action movie freak    
Original Dirty Harry poster




"I know what you're thinking . . . "

(1971) Director: Don Siegel

The movie opens with a scrolling of the names of  fallen police officers on a memorial . . .

. . . But it's all about Clint! (In case you don't get that from the poster, which makes it look like the name of the movie is "Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry".) Eastwood appears as his name comes on screen in an above-the-line credit. Clint Eastwood is "Inspector 'Dirty Harry' Callahan", a renegade cop with an overdeveloped sense of justice. In this the-ends-justifies-the-means opus, he is let loose on San Francisco to bring down an alarmingly sick individual [as creepy a movie villain (for his time) as Hannibal Lechter], who is killing the innocent.

Callahan is a big weapon carrying a bigger one. The credits should have read:  Introducing the .44 Magnum! "The most powerful handgun in the world." Big man, big gun, big attitude. It's really all an Action Movie needs, provided he's allowed to use them. And it's not like they can stop him—you gotta love that!

Callahan is investigating the murder of a young woman who was shot while swimming in a high-rise rooftop pool. He finds the shooter's perch, and a note left to the City of San Francisco demanding $100,000 or the killer will kill one person every day until the money is paid (the note says he'll kill a priest or an 'n-word'). . . and just six minutes into the movie (thanks Syd Field) we have the set up: Callahan has to stop the killer before he kills again. [If more scriptwriters followed Field's simple construct, we'd have a more rewarding movie experience (instead of being confused for forty-five minutes to an hour before you figure out what the movie's about and begin to care).]

The killer signs the note "Scorpio". (Probably inspired by the Zodiac killer who terrorized San Francisco in the late 1960s.)  The actor playing the part is Andy Robinson. He is so creepy and so good in the role, it followed him. According to an interview with Robinson: "In the business, once you get associated with a character as defining and as strong as the Scorpio killer, people don't want to hire you for the good guy . . .. I was so identified with that one particular 'heavy' because . . . it was the first of its kind." Robinson is modest, crediting the role and not his performance of it. Robinson should have gotten an award for this part, but Action Movies never get the recognition they deserve.

Scorpio's note is then read by the Mayor who is meeting with Callahan's boss and the Chief of Police. The Mayor has decided they will not pay, but will put an ad in the paper, as instructed, to stall. Callahan is left outside in the reception area. When he's finally called in and the Mayor asks what he's been doing, Callahan answers (with attitude) that "for the past three-quarters of an hour I've been sitting on my ass in your outer office, waiting on you". Clearly, Callahan doesn't have much respect for authority (an Action Movie standard), and feels he was wasting precious time over protocol. Plus, he has a shaky relationship with his boss—His boss interrupts Callahan's answers several times to give his own answers to questions the Mayor asked. Callahan wants to handle things his way but the Mayor tells Callahan he doesn't want to have a repeat of the way Callahan handled the last incident he was involved in (he blew the suspect away). When you hear Callahan explain it, he was clearly in the right, and you begin to be on his side. You also see that it's going to be Callahan's methods versus the police department's and the law.

In the next scene, on his way to a greasy spoon ("Burger Den") for lunch, Callahan spots a car parked in front of a bank, engine running. (A tell-tale sign it's been there a while is the chain-smoking driver's cigarette butts on the street, something the observant detective notices in passing.) Callahan parks his car, enters Burger Den (MOVIE TRIVIA: the movie on the marquee in the theater nearby is another Eastwood movie  Play Misty For Me), is greeted by name, and orders "the usual". The cook asks "The usual lunch or the usual dinner?" Callahan answers "Well, what difference does it make?" Apparently Callahan eats the same thing for both: a jumbo hot dog. (A man with regular habits and a down-to-earth palate. This kind of man can be relied on.) While the cook gets it for him, Callahan asks the cook if the car is still there. He tells the cook to call the police department and say there is a "two-eleven in progress". Telling himself to wait for backup to arrive, Callahan takes his first enormous bite of his jumbo hot dog, but then the bank alarm sounds, and he has to go out alone. He walks into the street to investigate, gun drawn, still chewing the hot dog. (I LOVE THAT! What a bad ass.) A cowboy walking calmly into chaos with a cannon.

