Wednesday, 25 September 2013
The granddaddy of anti-hero cop movies, Dirty Harry cemented Clint Eastwood's star status and laid down a template for cop movies that is still referenced over forty years later. An old-fashioned lawman patrolling a city spilling over into a violent new decade, Dirty Harry Callahan polices San Francisco much as The Man with No Name did the Old West, dispensing justice (as opposed to upholding the law) with the implacable barrel of a .44 Magnum. It’s a role that fits Eastwood like a glove and its great fun watching his craggy face glowering around town, treating both criminals and colleagues to the same soft growl, but most crucially he makes Harry a convincing character rather than just a Hollywood hero and so his actions come across with a gritty realism rarely seen in cop films. The story runs along the well-trodden path of the psychopathic serial killer, taking particular inspiration from the infamous Zodiac case (the killer calls himself Scorpio), but takes it to a new level in terms of violence, not necessarily in terms of what appears on screen (the blood actually looks fake for the most part) but rather the casual way Harry approaches violence as part of his daily life. Andy Robinson delivers a terrifyingly deranged performance as Scorpio that might seem OTT elsewhere but in this darker world created by Eastwood and long-term collaborator Don Siegel, Robinson’s extremes are sickening but never feel unnatural. Hitchcock filmed San Francisco to austere perfection for Vertigo but now the city receives a much more unfriendly but more honest treatment by Siegel whose camera turns a backdrop of strip bars, dark alleys and low-grade apartment buildings into a supporting character that feels utterly appropriate for Harry's ruthless police work; this is not a city of happy endings, rather one where victims turn up naked, dead and stuffed inside manholes. This bleak outlook is a gripping statement of intent but the film would not work if Siegel and Eastwood had not made Dirty Harry such a charismatic figure; as he stands silhouetted on a bridge awaiting the climactic confrontation with Scorpio there can be no doubt in anyone's mind – this man is one cool bastard.
When Dirty Harry arrived in 1971 it redefined the crime genre by establishing the cop as an anti-hero, a loner who will always get the job done by playing to his own rules rather than following the letter of the law and who, as played by Clint Eastwood, was indisputably cool. Of course this radical new approach to police work was not to everyone’s taste and so for Magnum Force, the first of four Dirty Harry sequels, new writers Michael Cimimo and John Milius (both soon to become controversial directors) were brought in to mix things up. By pitting Harry against vigilantes who are killing off notable criminals, Cimino and Milius succeed in both saying something fresh about the concept of justice and sticking two fingers to Harry’s original critics. Clint Eastwood slips naturally back into the role of Harry and his granite-faced charisma is more than enough to sell these new ideas, making Harry’s battles as entertaining as ever whilst making interesting developments to the character. Incoming Ted Post is an even more leisurely director than Don Siegel was but he still manages to craft some exciting scenes that alarmingly manage to top the violence of the first film and although the identities of the villains become obvious after about twenty minutes, the narrative does at least manage to pull a couple more surprises out of thin air before petering out. Happily Post also retains all of the snarky banter between Harry and his superiors and the starkly beautiful shots of San Francisco that made the first film so enjoyable and even manages one iconic moment in a car park where Harry in confronted by the vigilantes in a shot that emphasises the interesting dichotomy between them; the villains are obviously a sinister threat but at the same time, much like Harry, they are a little bit cool. Compared to a lot of modern cop films the pace and action obviously leaves something to be desired but Clint is singlehandedly enough to make the film memorable and even if the ideas put on the table are no longer so exciting, Magnum Force does leave us with a minor but striking thought: traffic cops have never been this scary.
The third of Dirty Harry films, The Enforcer takes a back step from the subversive vigilante storyline of Magnum Force and pits Harry against a far less imaginative group of terrorists who in time honoured tradition want to hold the city of San Francisco to ransom. Clint Eastwood is always at his best when playing Harry, his granite face locked into a permanent scowl as he clashes endlessly with his superiors (played here by the delightfully unctuous Bradford Dillman) and his days are repeatedly interrupted by violent holdups at nearby corner shops. Having exhausted the ethnic minorities Harry can be rude to in the first two films the writers hit instead on an idea they clearly thought was really smart, partnering Harry with a woman! Tyne Daly plays Kate Moore, a novice homicide sergeant who has the misfortune to be landed with Harry at the end of a particularly snotty game of one-upmanship and has to go through the predictable motions of earning his begrudging trust and respect. Presumably incoming director James Fargo was looking to expose Harry’s sexist side but its actually the filmmakers who come off worst; Harry relaxes around his new partner fairly quickly but even after the characters start to get along Fargo forces Daly to keep trotting after Harry and do little more than get flustered as she struggles to keep up. Despite redeeming herself in the climactic battle, neither Fargo nor Daly can hide the fact Kate is poorly written and it is there that the sexism lies. This wouldn’t matter so much if the plot was up to the standard of the first two films but the hippie terrorists are not as interesting as the traffic cops in Magnum Force or as scary as Scorpio from Dirty Harry. The group do get one good sequence kidnapping the mayor but their motivation is cloudy (there is a vague reference to Vietnam), most of the members are forgettable and the permanently angry leader (DeVeren Brookwalter) is written off as an ex-pimp to ensure they don’t get any sympathy. The climactic battle on Alcatraz is an exciting twist but it isn’t enough to avoid the fact that The Enforcer is the weakest film of the series.
