A serial killer known only by the alias: Scorpio is holding the city of San Francisco to ransom. On his tail is tough city cop Harry Callahan, whose style as a lawman have earned him the nickname: Dirty Harry. But Scorpio plays the law system against Harry, evading justice and turning Harry against his own establishment. As the threat of Scorpio increases Harry must go it alone to stop this deranged killer from further bloodshed.
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Arguably the best cop/criminal character study ever in the history of cinema. Dirty Harry is a film that engrosses, shocks and thrills you from start to finish. We see the justice system through the eyes of a dedicated police inspector and a twisted criminal mind capable of exploiting it. Some critics have deemed Callahan “a fascist” but this is simply not true. Callahan is a man devoted to justice far beyond his paycheck. A man willing to do whatever is required to protect innocent people from being killed. Even before the story gets going the camera shows us the names of real officers who have died in the line of duty.
Scorpio’s cold and calculated method of murder is shown to us early on. He is prepared (with a sniper rifle) and he is patient (killing in a well-timed single shot). Scorpio’s method brings to mind a hunter; only rather than shooting a deer he has a taste for human game. At the same time we know he is slightly inexperienced (Harry finds his empty bullet shells at the vantage point) allowing the police to trace his weapon. Andrew Robinson’s performance is disgustingly filthy, manic and messy, perfect as the thorn in Callahan’s side.
When you look at the character of Callahan on paper there is a danger that he’s as twisted as the killer he’s chasing effectively, canceling himself out. Perhaps in the hands of another actor this may have been the case. But Eastwood has a such a hold over his character that he can show the humanity in Harry. It’s true that we see Harry shoot an unarmed man and then torture him for information. But Eastwood plays out Harry’s conviction for saving the young hostage in a bold and honest manner full of genuine concern: “what about her rights?” Eastwood speaks the way we know the hostage’s parents would be doing at that same moment.
Another keen attention to detail is the physicality that Clint uses for Harry. Unlike a Mel Gibson or Bruce Willis cop who would be jumping and rolling around in a blaze of gunfire, Harry moves slightly with minimal gestures. But when he does move it’s the criminal that goes flying in the air and the criminal’s car that flips over! Clint shows us that his cop doesn’t need to move more than what is necessary because…he’s a professional. In fact, Harry uses his gun like a samurai would use a sword. It’s a simple yet sudden action that floors the opponent in one go.
What really makes Dirty Harry such a powerhouse of a film is the way that (unlike in most films based around single characters) he doesn’t change at the end of the film. This can be seen as a risky resolution but the reason it works is because Harry was right the whole time. Harry knew Scorpio was never going to be a criminal who could be rehabilitated: “You know he’s gonna kill again don’t you?” When asked why he was sure of this Harry replied: “…he likes it!”
In the final scene, Eastwood gives his “Do I feel lucky” speech again (this time for Scorpio) as a way to bookend and confirm Callahan as the righteous figure of justice. But this time Clint delivers the lines in a cold and deadly fashion to up the tension; last time the gun was empty but this time it isn’t! All this refection on Dirty Harry has made the author of this review want to go watch this movie again – Dirty Harry is essential viewing for anybody who loves movies!