Retrospective: Dirty Harry (1971)

‘Do you feel lucky punk…’ that iconic phrase first used here and sort of encapsulates the whole movie. I could just drop that quote and leave things at that, but Dirty Harry is far more influential. It signals the beginning of the vigilante movie movement with no nonsense heroes who will not comprise, with a stern authority in their prosecution of villains devoid of redeeming features.

The criminal in this is someone called Scorpio, a very unpleasant murderer who encapsulates everything that went wrong with the hippy movement at the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s. He kills and takes San Francisco to ransom and the spineless leaders capitulate to him, which just provokes him to greater horrific actions which culminate in the kidnapping, rape, murder and buries alive a thirteen year old girl. This type of character changed the rules for cop movies as it shows the most unpleasant characters committing utterly vile crimes rather than making things ambiguous or making it less horrific to keep it inside peoples tastes.

This movie is very much a Marmite film (an English expression for something divisive). It was very controversial when it was released with many reviewers calling it fascist in nature, an opinion which I disagree with. It is particularly controversial as it was released so close to the Serpico scandal which rocked opinions of the police.

Sex is on show everywhere in this film, with all the seedy strip bars and quite a bit of nudity which is surprisingly rare in the modern versions of this type of movie, just look at Taken or Die Hard for example of films which are violent but there is not the same emphasis on sex. The visibility of it in 1971 San Francisco is strange in the same way you see so much in the Taxi Driver.

Harry Callaghan is one of the most iconic film characters with his big Magnum Revolver and his rather racist vocabulary. To be fair, he is not racist ‘he just hates everyone’. He fights battles on his own terms and that is an obvious threat to the leadership of the police. The success of the movie created a long standing series known as the ‘Magnum force trilogy’. This is an iconic movie which is controversial and should be seen as the changing face of movies about crime and the role of a vigilante in cinema.

Retrospective by Harry Riedl


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