In the movie a psycho is holding a fourteen year old girl for ransom. He said her oxygen is going to run out in a certain amount of time. When Harry finally catches up to him he steps on his wounded leg when the psycho won't tell him where the girl is. After the girl is pulled up from the ground, raped and dead, he has the following conversation with the DA :
DA Rothko: A very unusual piece of police work. Really amazing.
Harry Callahan : Yeah. I had some luck.
DA: You’re luck I’m not indicting you for assault with intent to commit murder.
Harry Callahan : What?
DA : Where the hell does it say that you’ve got a right to kick down doors, torture suspects, deny medical attention and legal counsel? Where have you been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? I mean, you must have heard of the Fourth Amendment. What I’m saying is that man had rights.”
Harry Callahan: Well, I’m all broken up over that man’s rights!
DA : You should be. I’ve got news for you, Callahan. Soon as he’s well enough to leave the hospital, he walks.
Harry : What are you talking about?
DA : He’s free!
Harry ; You mean you’re letting him go?
DA : We have to. We can’t try him.
Harry : And why is that?
DA : Because I’m not wasting a half million dollars of the taxpayers on a trial we can’t possibly win. The problem is we don’t have any evidence.
Harry : Evidence? What the hell do you call that?
DA : I call it nothing. Zero.
Harry : Are you trying to tell me Ballistics can’t match the bullet up to this rifle?
DA : It does not matter what ballistics can do. This rifle might make a nice souvenir. But it’s inadmissible as evidence.
Harry : Who says that?
DA : It’s the law.
Harry : Well, then the law is crazy.
And anyone who doesn't believe the law is crazy in this case is crazy themselves. The movie was obviously a protest against the Supreme Court's Miranda rights decision in 1966. Guilty people were getting off because of technicalities. The people making the movie, possibly pushing a conservative agenda, were protesting against this. But fascist? To me fascist is a dirty word. It is associated with racism, genocide and Hitler. Because someone has an issue with societal rights vs. individual rights he is a fascist? I don't think so. I just think the movie opens up some interesting philosophical discussions.

