Thursday, November 27, 2008

"Deconstructing Harry" - Are the Dirty Harry films really the right-wing propaganda that they are presumed to be?

Since I am currently out of town until Sunday, I am offering this archival piece of film analysis. As part of my college portfolio, I did a relatively detailed deconstruction of the Dirty Harry films, arguing that their 'facist/right wing' propaganda reputation was not entirely justified. While this is work from over seven years ago, I think it still holds up. Please enjoy and I'll be back with more timely news after the break.

Scott Mendelson

“Dirty-ing” the Waters

“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.”

--- Clint Eastwood defends Dirty Harry in a 1974 interview for Playboy.

The Dirty Harry series, spanning from 1971 to 1988, contained five films, of varying quality, have been accused of everything from endorsing fascism to displaying racist caricatures. In reality, upon viewing these films in the thirteen years after their finale, all five pictures in fact contain a most moderate of philosophies. They neither whole-heartedly endorse a savage, police state-like environment nor do they actually believe in every platform of the Libertarian party. As Eastwood stated in the same interview as quoted above, the first Dirty Harry picture was “just the story of one frustrated police officer in a frustrating situation on one particular case.” Like real life, the films take different stands on different issues.

Opening in the fall of 1971, the original Dirty Harry was attacked from many circles as fascist, anti-peace, and racist. Still, it was a big hit; thanks to the star power of Clint Eastwood, the boasting an all-time classic villain (Andrew Robinson, the actor who portrayed Scorpio, was so deluged by hate-mail and the occasional death threat that he had to get an unlisted phone number), and the fact that, alleged politics aside, it was a very good action film. It would eventually spawn four sequels. Whether it actually fits any of the above labels is certainly a question that has been debated, but Eastwood and company spent the next three sequels trying to deal and answer to their critics in all three of these areas.

The charges of racism stem from the famous “Do you feel lucky punk?” robbery scene that concerns Harry stopping several black bank robbers from making a successful getaway. Is the very image, regardless of context, of a strong white man pointing a gun and smirking at a fallen black man racist on its own? Director Don Seigel and Eastwood were concerned about this potential reaction ahead of time, as the very next scene in the film has Harry being stitched up by a black doctor who had apparently been friends with Callahan for a long time (the scene was actually shot near the end of production with the 2nd assistant director playing the doctor). Even without this extra scene, if one looks closely at the bank job scene, one will notice something quite interesting. As Callahan slowly walks over to the wounded bank robber to make his classic threat, there are a couple dozen-window washers, painters, fellow cops, hot-dog vendors, and the like. Nearly all of these people are black. Throughout Dirty Harry, African Americans are portrayed as both good and evil. Black people are doctors, bank-robbers, painters, cops, and thugs who will beat someone up for money. Just like real life, people of color come in all colors.

Eastwood attempted to rectify this conception, true or otherwise, with the second film, Magnum Force (1973). Felton Perry, an African American, was cast as Harry’s newest doomed partner and the film included a scene where Harry and his partner shoot it out with a gang of racist convenience store robbers. Unfortunately, the film’s attempt at racial harmony was potentially undone by a long, extremely graphic scene of a stereotypical black pimp murdering one of his prostitutes by beating her and forcing her to drink Drano (an act which was duplicated by a group of thieves who decided to force their five bound and gagged victims to drink Drano before shooting them). For better or worse, it is this set piece that would be far more likely to stand out to a casual audience member, rather than the scenes of Detective Earthy enforcing the law alongside Inspector Callahan.

“Harry’s hippie adversary,” states Pauline Kael, referring to the original film’s Scorpio killer, “is pure evil.” “This monster--who actually wears a peace symbol—stands for everything the audience loathes and fears.” According to Kael and others, the character of Dirty Harry Callahan was a representative of the conservative champion of law and order, martyred with blood on his hands in his quest to rid the world of murderous hippie-scum and the liberals who would set them free. The two main pieces of evidence for this argument were Scorpios’ peace-sign belt buckle and his use of the signs of the Zodiac in relation to his killings. As for the belt-buckle, director Don Siegel has simply claimed that the peace sign simply symbolized “that no matter how vicious a person is, when he looks in the mirror he is still blind to what he truly is”. It is certainly worth noting that the character of the Scorpio was very heavily based on the Zodiac killer who was stalking San Francisco only a few years prior. Like the Scorpio, the never-apprehended Zodiac killer murdered according to astrology, sent taunting notes to the police, and even threatened to abduct a bus-full of schoolchildren (an act that occurs in the film’s climax). Throughout the film, Scorpio never once expresses any kind of political philosophy and was never intended to represent anything more than a sociopath.

Again, stung by this criticism, Eastwood dealt with this topic, as well as the aforementioned racial qualms, in the third film, The Enforcer (1976). The main plot, inspired by the Patty Hearst case, involves a group of homicidal thieves who masquerade as freedom-fighting hippie rebels robbing and killing for their own revolutionary cause. It is Callahan who sees through their false pretensions and he even consults and is aided by a group of militant black freedom fighters in his quest for justice. This, of course, kills two birds with a single stone; providing both an example of extremist, liberal political groups who can cooperate with the police and positive black characters to counter-balance the alleged racism of the first two films.

