DIRTY HARRY: Don’t Let Your College Degree Get You Killed

Dirty HarryDirty Harry (1971) – Directed by Don Siegel – Starring Clint Eastwood, Andy Robinson, Harry Guardino, Reni Santoni, John Mitchum, and John Vernon.

“I know what you’re thinking: “Did he fire six shots, or only five?” Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well do ya, punk?” – Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan

DIRTY HARRY takes the gunslinger and recasts him as the individualistic cop for the contemporary era. No longer just out for himself, the gunslinger now works for the good of everyone inside the system, yet it’s his dissatisfaction with that system that allows him to keep his gunslinger street cred.

The scene quoted above is the most cowboy scene in the entire film, establishing Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) as a modern ‘slinger. He’s sitting in a diner while a bank is being robbed across the street. Still chewing his hot dog, he heads outside, diagonally crosses the intersection, and starts blowing bad guys away. Importantly, Callahan has someone else call for back-up and then when the back-up arrives, Callahan walks away, leaving the uniformed cops with the clean-up.

Like many people in the general public, I knew of Dirty Harry Callahan more than I knew about DIRTY HARRY. I’ve probably seen bits and pieces of every movie in the series, but Dirty Harry is such an iconic character that I feel like I knew him more than I actually did. The fifth movie in the series, THE DEAD POOL, is the only movie I can remember watching, because it’s the only movie released during my own contemporary viewing habits. Of all the movie genres out there, the cop/crime movie comes pretty far down my list of favorites. As a rule, I prefer crime movies from the criminals point of view more than from the cop’s point of view.

That last comment is not prelude to me telling you I was disappointed in DIRTY HARRY because that would be far from the truth. This is a rock solid movie, albeit one that doesn’t quite match its reputation. DIRTY HARRY is like Bullitt and Death Wish in that regard – we hear about “Do you feel lucky?” and the famous car chase and the gun-crazy vigilante/killer and a cultural truth gets built up about these movies, a truth that is largely revealed false when you actually watch the films. Dirty Harry is not some kind of untouchable, lone wolf super cop, Bullitt is not a balls-out action romp, and Death Wish isn’t about the Punisher.

All of these movies take their time and are as much character studies as crime films. It can make watching them both incredibly rewarding and disconcerting, depending on how you want reality to match up with expectations.

In San Francisco, a serial killer calling himself Scorpio (Andy Robinson) uses a sniper rifle to kill a woman in a rooftop pool. Inspetor Callahan is assigned the case and he arrives on the scene chewing gum and exuding an easy confidence. The best part of Eastwood’s performance is how he slowly turns up the pressure on Callahan, with that easy confidence and cocksure attitude slowly giving way to anger and confusion as the film unfolds, and then returns at the end to confidence when he takes Scorpio out after the law has failed to keep the serial killer locked away.

At the core of DIRTY HARRY is the issue of a person’s rights – the rights of the accused versus the rights of the victims. HARRY takes a somewhat easy way out in this regard as there is no question – in his mind, in our mind, in anyone’s mind – that Scorpio is the killer. The result is that we’re clearly set up to see this film completely from the point of view of a frustrated cop who feels let down by the system, and not from a falsely accused individual.

What’s striking is that despite Harry being the bad-ass cop and a bit of a department rogue (why they call him “Dirty” Harry is a running talking point through the film), everyone is on his side. His Lieutenant and the Chief of Police are on his side. When he goes to the see the Mayor (John Vernon) at the start of the investigation, the Mayor is on his side. When he chastises Callahan about an incident from the previous year, Callahan replies, “When an adult male is chasing a female with intent to commit rape, I shoot the bastard; that’s my policy.”

“Intent?” the Mayor asks. “How did you establish that?”

“When a naked man is chasing a woman through an alley with a butcher knife and a hard-on, I figure he isn’t out collecting for the Red Cross.”

Callahan leaves, but once he’s out of the room, the Mayor admits, “I think he’s got a point.”

Even when the District Attorney has to let Scorpio walk out of jail because Callahan violated the perp’s right, he’s on Callahan’s side, too, telling him that he doesn’t want Scorpio back out on the street any more than Callahan does, but since the cop violated Scorpio’s rights by not reading his miranda rights and “torturing” him (stepping on his injured leg to get information about the location of a kidnapped girl), the DA has to let him out. He’s even brought in a judge to verify his conclusions.

Callahan is disgusted by this, arguing, “What about the girl’s rights? Who’ll speak for her?”

“I will,” the DA tells him, “so long as you let me do my job.”

Harry Callahan

Creating in the immediate post-1960s era and in the middle of the Vietnam War, DIRTY HARRY is clearly struggling with what the country was struggling with – the sense that “the system” wasn’t working anymore and that the “old normal” was being replaced by a “new normal” that no one had quite figured out, yet. DIRTY HARRY is framed by images of the San Francisco Police Department. The opening images are of a wall of remembrance for San Francisco cops that have lost their lives in the line of duty, and the last scene of the film sees Callahan killing Scorpio and then tossing his badge into the same body of water. It’s a highly symbolic act, equating the system with the criminal as Callahan, in essence, kills both of them.

Make no mistake, Callahan tossing away his badge is an indictment against the country itself. Americans have long embraced and celebrated the idea of the individualistic spirit, and Callahan killing Scorpio on his own time, without the support (or knowledge) of his superiors, and then tossing away his badge is the gunslinger tossing away the idea of his willing capitulation to the system. This isn’t a total rejection of government or nation, but of the operation of government; Callahan isn’t like the conspiratorial nutters today who think Obama is out to take their guns away, as evidence by the fact that everyone in the movie in a position of power above him is on his side. No, this is a rejection of the way the system has (in Callahan’s eyes) put the rights of the criminal over the rights of the victimized.

In Callahan’s eyes, when the system lets the victimized down, it’s okay for the gunslinger to shed his official status as an officer of the system and act on his own.

As the Mayor might say, “I think he’s got a point.”

3 thoughts on “DIRTY HARRY: Don’t Let Your College Degree Get You Killed

  1. Dirty Harry came in the wake of a number of decisions such as Miranda that freaked a lot of people out, so it’s definitely a reflection of that.
    IScorpio’s scheme of burying a kidnap victim alive was based on a real sixties case (which also inspired The Longest Night and 72 Hours Until Dawn).


  2. Y’know, not to get political but I’m about as liberal as you can get. I’m a pacifist and a vegetarian so you would think I would hate this movie. But honestly, I love it. I just get such a visceral thrill out of it, and Eastwood rocks this movie. He really owns the role.
    However, as much as I like this one I prefer MAGNUM FORCE. It’s Harry wrangling with his one morals. It’s the movie where Harry, and the audience, realizes that while yes Harry is justified there is a line he can not and will not cross. I like that idea a lot.


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