After the psycho killer is released because of technicalities, Harry continues to follow him because he knows he will strike again. Harry puts his personal welfare and job security at risk to do the right thing - to protect the public. Harry is an American hero. In the movie following this one, Magnum Force, Harry has a dialogue with his renegade captain :
Harry : What I can’t understand is why you of all people?
Briggs : A hundred years ago in this city, people did the same thing. History justified the vigilantes, we’re no different. Anyone who threatens the security of the people will be executed. Evil for evil, Harry. Retribution.
Harry : That’s just fine, But how does murder fit in? When the police start becoming their own executioners where’s it going to end, Briggs? Pretty soon you start executing people for jaywalking. And executing people for traffic violations. Then you end up executing your neighbor because the dog pisses on your lawn.
Briggs : There isn’t one man that we’ve killed that didn’t deserve what was coming to him.
Harry : Yes there is. Charlie McCoy.
Briggs : What would you have done.
Harry : I would have upheld the law.
Briggs : What the hell do you know about the law? You’re a great cop, Harry. You had a chance to join the team, but you’d rather stick to the system.
Harry : Briggs, I hate the goddam system. But until someone comes along with some changes that make sense, I’ll stick with it.
Harry doesn't agree with the law that will let criminals go, but until something better comes along he is going to stick with it. Not exactly a fascist point of view. In an interview with Playboy in 1974 Clint Eastwood responded to the charges of fascism.
Playboy: Aren't you concerned about the rights of the killer- or those accused of killing?
Eastwood: There's a reason for the rights of the accused, and I think it's very important and one of the things that make our system great. But there are also the rights of the victim. Most people who talk about the rights of the accused have never been victimized; most of them probably never got accosted in an alley. The symbol of justice is the scale, and yet the scale is never balanced; it falls to the left and then it swings too far back to the right. That's the whole basis of Magnum Force, the sequel to Dirty Harry. These guys on the police force form their own elite, a tough inner group to combat what they see as opposition to law and order. It's remotely based on a true case, that Brazilian police death squad. It's frightening.
Playboy: When Dirty Harry came out, it was accused of being "a fascist masterpiece." Did you expect the same thing to happen with Magnum Force?
Eastwood: No, I expected some people might call it a left-wing fantasy. Which I don't think it is. I don't think Dirty Harry was a fascist picture at all. It's just the story of one frustrated police officer in a frustrating situation on one particular case. I think that's why police officers were attracted to the film. Most of the films that were coming out at that time, in 1972, were extremely anti-cop. They were about the cop on the take, you know. And this was a film that showed the frustrations of the job, but at the same time, it wasn't a glorification of police work. Although some police department in the Philippines, I understand, asked for a 16-millimeter print of Dirty Harry to use as a training film.
Playboy: Did you get many letters from policemen after Harry?
Eastwood: Yeah, I got letters. Still do. I'm asked to speak before police groups, women-police-officers' organizations. But I haven't accepted any of those requests, because I don't claim to be an expert on law enforcement.
Playboy: At the end of the film, when Harry throws away his badge, is that a statement of contempt for his superiors? Something like what happened in High Noon, when Gary Cooper tossed his badge into the dust as a symbol of his disgust with the townspeople who didn't support him?
Eastwood: Cooper asked for support from the town that he had served so well, and they ended up crapping on him. But Harry wasn't saying the community as a whole had crapped on him, just the political elements of the city. The situation in another of my pictures, High Plains Drifter, is more like that in High Noon. That community didn't want to get involved, either. They weren't totally evil, they were just complacent, and they just sat back and let their marshal get whipped to death. It's a sort of comment on the thing that's very current today, of not wanting to get involved. Like the Kitty Genovese case a few years back, when something like 38 people witnessed this girl being murdered and not one of them so much as called the police.
Playboy: What would you do if you saw a women being beaten up in the street?
Eastwood: I don't know. I would hope that I would, at a minimum, raise the telephone and notify the police. At a maximum, wipe the guy out. I mean, people are capable of heroic action in life, but nobody knows what he'd do before the occasion arises. I'm sure that prior to World War Two, Audie Murphy never thought of himself as a war hero.
The fascist brush is an ugly thing to be painted with and I think Roger owes the director : Don Siegel, the writers : Harry Julian Fink, Rita M. Fink, Dean Riesner and John Milius and the star : Clint Eastwood, apologies for trying to portray them as something they so obviously are not. And by the way Roger, in AFI's Poll of Heroes and Villains, Dirty Harry was ranked as the 17th highest Screen Hero, just above Robin Hood and Virgil Tibbs!


Juanfran said...

I found this blog right now, years later, so I don't expect you to read it, but I feel like saying something anyway.

I wouldn't go as far as to call the movie fascist, but it certainly has a reactionary message. I don't think Ebert was the first critic to use the word, but what I'm sure of is that he wasn't the only one: Pauline Keller was the most influencial critic back then and she applied the same adjective to the film.

What I mostly object to your comment is the way you use Magnum Force as an argument against the review. First of all, because obviously neither Ebert nor anyone else could have seen that film then, it didn't exist. But also because Magnum Force was clearly made as a response to those accusations that Harry Callahan (that is, Eastwood) had faced. It was a way of saying: 'you all got it wrong about me'.

Dirty Harry is a movie classic and Don Siegel was a wonderful, underrated director. We can judge it now from a distance and be more benevolent about the whole idea behind it, but at the same time we could argue that it paved the way for other examples of (this time without a doubt) of fascist films such as the Death Wish series, very prominent specially throughout the Reagan era.

Again, I don't put Dirty Harry in the same category. But we have to be fair.

User said...

"Fascist" films are awesome, given the politically correct nonsense we face.

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