In case you didn’t know the killer in this film was based on real life – then check out the film Zodiac. You can see how a writer got inspired to take the idea of a killer who taunts the authorities and made it in to one of the 70’s greatest cop films out there. But it isn’t just the Scorpio killer who is bucking authority – our main character Harry “Dirty Harry” Callahan is right up their noses too.
Some of the most enjoyable moments from Dirty harry is watching him interact with authority figures. Usually this kind of angry behaviour is reserved for partners, but despite being told that harry doesn’t like partners and has a reputation for being a bit of a menace towards them – he’s actually pretty well behaved towards them. His new partner here works well with him up to the point where he is taken out of play.
If anything the warning should be that partners end up dead or severely injured. But even so, Harry still needs assistance from time to time. It’s only when his temper has been pushed to the limit that he can go and become a one man show.
Now do we need to talk about that big damn gun? It was probably the most identifiable weapon in film until Rambo came along with the big damn knife. Judging by the sound this canon makes you pretty much believe him when he claims it will blow your head “Clean” off. In order for guns to get much of a look in anymore they tend to have to come louder, bigger and faster.
Martin Riggs had his Berretta that fired rapidly in Lethal Weapon and had the added bonus of being the better new thing compared to his “Old timer” partners six shooter. Nowadays we have the likes of The Expendables’ Hale Caesar stomping around with a giant gun than pumps out thunderous rounds that rip people to pieces.
Going back to Lethal Weapon, it’s worth noting that Shane Black may well have been influenced by the roof jumper scene from this film. Harry has to go up and talk a man down, but instead hurls abuse at the guy for the mess he’s about to create – which in turn coaxes the gut into launching an attack at him.
Eastwood attributes a large portion of his film directorial education to Don Siegel. And it’s clear to see from this film (but I suggest you check out the many other films they worked on together as well). Siegel has a naturalistic camera following Harry around rooftops and across streets – But he also has some great still images as well that have a grander impact. Check out that Jesus Saves neon sign as our cop team are on their stakeout. Not to mention some of the grand posturing Eastwood gets to pull during action sequences.
So let’s cut right to the heart of this character. At the end, the Scorpio has abducted a bus full of kids. The “city” are ready to pay up, Harry has other ideas and decides to go out into the field and confront this killer once and for all.
This scene has for me one of the most iconic shots of Eastwood. The killer is forcing the children on board to sing “Row your boat” whilst he berates the driver, and then catches sight of something. The music changes and out the window of the bus we see the figure of Harry standing and waiting on a wooden, bridged structure over the road, awaiting the bus’s approach. Even the bad guy has to exhale “Jesus” in disbelief.
Now most people love the sequence at the bank when Harry first spouts those famous lines about the gun. And well yes it is a great scene, and a great piece of dialogue. But that scene he does it with a smirk on his face – especially on the delivery of “Well do ya punk?” And harry almost laughs out loud when he pulls the trigger on the empty cannon and walks away. Harry is at his most smug. And even though his lunch was interrupted and he sustained a wound; He’s happy that he came out on top (which he probably never doubted) and is smug that the villain is going down.
The end sequence though is a very different beast altogether. Harry has now become obsessed and enraged with this psychotic killer he’s been tracking down. Once he has him, and has saved the boy the Scorpio takes hostage briefly (and even disarmed him to the point that the killer’s gun is mere feet away from his grasp); Callahan can’t resist that little extra taunt.
He did it at the bank. He toyed with his already beaten prey. Only here it isn’t in joy; it’s with the full intent of beating the guy a second time in a row and sending him straight down to hell. Harry knows there is no risk for him (as he does count his bullets). But in order to get the vengeful satisfaction of blasting this guy, he needs him to actually go for that gun in contest. Hell, he even stops Scorpio from reaching at first just so he can say those famous lines. Only this time he delivers “Well do ya, Punk?!” with severe, embittered rage. And it’s enough to send Scorpio into action, thereby allowing Callahan to quite legally blow the guy into the water with a maessage attached to the bullet he does it with.
There is of course that one last moment of defiance from Harry as he throws his badge away. As a standalone film it’s powerful. But we know now that Harry came back four more times. We can only assume he got given a new one. Unless, post-credits, he ran back and dove in Cannonball Run style to retrieve it (sings Cannonball theme tune). Somehow that might have screwed with the tone of the film though if he had.
Dirty Harry is a very honest film for its time, depicting real life, real prejudices and real salt from Eastwood as he was launched into mega-stardom.