Does anyone remember Dirty Harry? The 50th anniversary of the first movie came and went recently. We didn’t notice any fanfare for the five-film series. We didn’t see a retrospective of the movies advertised on streaming services. Clint Eastwood didn’t trend on our Twitter feed.
We’re not surprised the franchise lies dormant. Dirty Harry is radioactive for today’s movie establishment. The biggest cop series in the 1970s speaks to our time, but would Hollywood let Dirty Harry on screen today? In this cancel culture? Nah. The raw attitude of this San Francisco cop doesn’t go with the softer, fantasy-based approach of modern Hollywood.
The movies are already made. Hollywood could celebrate them to sell copies. Why don’t they? Is the series too old-school for our tastes? When you consider ultra-violent films from the 1970s that have been remade in our era, from Death Wish to Straw Dogs, it makes no sense that Dirty Harry should be ignored. Clint Eastwood’s franchise was tame, even traditional in comparison with those films. There were grittier spectacles in 1970s cinema from Scorcese. Dirty Harry had little blood and gore and rarely a visible gunshot wound.
Would Hollywood let Dirty Harry on screen today? In this cancel culture? Nah.
A lot of films from the 1970s are socially backward when viewed today. Was the character of Dirty Harry, a white cop, a blatant symbol of the patriarchy (or something)? Actually, Harry Callahan was not an establishment guy. He was a rank-and-file police detective usually getting chewed out by his superiors. Harry wasn’t an authority figure or even a homeowner. He was a relative loner grieving the loss of his wife while policing crime-ridden San Francisco.
As far as being an old, tone-deaf franchise best left canceled, Dirty Harry is surprisingly modern in the areas of race and equality. Despite being conceived 50 years ago, the series is progressive in both its casting and its message. The filmmakers clearly recognized the importance of diversity in an increasingly multicultural society. Eastwood and crew made the hiring of minorities and women a key plot point in the choice of Harry’s detective partners.
It begins in the first Dirty Harry movie. Harry is assigned the rookie Gonzales while his regular partner is in the hospital. Gonzales is Hispanic on a mostly white police force. Will Harry be another heavy he has to deal with? Harry’s only concern is that his young partner went to college. “Sociology? You’ll go far.” Harry quips. “That is if you live.”
Harry informs Gonzales that his partners usually get killed in the line of duty. After a close call, Gonzales takes Harry’s advice and retires from the department to teach college instead.
In the second Dirty Harry movie, Magnum Force, Harry’s partner is African-American and a veteran cop. (The bad guys take him out, unfortunately.) In The Enforcer, Harry is paired with a young Tyne Daly. As one of the first female police detectives, she has never made an arrest.
The fourth movie, Sudden Impact, pairs Harry with a seasoned cop like himself, an African-American played by Albert Popwell. Rounding out the series, the fifth film The Dead Pool sees Harry partnering with a Chinese American played by Evan C. Kim.
Throughout the entire Dirty Harry series, Harry has one caucasian partner, DiGiorgio. He’s killed at the start of The Enforcer which leads to Harry being paired with a female rookie.
Harry needing a new partner is an inside joke in the films. The varying ethnicities of his partners are a nod to the country’s changing demographic. Harry is a dinosaur in his attitude toward crime and also as a white male living in America. The message works. The filmmakers promote this diversity in a straightforward way. They feature Harry’s partners naturally, without virtue signaling. Harry only cares that his partners don’t get them both killed.
Dirty Harry should fit right into our culture that promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion. In showing a forward-thinking multiracial, women-inclusive police force, you could say Dirty Harry got it right. It’s a reason to believe it’s a beloved series with progressives. Uh, no.
When the original Dirty Harry was released, the cultural elite hated it. Movie critics called it right-wing. They called it racist and misogynistic. They said it promoted police brutality. A noted film critic rhapsodized that Dirty Harry was “a single-minded attack on liberal values.”
Feminists picketed the Oscars that year carrying signs that read, “Dirty Harry is a rotten pig.”
How did Dirty Harry manage to get such a negative reaction? What did Harry Callahan do?
Taken together, the complaints strain credulity. Was it really what the critics had a problem with? Let’s take a look at them one by one. Even back in the early 70s, Dirty Harry didn’t break the boundaries of violence and sex. Dirty Harry was a straightforward cop drama, a police procedural like a TV movie of the week. We see the villains. We see Harry tracking them down. The focus of the series is suspense, not violence. When Dirty Harry shoots armed suspects (the criminals are always armed and always threatening civilians), the action is like in a stage play. The suspect flails and goes down. Harry doesn’t linger. It’s on to the next perp.
How did Dirty Harry manage to get such a negative reaction? What did Harry Callahan do?
As far as sex goes, there can be intense sexual themes in the films (mostly Sudden Impact), but there is no sex. What feminists objected to from the first movie was likely a nude body brought up out of a well, a victim of the movie’s main criminal. It’s a brief moment filmed from thirty feet away. Harry tails the criminal to adult bars in San Francisco. There are a few scenes inside the bars. Some brief nudity is shown there.
The treatment of women in 1970s movies is a subject of its own. Gritty and awkward female nudity remains a regrettable aspect of 1970s films which maybe had more nudity than all other decades combined (except for our current era which is going back in that direction).
Critics also complained of police brutality and racism. They’re heavy charges. One scene from the first Dirty Harry movie covers both. It’s a famous scene between Harry and a black bank robber. Both men have just shot each other after Harry interrupted the man’s daytime bank heist. Harry has buckshot in his leg. The suspect is lying wounded on the ground. As Harry approaches, he notices the suspect reaching for his shotgun. Harry points his massive .44 Magnum at the man. He gives the monologue about forgetting how many bullets he’s fired. If Harry’s gun is empty, then the suspect can pick up his shotgun and blow him away. But if he tries it and Harry has one bullet left, the bank robber will die. Harry asks, “Do you feel lucky?”
