December 23, 2021
The off-the-leash cop archetype was cemented with Don Siegel’s taut, provocative thriller that neither condemns or condones extreme measures
Dirty Harry at 50: Clint Eastwood’s seminal, troubling 70s antihero
Harry Callahan is the cop we’ve been warned about. Though this week marks fifty years since Don Siegel’s genre-defining thriller Dirty Harry busted into cinemas with Smith & Wessons blazing, the general profile of dangerous, off-the-leash law enforcement solidified over the last half-decade of public discourse sounds like it could’ve been traced from the film’s example. Played with a scowl of blanket disgust by Clint Eastwood – Paul Newman had passed on the role as “too right-wing” – San Francisco PD’s top inspector is more than your standard-issue misanthrope. He’s an equal-opportunity bigot, contemptuous of every ethnic group rattled off by a fellow officer in a laundry list of slurs. He’ll readily resort to violence in his work, not above a bit of crude torture to extract information from a perp with a bullet wound. And most hazardous of all, he believes himself unanswerable to anyone but God, who he’d probably just meet with the same glowering frown.
From its earliest stages of development, the script conceived by husband-and-wife team Harry and Rita Fink made clear that Harry’s no boy Scout, but partisans on either side of the ideological aisle looking for affirmation in their stance will be disappointed. Those with hopes for an out-and-out denunciation of this brutish approach to policing have another thing coming, the coarser methods often validated by necessity, as if Harry’s the last line of defense for a society teetering on the brink of anarchy. (The guy can’t even get a hot dog without a bank robbery demanding his attention.) Any gung-ho types walking away as converted Calla-fans have also missed something crucial, however, blind to his placelessness in the city he’s sworn to protect. Neither condemning nor condoning his actions, the film offers what may be the clearest image of the archetypal cop’s self-perception as the only one willing to do the dirty jobs holding America together, even if it means getting dirty yourself.
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