The off-the-leash cop archetype was cemented with Don Siegel’s taut, provocative thriller that neither condemns or condones extreme measures
Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. Photograph: Warner Bros./Allstar
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.
Wedged between Gary Cooper’s compromised sheriff in High Noon and Jack Nicholson howling that we need him on that wall in A Few Good Men, Harry Callahan presents himself as the bastard we can’t survive without. He’s the seminal ‘70s antihero, a man who’ll break the law to enforce it. That phrase is just one of many cliches worn down precisely because they cut to the core of policework’s foundational philosophical quandary: loose-cannon cops on the edge don’t play by the rules, but dammit, they get results. When the Zodiac-inspired killer dubbed Scorpio terrorizes the Bay Area with a murderous spree, the ineffectual pencil-necks in management positions can’t do anything but twiddle their thumbs. Harry refuses to be hogtied by red tape, to the point that his rough-handed arrests are ruled inadmissible in court, allowing an apprehended Scorpio to walk. He’s so contemptuous of institutional authority that he refuses to sit in the seat reserved for him when meeting with the mayor, whom he treats like little more than a loser in the way.
If the parts of Harry that won’t be domesticated make him a captivating tough guy and a productive member of the squad, they also mark him as an outsider unfit for a polite, civil community. From the meticulously deployed POV shots in the opening scene, Siegel silently conveys Nietzsche’s enduring adage about how those who tangle with monsters are destined to become one. We initially glimpse a bathing beauty frolicking in a rooftop pool through the crosshair of Scorpio’s sniper rifle, and when Harry comes to scope out the crime scene following her killing, he peers at the pool from the same vantage on the same rooftop. To catch a criminal, a man needs to think like a criminal, a tactic that rubs off in an unsavory way. We soon learn that Harry’s something of a pervert, twice distracted while on the job by peeping on nude women in the next building over. He thinks of it like a perk in an occupation without many to go around.
Even as the film acknowledges Harry’s defects of character and the alienation stemming from them, it supports his position that an imperfect police force is nonetheless vital and under-appreciated. When his partner resigns after getting shot, Harry chats with the guy’s wife outside the hospital and she laments the disrespect the public has for men in uniform, jeered as “pigs” by the younger generation. It’s telling that Scorpio liberally uses that same epithet in the taunts of his deranged clues; his traits reveal the film’s truest stances, in that he embodies everything it most ardently opposes. He’s a social conservative’s worst nightmare, the hippie menace (note Scorpio’s peace-sign belt buckle and flowing post-Summer-of-Love tresses) gone homicidal. His vilification also compels the most underhanded brushstroke in the film, the choice to code Scorpio as the sort of closeted homosexual who delightedly cackles “my, that’s a big one!” upon Harry’s unsheathing of his sidearm. We’re meant to recognize that he’s a deviant by the erotic glee he experiences while paying a hulking Black man – another phantom of the reactionary imagination – to beat him up in order to exaggerate the injuries sustained from Harry.
Though Harry’s not an ideal defender, the film concedes, his faults pale in comparison to what we’re up against. It’s convenient that Scorpio’s crimes lack the ambiguity in Harry’s policing, that he’s a psychopath who takes simple pleasure in hurting people. In Siegel’s astonishingly taut set pieces, the chief reason this nasty piece of work has remained infinitely rewatchable after half a century, Harry represents the difference between a busload of dead kids and a day saved. A growing faction of the American people have come to reject this premise, a favored excuse of police gone rogue to justify their overreach without this film’s key ambivalence. Harry’s pathology has become more embattled, but it hasn’t gone away. His thin-blue-line mentality is revived in every argument against police abolition, with his shadow of amorality unmentioned. The film ends with Harry casting his badge into a body of water, turning his back on the SFPD for a presumable pivot to vigilantism. Most troubling of all, his innumerable wannabes in the present day feel they shouldn’t have to, disposing of the subtext that no longer suits them.