Casting a black man as the criminal gave Albert Popwell a moment in movie history. A longtime collaborator of Clint Eastwood, Popwell ended up playing a different character in four of the five Dirty Harry movies. It was after appearing as a bank robber in Dirty Harry that Popwell landed a role in Cleopatra Jones, a cult classic that made his career. A black actor at a time when urban stories reigned, Popwell leaned into the caricatures and reinvented them.
Popwell was an imposing man. At 6’ 3”, he was nearly as tall as Eastwood at 6’ 4”. Popwell may have been one inch shorter, but he steals every scene in the Dirty Harry movies he’s in. Whether he’s playing a pimp, a black nationalist leader, or Harry’s partner and best friend, Popwell exudes badass swagger, giving his rough characters a Shakespearean stature.
In the standoff with Dirty Harry, Popwell’s bank robber doesn’t risk that Harry is out of bullets. Harry sees this and takes the shotgun. He’s about to walk away. Lying there, the robber pleads with Harry to spill it. “I gots’ta know!” Harry points the gun at him again. He fires. There’s only a click. Harry lied. He knew he was out of bullets. The bank robber guessed wrong.
This scene finds a criminal on the receiving end of fear. And there was the unspoken issue.
Many of the critics’ complaints against Dirty Harry, and by extension against Clint Eastwood, were trumped-up charges. Why? Because the real thing they were upset about didn’t sound like a problem to most people. Dirty Harry hates violent criminals, and he goes out of his way to put the fear of God into them. Law-abiding citizens were always the ones afraid. Harry believed it should be the other way around. Let them be afraid of us. The establishment didn’t like this. They saw Dirty Harry as being more than a movie. It was a dangerous statement.
Dirty Harry hates violent criminals, and he goes out of his way to put the fear of God into them.
What would happen if regular people took this message to heart? Did the establishment want people acting independently against crime, standing up for themselves? Or worse, what if people took advantage of concealed carry laws? What if average people got in the way of the political theories on violent crime and helped to solve it? The government seems to distrust good Samaritans who stop violent crime. The media buries these stories. With the release of Dirty Harry, the establishment was suddenly afraid of losing its authority on crime.
The political nature of law enforcement is lampooned in the movies themselves. The stooges in Dirty Harry films are all establishment types. Harry is ready to move heaven and earth to catch the bad guys, but Harry’s bosses don’t hold the same conviction. They don’t care about the citizens they are sworn to protect. They’re afraid of what the Mayor thinks. They’re worried about getting bad press over Harry’s antics which they see as effective but extreme.
The filmmakers also beat critics to the punch in their attacks on Harry. His bosses call him outdated, a Neanderthal, a relic. Why? Because all Harry cares about is solving crimes and cleaning up the streets. He’s not only too forceful for modern sensibilities but naive about his job. The role of the modern cop is public relations. The goal is to make the city look good and to get the mayor reelected. Fighting criminals is secondary. Scaring criminals? It’s bad PR.
Audiences in the 1970s were seeing too much violent crime. They loved Dirty Harry’s approach. Did it mean Dirty Harry’s critics liked violent crime?
With the release of Dirty Harry, the establishment was suddenly afraid of losing its authority on crime.
For reasons that are sometimes hard to understand, many establishment types show a special fondness for violent criminals. Truman Capote’s famous book In Cold Blood was a sympathetic exploration of two killers. It’s an example of the sensitivity that coastal elites have toward the perpetrators of violent crime. They believe serious criminals deserve compassion over punishment. A harsh upbringing or a social disadvantage makes them victims of the system. These are the “liberal values” the movie critic Pauline Kael spoke about. Establishment types, from politicians to distinct attorneys, can go so far as to put the rights of criminals over the rights of victims. It happened then. It’s happening today.
Social elites who believe violent crime is about a misunderstanding do not like Dirty Harry. He doesn’t psychoanalyze criminals. He subdues them and, when necessary, neutralizes them.
Despite the accusations that Harry is right-wing or a fascist, Dirty Harry didn’t go after jaywalkers. He let some crimes slide, even on one occasion a serial murderer (the resolution of one of the movies; no spoilers here). What sprung Harry into action were crimes of brazen violence that attacked innocent people and threatened society at large. And so, Harry brought the heat against serial killers, secret police hit squads, homegrown terrorist groups, as well as your garden variety shotgun-toting bank robbers, stickup artists, and hijackers.
With little more than a squint and a hard-set jaw, Clint Eastwood made Harry Callahan larger than life, an everyman superhero with a tweed jacket and a receding hairline.
And yet, not a vigilante. Harry’s most famous line acknowledged the rule of law at play. “Go ahead, make my day.” Give him a reason to shoot. Otherwise, you were under arrest.
When Harry drives a car through a liquor store window and begins shooting the disoriented hostage-takers inside, the liberal values crowd thinks, is there no other way to fight crime? Just as liberal politicians have asked police offers, “Why can’t you just shoot ‘em in the leg?”
Other cop films have shown the same brutal action and worse. If Harry had done it all as a bitter cop who rejected the system, we imagine he would have been the media’s hero.
Harry fought the system to do its damn job. He was a believer in justice having a cost. Everyone expected Harry Callahan to be a dirty cop. Dirty Harry? He did the dirty jobs.
This post first appeared at Insomnia at Noon.