Seven years after Dirty Harry Callahan last appeared in the mediocre but successful The Enforcer Warner Brothers were sniffing around for a sure fire hit and so Harry was called into action once more with Clint directing as well as acting for the first time in the franchise’s history. Sudden Impact tries to shake up the formula a little by sending Harry to a small California beach town investigating a death by genital mutilation where the implacable policeman is faced with an unexpected moral dilemma. Partnered this time by an ugly bulldog hilariously known as Meathead, Harry predictably antagonises the local police chief (Pat Hingle) and offends a large selection of the local populace but intriguingly becomes very friendly with visiting researcher Jennifer Spencer (Sondra Locke) who has been revealed to the audience as a rape victim on a vigilante revenge spree. Locke, who at the time was Clint’s in-house co-star and lover, is a waif like presence who looks cold and distant enough to make the killings believable but, as so often proved to be the case, she does not have the charisma or the intensity to make the character memorable and so most of the heavy-lifting is left to Clint. Directorially Clint shows off his locations to good effect, making particularly good use of an abandoned theme park on the boardwalk for the climax, but is less successful balancing the tone, which often swings awkwardly between the light comedy of Harry’s fish-out-of-water moments and the darkness permeated by the shocking crimes. It doesn’t help that the principle villains are a grotesquely OTT thug (Paul Drake) and a butch lesbian with a mouth (Audrie Neenan) who are so excessively violent and aggressive that they come across as caricatures that can’t be taken seriously. However its Harry’s eventual moral dilemma with Locke that makes the film interesting and Clint the actor finds enough quieter moments to make the conflict believable whilst keeping in enough scowls to ensure that the implacable character we’ve loved since 1971 doesn’t go soft. It’s a shame that Clint hadn’t learnt to be subtle at this stage but Sudden Impact does at least try and take the character in a new direction and for that he deserves credit.
Five years after Dirty Harry Callahan last appeared in Sudden Impact and long after the character should have been put to bed, Clint Eastwood returned once more to play the maverick cop in what is frankly his silliest outing so far. The Dead Pool throws Harry into the glare of the media spotlight for the first time (and inevitably Harry hates the press) when his name comes up in ‘the Dead Pool’, a collective that takes bets on who will die first from a list of high-risk celebrities, a list that predictably gets rapidly shorter in gruesome fashion. A Dirty Harry slasher film is an intriguing premise but director Buddy Van Horn pushes the envelope further by introducing some OTT rock music courtesy of doomed rock star Johnny Squares (a very young Jim Carrey) and veering some action sequences dangerously away from the gritty edge that made Harry such an iconic character. Clint with a harpoon gun is unquestionably cool but when the kiss-off lines begin sounding like Arnie’s castoffs you start to worry and when Van Horn rips off Bullitt and pursues Harry with a remote-controlled toy car in what must be the most ridiculous car chase in cinema history, it becomes clear that the franchise has lost sight of its roots. Clint at least is tremendous fun to watch as he chews out superiors and suspects alike, keeping the film grounded where it could get overblown and happily electing not to go down Entrapment’s romance route, keeping his relationship with Patricia Clarkson’s beautiful reporter to a mild flirtation but even their delicately played repartee cannot quite hide the weaknesses in the story. The previous Dirty Harry films included scenes of the villains’ POV so that the audience could anticipate an eventual showdown with Harry but in The Dead Pool the only suspect Van Horn develops is snotty film director Peter Swan (Liam Neeson with a terrible haircut) who is an entertaining character but an obvious red herring and so the final confrontation and revelation of the killer feels rather anticlimactic. The Dead Pool is still good fun in its own right but when compared to Dirty Harry its probably good that this case has (so far) proved to be Harry’s last.