The bank robbers come out and shots are fired (they fire first). Callahan's gun is such a cannon that one bullet takes out anyone he hits. He gets the first robber, but misses the second who then dives into the getaway car. The car speeds straight for him but Callahan stays rooted to the spot—cool as a cucumber—and shoots the driver but misses the second robber, and the car wrecks. The second robber gets out of the car and tries to run for it. One shot: Callahan takes him down. At this point, Callahan  notices he's been shot in the leg (buckshot by the look of the blood pattern and the fact that Callahan didn't even flinch: nice contrast to the stopping power of the .44 bullet). He just keeps walking, no limp, and goes to stand over the first wounded robber in front of the bank door, gun still drawn and the (VERY BIG) barrel aimed at the camera.  This is the iconic shot from this movie, and often imitated after.

The robber seems as if he's going to try to grab for his gun, which has fallen within reach on the sidewalk. I like to think he didn't think of it before (grabbing his gun and shooting at Callahan as he approached) because until he saw Callahan's face, he felt it was over.  The robber probably took one look at Dirty Harry and thought he was about to be shot, so then he thought about grabbing his weapon.  What we hear next is ACTION MOVIE HISTORY:

I know what you're thinking . . . did he fire 6 shots or only 5? Well, to tell you the truth in all this excitement, I've kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you gotta ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"

The robber backs down but tells Callahan he has to know (whether or not he had a bullet left), and how Callahan shows him is by firing. That's cold! But it lets you know that Callahan knew exactly how many shots he fired. He's just playing with the perp. He stone faced pulls the trigger, then laughs and walks away. You have to marvel at the stones it took to walk over there knowing his gun was empty.

It takes a 'dirty' cop to clean up a dirty mess, and the Mayor's refusal to pay the ransom creates one. They give us lots of reasons why Callahan is  called "Dirty" Harry.

The first is a joke—"Harry hates everybody". This scene was not meant to imply Harry is racist, rather that he's a loner (self-reliant), and as a little hazing for his new (Mexican) partner. (Later when he's being treated for the wound in his leg, they show Callahan's doctor is African American and that they are friends—the doctor mentions the neighborhood they both grew up in, and we learn Harry was married.)

The second is that Harry might be a pervert. "I just had another thought . . . about why they call you 'Dirty' Harry". This is a funny scene as Callahan is thought to be a peeping Tom. He isn't though, as the garbage can he is standing on gets knocked out from under him before he sees anything, so we don't know for sure if he would have looked anyway. The topless 'lady' in question, "Hot Mary" is rather heavy, and runs to the window to look out without covering herself, then pulls the shade on not one but two windows! (You can't 'peep' on an exhibitionist.)  Just before they ended up outside Hot Mary's window, Callahan and his new partner "Chico Gonzalez" were on patrol in what is surely the seedy part of town. He remarks, and his partner agrees, that he'd like to put a net over the whole thing to round up all the crazies. Gives you an idea what the cops are up against.

The third, Harry delivers himself:  "Now you know why they call me 'Dirty' Harry: Every dirty job that comes along". Callahan is called to talk down a jumper, and rides up to the rooftop ledge on a cherry picker.  He's hardly sympathetic. In fact, he doesn't try to be nice at all. He's such a "rotten bastard" to the guy that he pisses him off to the point that he tries to punch Callahan. So Callahan knocks him out and brings him down, further demonstrating Callahan's got his own way of doing things.  [This scene was copied but kicked up a notch later in Lethal Weapon for Mel Gibson. ]

The fourth, his partner comes up with: "He always gets the shit end of the stick."

The City does not intend to pay Scorpio and they try to stall. Of course, their stalling tactic doesn't work, and their method cost more lives. When he sees their reply in the paper, Scorpio tries to kill an African-American man on the street. Thwarted from this by a daytime helicopter patrol, Scorpio's second victim is a young boy (also 'African-American' as promised in his note). Callahan thinks Scorpio's going to kill a priest as well anyway but under cover of night this time, so he and Gonzalez wait for him on another rooftop near the church where he was spotted earlier. [This scene makes you realize how useful night vision goggles will be.] Harry (and the movie audience) now gets to peep a little as there is some more gratuitous female nudity that distracts Callahan long enough to let the killer get onto the roof.  This scene shows us he's a man and can't help but look, but also what he says makes us realize it's probably been a long time since he's seen a woman naked, and that means he's probably still grieving and/or works too much (both of which make him more likeable).  After a gun battle between Clint and Scorpio (Scorpio has an automatic weapon but Callahan uses a
.458 (Winchester) Magnum rifle which can "stop an elephant" and has one hell of a recoil), Scorpio gets away and a police officer on the ground is killed in the process. 

photograph of Barbara Jane Mackle with Kidnapped sign

Now Scorpio is really mad. He kidnaps a 14-year-old girl and threatens to kill her by 3:00 AM if he doesn't get the money. With two more dead and a clock started, the City finally comes up with the money, which Scorpio has doubled ($200,000).  Callahan's sure that even if they find the girl in time, she will already be dead, but he agrees to be the bag man. Stupidly, the Inspector's orders are for Callahan to go alone and he refuses to let Gonzalez tail Callahan.

