Reviews of Classic Movies: 'Dirty Harry'


In my head, I like to keep a few running lists of the movies I need to see, divided by type. One list covers Asian cinema, another is for movies from the 1950s. Still another list is the movies of Clint Eastwood. I’ve been making progress on the latter recently, having seen 1993’s In the Line of Fire for the first time about a month ago.

That film reminded me to write up a review of Eastwood’s first outing as Inspector Harry Callahan, in 1971’s Dirty Harry. There’s nothing like Clint’s steely glare and growling voice to make you wish today’s gritty police dramas would step up their game. Dirty Harry isn’t a perfect movie – just a thoroughly enjoyable one, with one of the creepiest villains to haunt the screen. Read on for my full review and rating out of four stars!

The stakes are made pretty clear in the opening scene of the film. A sniper named Scorpio (Andy Robinson) is holding the city hostage, choosing random targets and demanding large cash ransoms. ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan (Eastwood) is put on the case, but the sniper has a cunning plan to stay one step ahead of the cops, forcing Callahan to go rogue in order to catch the killer.

Aside from Eastwood’s performance – which is as cool as ever – one of the best parts of the movie is how close it feels to the problems of real police work. Callahan believes the only way to stop Scorpio is work outside the law, because (as he growls in a great scene halfway through) “the law’s crazy”. It’s easy to share in Callahan’s frustration when the district attorney’s ethical concerns get in the way. Maybe we don’t fully support Callahan’s tough-love approach (which descends into torture in one scene), but we can’t ignore the results.

Even though the movie is more than forty years old, it doesn’t feel antiquated or hokey. In fact, some of the details of the time period still grab your attention - especially the sequence where Scorpio leads Callahan on a timed gauntlet through the streets of San Francisco by making him run between phone booths. In this way, Dirty Harry is accessible even to those new viewers who don’t watch much classic film.

Andy Robinson is frightfully unhinged as Scorpio, whose only goal seems to be to cause chaos in San Francisco. The role requires Robinson to bodily throw himself into every scene, taunting his pursuers in a way that feels eerily similar to a comic-book villain like The Joker.

Sometimes that similarity gets a little out of hand, almost to the point of Scorpio feeling more like a cartoon villain than a human one. And we never really get inside Scorpio’s head  - he’s just a soulless agent of destruction. Nevertheless, I’d be surprised if the character doesn’t make an impression on you, especially after the scene that takes place in the park on Mount Davidson.

Any hard-boiled police thriller needs its lighter moments to break up the tension, and Dirty Harry is no different.  The funniest bits usually come courtesy of Callahan, who at one point “talks down” a jumper on top of a building by daring the guy to kill himself, and then punching him out when the jumper tries to take Callahan with him.

My only real issue with Dirty Harry was that its pacing goes wonky through much of the second and third acts. I don’t know if it’s because of the cat-and-mouse game between Callahan and Scorpio, or whether it’s the sidebar at the hospital partway through Act Two, but there are a lot of lulls in the film that weaken the impact of the final gun battle.

The script is strong enough, however, that the wobbly pacing isn’t a deal breaker. Dirty Harry spawned a series of four sequels, and ushered in a decade of gritty, realistic filmmaking. Dirty Harry gets three stars out of four.

Have you seen Dirty Harry? If so, what did you think? Was it a landmark police drama, or just a fun action movie? For those who haven’t seen it, will you check it out? Let me know what you think in the comments section, and if you liked this review, check out the rest of my ongoing Reviews of Classic Movies series:


Midnight Cowboy | Doctor Zhivago | Spellbound 2001: A Space Odyssey