The 411 on the 415
We meet rough copper Harry 'Dirty Harry' Callahan (Clint Eastwood) for the first time, while madman sniper Scorpio (Andrew Robinson) holds the city of San Francisco hostage, demanding $100.000, or he'll kill random people. Despite being on the verge of capture several times, he continues to evade the police, and Harry gets more and more frustrated. Later Scorpio kidnaps a 14-year old girl and leaves her in a hole with no air, and finally he hijacks a whole school bus. Harry is not amused.
Word on the street
"I know what you're thinking, punk. You're thinking "did he fire six shots or only five?" Now to tell you the truth I forgot myself in all this excitement. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and will blow you head clean off, you've gotta ask yourself a question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya, punk?"
Dirty Harry is a classic, full of memorable moments. It's one of those movies you're supposed to like, but how good is it really? To be perfectly honest, it's not that great. No doubt, Clint Eastwood has created an iconic character, and when he barks those famous lines, teeth gritted, eyes squinting, he's as cool as they come. It's fun quoting that "I know what you're thinking"-speech, for sure, but I wonder how many people forget that it comes from a completely random, disconnected scene that only serves to show how cool Harry is, and how quickly he's willing to pull out his gun. In a rather clumsy manner, narratively speaking, I might add.
By today's standards, set by the likes of Vic Mackey (of The Shield), Harry isn't even all that dirty. Truth be told, he's a bit of a puppy. So he shoots a few bad guys, pisses off a superior officer or two, but that's about it. He gets a bit rough with the bad guy during an arrest, but that hardly qualifies as dirty, or even all that unreasonable, he is, after all, trying to save a 14-year-old girl.
Harry is a beast from a different time, and much of the reason for his success lies beyond my reach, outside of the present context. Regardless of the time frame, however, Dirty Harry is not a very good cop, and he's caught in a fairly substandard crime story. In fact incompetence is the keyword in this first Dirty Harry movie.
The shooter fumbles the second kill, by failing to notice that there's a cop on alert on every corner in the city, and he also manages to ignore a helicopter sneaking up on him! Luckily the police is just as incompetent, so he gets away. By his third kill the police have him cold, and only extreme incompetence prevents them from shutting him down completely. During the investigation Dirty Harry is almost beat up by four random guys, because he doesn't realize he looks like a Peeping Tom while pursuing a suspect, and it's up to his cannon-fodder partner to save him. Oh, and the sissy bad guy beats him up too.
Although Andrew Robinson looks creepy as hell, his Scorpio is all over the place. Is he really a madman? Criminal genius? A sociopath? Is he in it for the money? The thrills? Or some sort of perverted sexual desire? His level of insanity and incompetence seems to vary from one scene to the next. It's difficult to regard him as a serious threat, when you get the feeling that at any moment he'll put on a bunny suit and masturbate into a cactus.
This is perhaps also the reason why the film's attempt to set up a mano-a-mano situation between Harry and Scorpio never comes into fruition, because we have no idea what makes the bad guy tick, and there isn't a concrete personal vendetta between the two, beyond the perfunctory "cop hates killer, killer hates cop" routine. On top of that the film is forced to bend over backwards to make sure the incompetent killer still roams the streets, despite being caught red-handed shooting at people. Several times! Even in the skewed reality of a Hollywood movie that seems like a bit of a reach.
So, to sum up: Not only does Harry get beat up by the killer, and random people on the street, but by the law as well. Still, the flabbergasted look on his face, when he's told he can't torture suspects, almost makes you feel sorry for him. That can't be what they were going for.
Dirty Harry ends on a final image which suggests that Harry has become too dirty for police work, and so he throws his shield away in a downer, 70s style ending. I would have loved if everything leading up to that moment had supported that dramatic gesture.
I postulate that the idea of Dirty Harry is far more tantalizing than the actual movie. It's not immediately obvious to me why this film generated so many sequels and earned a place in pop-culture, but I guess the same could be said about James Bond. Sure, Harry is quite scary when you're looking down the barrel of that Magnum, but if you're a halfway decent criminal that gun will most likely not be pointing at you. The odds of escaping the wrath of Harry Callahan are quite good, so you go right ahead and feel lucky, punk.