The kidnapping was no doubt based on the Barbara Jane Mackle kidnapping dubbed "the girl in the box", the most shocking crime of its time (December 1968), predating the Manson murders by 8 months (August 1969). The idea of being buried alive while the kidnappers waited for the ransom, and the thought that she wouldn't be found in time and would die was horrific for the time (and now, but now we've been desensitized by worse). This photo looks tame, but at the time it created feelings as deep as only the most graphic photos can today). Luckily, the real-life girl was rescued alive after 3 days.1

Scorpio sends Callahan on a wild goose chase just to make sure he is alone. He isn't. His partner (off duty) is following, and hears what's going on on a wire. Since they wouldn't let Gonzalez come along on the delivery, Callahan's method was to get the boss to give Gonzalez the night off, and then the two work together anyway. You gotta love Callahan's do-it-my-way/get-it-done methods! On his run from phone booth to phone booth (just try to find one of those these days), Callahan almost gets mugged/robbed, and he is propositioned. San Francisco sure seems 'alive' at night: what with peeping toms in alleys, muggers in tunnels, and necking kids and desperate (?) gay men in parks . . .

Arriving in the nick of time to save Callahan's life, Gonzalez shoots at Scorpio. Scorpio fires back and gets stabbed in the leg by Callahan.  This is an epic moment as Scorpio squeals like a stuck pig. [Do you need further proof that you can find ANYthing on YouTube?]  Gonzalez is wounded and ends up in the hospital. Scorpio escapes but leaves behind the money. Harry ends up paired with "Frank 'Fatso' DiGiorgio".

Callahan catches a lucky break when the doctor in the emergency room, who treated Scorpio for his knife wound, remembers that Scorpio lives in a nearby stadium. Callahan hunts Scorpio down . . . like a dog! Finally tracking him onto the football field, just as "Fatso" turns the stadium lights on, Callahan takes aim and "BAM", shoots that cannon and down goes Scorpio. Next, Callahan steps on Scorpio's wound (he barely knicked his bad leg) to try to get him to tell him where the girl is.  You can bet he tells, all the while screaming about his rights. (Escobedo v. Illinois was 1964 and Miranda 1966. By this time there was some backlash over criminals getting over on technicalities.2 A theme further explored in the 2nd movie in the Dirty Harry series, Magnum Force.)

The movie takes another turn as the City cannot try Scorpio because Callahan illegally entered and searched his domicile, and then tortured him while questioning him. Callahan takes himself off the case but 'stalks' Scorpio. This was before stalking was defined and it would have been considered surveillance (however when it's Callahan, it's stalking).  The most epic stalking moment that drives Scorpio over the edge is when, after taking a bus full of school children hostage, he heads to a place where he thinks he's getting away, only to spot Callahan waiting on and overpass. 

He's jumps on top of the bus as it passes under, and there is an exciting, dangerous, and protracted chase, but in the end, Callahan prevails and we are once again in the "Do I feel lucky" stage for the 'punk' killer.  This time, however, the killer goes for the gun. He just seems so crazy or full of hate, there's no being arrested for him. He takes the choice away from Callahan, and dies. Callahan holsters his weapon after firing and takes out his police credentials.  He takes his badge out of the holder and after staring at it for a while, tosses it really far.

The moral of the story is: never drop the gun—drop the suspect! The movie began with the symbolic badge, then "I know what you're thinking . . .", and ends with "I know what you're thinking . . .", then Callahan flinging his badge (hard) into the river3   It's as if he's thinking the job's not worth dieing for.


Great Dirty Harry locations site: San Francisco is a star in the movie. The cinematography gives a sense of scale.

1 I remember this particularly because she was from my hometown, but also because I can never forget that photograph.

2 "By the early 1970s, there was a backlash to the liberal jurisprudence of the 1960s. The Supreme Court lost Earl Warren, who was replaced by Warren Burger. The country was split over the war (Vietnam 1959-1974). And so there came increasing calls for a crack down on crime and subsequently the development of a national model of crime suppression."

3I always wondered why Inspector Callahan is number 71 but his badge number is 2211.



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