Thursday, November 29, 2012

Brandon Peters returns! Brandon Peters dissects the Dirty Harry franchise part I: Dirty Harry (1971)

Previously in Mendelson's Memos...

"Did Brandon write about 24 (007) movies or 25? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I've kinda lost track myself. But being this is Mendelson’s Memos, the most powerful punditry in the world, and would blow your Blog clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question about the next retrospective: "Do I feel lucky?" Well do ya, punk?"

20 days later...

For those who enjoyed Brandon Peters's insanely exhaustive James Bond retrospective reviews, rejoice at his return to the world of franchise retrospectives.  This time around, it's a mere five picture, which span from 1971 to 1988.  Yup, it's the Dirty Harry franchise.  As always, I'll do my best to stay out of it (I wrote about the franchise in a film school paper back in 2001), but I implore you to not do the same.  Anyway, without further ado, into the world of Harry Callaghan we go!

Dirty Harry
Director: Don Siegel
Starring:  Clint Eastwood, Andy Robinson, John Vernon, Reni Santoni
Rated R

And now, after 25 Bond films, I’m doing the “one for me” retrospective.  Hopefully it can turn into a “one for you” too.  The Dirty Harry series is one of my favorite film franchises.  I’ve noticed there’s not a whole lot of retrospective analysis on the internet about a five film franchise spanning 17 years.  It’s likely because the series hasn’t had an entry since 1988.  There were some brief talks of a reboot in the last decade, but nothing came to fruition.  And quite frankly, Dirty Harry’s mark is so firmly implanted on the action hero that a reboot or return isn’t at all going to prove or do anything.  And if you really want that extra entry, you can pretend Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino is named Harry Callahan. 

Dirty Harry was the product of a script called Dead RightDead Right went through many studios, mediums, directors and actors before finally becoming the product we would come to know.   One of the rewrites came from now acclaimed director Terrence Malick.  Malick’s ideals for his story would later be used for the sequel, Magnum Force.  At one point it was slated to become a television movie, but the script was too violent in its nature.

The character was written with John Wayne for inspiration but the first casting call went to Frank Sinatra.  With Frank on board, Irvin Kershner was attached to direct.  Frank dropped out of the film because of a lingering wrist injury from shooting The Manchurian Candidate eight years prior along with a desire to shoot a lighter films following the death of his father.  When Sinatra left, so did Kershner.  John Wayne was offered the part he inspired, but turned it down because he didn’t want Frank Sinatra’s sloppy seconds.  Burt Lancaster was then offered the role and refused.  Steve McQueen was the next to turn it down.  Paul Newman turned it down but strongly suggested Warner Bros consider Clint Eastwood for the role.  Eastwood loved the script and brought on Don Siegel to direct.

The film’s title character is a widowed cop married to upholding the law any way necessary.  If extreme measures are needed to save a life or stop a crime, Harry Callahan will take them.  Eastwood’s portrayal is extremely that of a cold, bigoted man who refuses to let anyone or thing stand in his way.  But, he’s also good to those who don’t cross him or choose to follow him.  The morals and tactics with which Harry goes to bring justice was the source of much controversy upon the release of the film.  However, the film’s authority figures do not condone his actions and treat them as by the book.  I don’t think the film is trying to speak for every case, but trying to show in particular that in this case Harry’s tactics become necessary.  A lot of the discussion was about Harry not respecting a person’s rights, however none of it was about how much a complete nut job could take advantage of said rights.  I personally choose not to get into that at all, and see the film as a piece of entertainment, of good vs evil.  And this is also was Eastwood and Siegel saw it when making it.  There’s a lot of fun to have with this character and apparently the majority saw him as a positive as his legacy has carried on through films still to this day.

The villain, whose rights are in question, is Scorpio (in a surprisingly not star-making role for Andy Robinson).  The basis for Scorpio’s actions was the Zodiac Killer, who at the time was a current event still ongoing.  He’s just a crazed loon who goes out sniping innocent and random victims, asking for $100,000 from the police.  After 3 murders and a kidnapped girl buried alive with precious time left, Harry breaks into his residence to hurry up and get the location of the girl before time runs out.  As it turns out, the girl is already dead, and without a warrant and Harry’s torture, Scorpio is set free.  Harry stalks him, but in only a crazy kinda smart way, Scorpio pays to have himself viciously beaten to blame on Callahan.  He later does something Zodiac only threatened to do, and hijacks a bus full of children.  Harry once again takes it into his own hands to track him down and finish him off.

Scorpio and Harry kind of parallel each other, making the head to head match up only more engaging.  Scorpio is a little, scrawny, sloppily dressed man who is always flailing as he moves and carries a big gun that he uses at long range so nobody can see him.  Harry is tall, carries himself well, walks smoothly and carries a personal weapon, the magnum.  His attack methods are also always up close, in your face and out in the open.  The two couldn’t be perfect opposites.  Scorpio takes advantage of the law to get away with his crimes while Harry breaks it to uphold justice.  And in the end, Scorpio holds a child hostage hesitant to pull the trigger, while Harry isn’t afraid to take the shot at Scorpio with the kid in the way.

This is a well directed and photographed film.  There are bunch of beautiful aerial shots. The night scenes in the movie are very dark at times, to where you can’t really see what’s going on, but it somehow works and doesn’t remove you from the film.  And at times, it looks and feels like a horror film where you’re following the slasher as the hero.  The film features original and unique action sequence with pretty much every one being a highlight worthy piece.  The known action set piece is the bank robbery where Harry first spouts his famous speech (“Do you feel lucky? Well do ya, punk?”).  It also features Fred Williamson who we’ll later see in other entries (in different roles).  The scene clearly and successfully establish what not only a great sleuth, but what a great bad ass Harry is.  Another favorite is the money drop-off scene (later redone in Die Hard With A Vengeance), where Harry must go payphone to payphone within a certain amount of time to get the next destination to drop off the money.  Along the way he comes across many obstacles almost preventing him from getting to the phone in time.  By today’s standards these aren’t huge, blow up your speakers, action pieces.  However, they still work in spades with their violence and suspense.

The score of the film is from Lalo Schifrin (the man who brought you the Mission: Impossible theme).  And at times it sounds like the inspiration for Super Fly and time the inspiration for Friday the 13th.  It’s a pretty good, above average score.  The score is at times very complimentary and at times just there.

Dirty Harry is one of my absolute favorite films of all time.  If you’re a younger film geek and you’ve not yet explored this series (or maybe never heard of it), check this one out.  And, hey, go through this series with me.  We can discuss stuff in the comments section.  The film is compelling crime drama, with an engaging central character, great villain and suspenseful plot.  The film can raise important debate topics if you want or be sheer entertainment.  When I first saw the film I was highly amused at the overly bad ass Harry, but in subsequent viewings over the years I’ve seen this film as so much more (especially since I grew up with it on VHS and the advent of DVD/Blu-ray allowing us to see the beautiful photography in all its intended glory).


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1 comment:

Andrew said...

I specifically rewatched Dirty Harry because Andrew Robinson played Garek in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (where he pretty much stole every scene he was in) so I imagined Harry chasing around a Cardassian the whole time.


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