Clint Eastwood turns 85 this month. In recent years he’s become an increasingly odd character. With his talking to chairs, questionable directorial choices, and general “grumpy old man” demeanor, it’s easy to forget that Eastwood used to be a universal symbol of masculinity and general badassery. There was a time when his squinty-eyed stubbornness was seen as a trait of his stoic heroism, and less of his confusion brought on by his failing memory in old age. Taking a look back at Don Siegel’s 1971 cop thriller, Dirty Harry, it’s easy to see why Eastwood was once such a notable icon of manliness.
From the first opening shots of Dirty Harry, filmed in Panavision, it is made explicitly clear that the film is a product of its time. The score of the film, the look of it, and even the camera movements, somehow, scream of the early 1970s. The film looks so dated at parts that the whole thing begins to come across as if it is a low-budget exploitation flick. Even the basic themes put forth in Dirty Harry are birthed out of the times. The film came along at the tail end of the freewheeling 1960s and at the very beginning of a much more rigid and much more paranoid 1970s. America was still covered in the blood of Vietnam. Kent State was behind us and Watergate was still to come. The US was treading in murky water and things were beginning to get frantic. In times of turmoil, people often turn to strong radicals for comfort and protection. The Germans turned to Hitler when their economy was in ruin and the Chinese to Mao when they felt the boat of society beginning to rock. After Manson and Vietnam, the people weren’t interested in free love and peace anymore, they just wanted to sleep soundly at night, no matter the cost. Answering the call of the frightened and weary like a great, squinty-eyed, unorthodox Jesus figure with a .44 magnum, Dirty Harry Callahan was there to bring salvation, however metaphorical, to the citizens of the United States. The main antagonist in the movie is a very obvious stand-in for the Zodiac killer, who himself was a symbol of the fear of the ’70s. Harry Callahan is embarking to bring order back to America, if it means shooting every piece of scum on the streets. To put it bluntly, the film is nothing short of a glorious embrace of fascism. Callahan’s a no nonsense cop who uses any means necessary to serve justice. His methods aren’t always legal and sometimes they’re downright terrifying. But Callahan can be understood. He has no caveats, no exceptions. He has one desire, justice, and if you disagree with that then you better be willing to face the firing end of his .44. “I think he’s got a point.” says The Mayor of San Francisco about Callahan early in the film. He has a point, and brutal as it may be, it’s what the entire movie is about.
The messiah came wearing a tweed suit and carrying a gun.
Watching Dirty Harry today is a strange affair. Everything seems such a product of the 1970s in its odd themes, references, and style. Yet, despite all of that, something in Dirty Harry still works. Maybe it’s the veritable universality of Eastwood’s classic lone gunman character. A tough and understandable hero who doesn’t have much more depth to him than a vaguely dead wife. What he lacks in character he makes up for in sheer and visceral formidability. There’s something inherently comforting about putting one’s stock in a no-nonsense badass who, aside from a few minor scuffles, literally cannot lose. It’s part of what made Harry such a watershed symbol back when the film was first released. He has principles that cannot be swayed, and something like that is admirable in a hero. In Don Siegel’s oversimplified movie world of violence, terror, and fetishized weaponry, Harry is a panacea for the world’s troubles. And although his brand of shoot first ask questions later police work is most certainly not applicable to any reality we live in, it most certainly is for fictional San Francisco. It seems dangerous, almost borderline propaganda in a way, but it still entertains. It still works. Call me a romantic, but there’s nothing like watching man chase down a lunatic with a large handgun to ease my troubles. Dirty Harry is problematic in near every sense of the word, but I can’t help but kind of love it.
Does Dirty Harry hold up after all these years? Sort of? It’s interesting as a product of its era and can be genuinely thrilling at times, but it also has an exorbitant amount of issues that can really take one out of watching the film at times. It’s not quite a classic, but I’d say its one that should stick around in the archives for a bit longer. If anything, we should cherish it just as a time capsule.