The most potent and common cry against the first Dirty Harry film is that it promoted vigilantism and fascists’ ideals. While Don Siegal claims the film does not condone Harry's behavior, the fact remains that the film is open to various interpretations; there is certainly evidence to support both sides. Whether the audience condones Harry’s behavior or not, the audience is certainly meant to feel outrage when Scorpio is set free on legal technicalities as a result of Harry’s apparently illegal search and seizure. We are also meant to at least feel some sense of satisfaction when Scorpio finally meets his violent end (of course that applies to 99% of all action films which celebrate the villain’s climactic death). And there is ample evidence to support Pauline Kael’s writings comparing Inspector Callahan to a Christ-like figure, met to suffer and shed blood to save us all from dregs of society, regardless of the rules and regulations of man. Not only do Harry and his partner first shoot it out with Scorpio while perched on the roof of a church, but also one should take notice of the scene where Callahan first confronts Scorpio face-to-face at the end of the ransom-payoff scene. Having been run all about town by the mysterious villain, Callahan is beaten to a pulp and nearly shot while standing in front of a giant cross. And what is one to make of the climactic scene, where Harry takes his badge and flings it into the river (an obvious homage to High Noon, where Gary Cooper feels a similar sense of abandonment and futility)? One could argue that this represents Callahan’s final admission of martyrdom, having sacrificed his life to a career enforcing law in a liberal society that was not willing to do what was necessary to keep order.

But those who would argue that Callahan was a fascist-wannabe are missing one major point. Throughout the entire film series, never, not once, does Callahan commit murder. Yes, he shoots and kills countless bad guys over seventeen years, but it is always either in self-defense or after a rogue has refused to surrender and poses a clear, present, and immediate threat (notice that Harry does not kill Scorpio until the villain goes for his gun). Never once does he cross that line into pure vigilantism. Every time he does violate procedure, there are consequences and Callahan is forced to enforce justice through proper legal methods, which he of course does. He may not like the strict rules and regulations that govern his line of work, but he does respect and attempt to follow them.

This is specifically dealt with in the second film, Magnum Force. The plot concerns a group of rogue police officers that runs amuck murdering countless criminals and thugs. “A man’s gotta know his limitations,” Callahan states in the climax as he confronts the leader of the badge-carrying death-squad. He fully acknowledges that there is a line that a cop cannot cross lest they become what they fight against. Callahan may dislike this or that rule or regulation, be he completely understands the need for rules and regulations lest there be only chaos. It is unfortunate that film number four, Sudden Impact (1983), has an out of character Callahan allowing a vigilante murderer, who has methodically killed the men who once raped her and her sister, to walk away unpunished while a deceased gang leader of takes the rap (one could argue that the film series was trying to broaden its appeal to women’s rights advocates). It is all the more appalling, as he seems motivated less by a slightly skewed sense of justice then by his feelings of lust for the female avenger in question (played by his then-wife Sandra Locke, who seemed to have an unusual habit of being sexually assaulted on camera in films she made with Eastwood).

Having run out of things to apologize for, the final episode, The Dead Pool (1988) is little more than a fun, light, exciting mystery flick with an almost cartoonish aura about it. Throughout the entire film, Callahan does not violate one rule or regulation during his investigation and the grittiness and general dark, pessimistic tone of the series is missing. Its portrayal of a sensationalistic media, however, could be a response to years of alleged misconceptions and hyperbole about the previous entries.

The original Dirty Harry was about something very simple. It is about a man who is in conflict between enforcing the law the way he thinks he should and the way he knows he must. In the end (remember, the film was not meant to have a sequel), Callahan realizes that he can no longer do his duty by the book and decides to walk away from the job before he truly crosses the line and dishonors the badge and his fellow officers. Like The Searchers, the hero of Dirty Harry realizes that his type of law enforcement is of little use in this more civilized world. In the finale, as he throws his badge into the bloody waters, Inspector Harry Callahan decides that he would prefer to become one martyr than create many.

NOTE: All pieces of trivia and quotes related to these films were taken from

Fun Trivia of no relevance to this essay: There is an interesting theory floating about, which is probably not true, that states that The Zodiac Killer was actually Ted Kasyinski before he became the Unabomber. Due to the conflicting personalities of the two serial killers (the Zodiac was one of the most confrontational serial killers to ever use a firearm while the Unabomber was the sort who preferred not to confront his victims directly and kill from afar), this is a highly unlikely possibility. Still, the timeline of Kasyinski’s life, in terms of important events, does match up with the timeline of the start and end of the Zodiac killings and the beginning of the mail bombings. Again, I highly doubt the accuracy of this idea, but it is a fun theory for those who enjoy urban legends.

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