Dirty Harry (1971)
Written by Harry Julian Fink, R.M. Fink, Jo Heims, and Dean Riesner
Directed by Don Siegel
We are incredibly easy to manipulate. If you go up to a random person in the United States and ask them about crime in the country, they will inevitably say that crime is on the rise. In general, that isn’t true. Crime has been plummeting throughout the U.S. since the 2000s. If you narrow it to specific crimes, you’ll get spikes in thefts & robberies, but violent crime is declining. That said, the United States still ranks #1 globally in violent crime and incarcerated citizens (there’s a cyclical connection going on there). But we must also consider what is categorized as a crime and what is not. Corporate wage theft is not considered a crime, and it is rampant in every corner of the country. Police violence is placed as the opposite of “crime” when it is one of the most egregious, naked displays of state-sponsored organized crime. The 1970s was an era of high crime, and in typical American fashion, reactionary thought led to dreams of “blow the brains away” of “sniveling punks.” The avatar of this shoot first, don’t even ask questions after mentality is, of course, “Dirty” Harry Callahan.
Harry (Clint Eastwood) is a loose cannon in the San Francisco police department. He finds a note left behind at the shooting death of a young woman by the killer, self-named Scorpio (Andy Robinson or Garak from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). Scorpio wants $100k, or he will do it again. The city agrees to pay much to the disgust of Harry, who manages to shoot some black youths who’ve just robbed a bank during his lunch break. Harry is assigned a new partner in the hope it will keep him in check, the inexperienced Chico Gonzalez, who, of course, can’t stomach the type of Justice Harry hands out. A back and forth begins as Harry and Scorpio work to stop the other. Harry is incensed at how modern laws protect Scorpio’s civil rights, and the detective decides to ignore them and brutalize the villain until ultimately killing him.
I’ve seen a trend in online arguments where reactionaries will “invent a guy.” This means they will construct a straw man argument or describe a person with a particular belief/stance that doesn’t align with reality. In doing this, they create justification for their own extreme beliefs, almost always centered around discarding civil rights and advocating for mass violence against the Others they perceive as problems. Dirty Harry did not create this ideology, but it certainly shaped and formed it into some crystalline and precise that bored itself into the American psyche. To watch Dirty Harry fifty years later is to understand how America reached the hellish depths it now resides in.
Dirty Harry is a distillation of fascism at its purest. Scorpio is an effeminate, psychotic murderer who experiences no remorse. He typically targets women and children, perceived by the fascists as needing their protection at all times. Scorpio is protected by civil rights laws that were relatively fresh on the books circa 1971. This would be like someone making a movie about a murderous gay couple in the wake of the same-sex marriage ruling seven years ago. While we never see Scorpio engage in homosexual behavior is coded that way in the performance. I think a lot of it was Andy Robinson’s natural rhythms and cadence, but he was cast with a specific type in mind. Harry is not just hunting down Scorpio; he’s engaged in ideological combat with the “liberals” and “bleeding hearts” at city hall. It should be noted that openly gay San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Harvey Milk was shot to death along with the mayor in 1978 in this very same city hall by a straight conservative white man who perceived himself and the city as being “overrun” by undesirable types.
Clint Eastwood has become so entangled with the character of Harry that for the culture at large, there is no difference between them. Eastwood seems to have leaned into this and embraced the perception of him as a common-sense type. I can’t say I’ve ever been particularly taken by his acting or directing work. I think Unforgiven is pretty good, but outside of that, his work exists for me as a rich source of sociological research. Eastwood is to the 1970s and forwards what John Wayne was to people from the 1960s back to the 1940s-ish. They are cultural avatars of reactionary masculinity, totems onto which disgruntled white men pin their desires and revenge fantasies. There are lesser members of that pantheon, Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, Gary Cooper, etc. But at the top of this pyramid are Eastwood and Wayne.
The world posited by the film Dirty Harry seems utterly bleak and not a place I’d desire to live. Every exterior day shot is soaked in an almost blinding light. The city is both idealized and overrun with crime; contradictions like this are the bread and butter of reactionary thought. The incoherence is part of what wraps itself around their minds, a puzzle without a solution that presses buttons of pure emotion. There’s no use in presenting data and reasoned arguments to a person like Harry. He sees his gun as the only valid form of communication, and even the Law he proclaims to want to uphold is an easily avoided inconvenience when he intends to act outside its boundaries. What does the Law even mean when you posit scenarios where the only way to enact “justice” is to supersede the Law? Law & Justice are often used interchangeably or paired together, but in the context of Dirty Harry, they don’t seem to mean the same thing.
I don’t think the cultural impact of Dirty Harry in the United States can be emphasized enough. He was not the only guy running around with a gun shooting “dirtbags,” but he was undoubtedly the most prominent one. The incoherent thought process here is behind such policies as the Patriot Act. That piece of legislation posed the question, “why would you be worried about your privacy being violated if you have nothing to hide?” It argued that such civil rights violations were warranted because the “good guys” were trying to stop the “bad guys.” The Fox drama 24 was one piece of media that picked up the reactionary torch and ran with it into the 21st century.
It’s worth noting that many white male “heroes” of the 1970s have been continued or rebooted into the 21st century. Rocky, Rambo, Shaft. Even Death Wish got a remake starring Bruce Wills. There have been talks about making a new Dirty Harry, but nothing has ever really come close. I think this is because the entire premise of Dirty Harry is so incendiary that it could only be done as a complete condemnation of the character or glorification. There’s honestly no middle ground in making a Dirty Harry film. There are four sequels, the last being released in 1988 as the Reagan era ended. That didn’t mean reactionary ideology was taking a backseat in the national conversation; instead, it was evolving into new insidious forms. Something as blunt as this character was too evident for the end goals of fascists.
If you are not an American or a younger person who has never seen this film, I can’t emphasize enough how this hangs over the nation like a phantom. It reflected thoughts and actions that simmered beneath the surface. The news and social media today show people spinning out of control, fueled by these same warped definitions of Justice. Too often, we mistake personal grievances for political platforms. Such thinking is literally getting people murdered, and the blood flows faster each day.