Dirty Harry: Clint Eastwood’s Iconic, Influential Role

Dirty Harry, a violent, controversial policier, actually launched a whole new subgenre of Hollywood film.

The tough cop, who fights against authority above him and the sickness of modern society below him, was born in Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of Dirty Harry.

It is interesting that George Bush once used “Easy Rider” and “Dirty Harry” as polar opposites in a speech, because “Dirty Harry” actually has origins in “Easy Rider.”

Robert B. Ray has suggested in his book A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980, that the tough cop of the Dirty Harry film cycle is a descendant of the tough, heartless Southern cops of Easy Rider. Ray also writes “the sympathetic hippies of Easy Rider became the psychopathic killer of Dirty Harry, equipped with a peace symbol for a belt buckle.”

Like “Easy Rider,” “Dirty Harry” was enormously successful, grossing $22 million by 1974. Besides spawning its own sequels (Magnum Force, The Enforcer, Sudden Impact), Dirty Harry became the representative piece of a burgeoning subgenre that included: The French Connection, Walking Tall, Death Wish, Serpico, The New Centurions, The Laughing Policeman, McQ, Billy Jack, Coogan’s Bluff and Bullitt.

The film found its strongest appeal in two audience groups. The first was young men, who admired Dirty Harry’s brand of masculinity. Surprisingly, the other audience was urban minority groups. Perhaps they enjoyed the film because it was about urban crime. But their like for the film is surprising because many critics singled out Dirty Harry as being full of resentment
directed at the urban poor who turn to crime. Dirty Harry has been characterized again and again as a racist film.

Dirty Harry outraged many liberals in 1972 at the time of the film’s release, because they felt the hero was an extremist who took the law into his own hands. Eastwood was often lumped together with Hollywood’s other most famous right wing movie star, John Wayne. Indeed much of the negative reaction Dirty Harry received seems tied to the unacceptable persona of Eastwood.

Joan Mellen wrote in Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in the American Film that “Hollywood has turned to a virtually fascist endorsement of the tough cop who will solve all our problems and whose flagrant violation of the civil liberties of those he hunts is glorified as necessary for the survival of the community.” She also clarifies that “The male embodiment of this neo-fascist approach to the social unrest that has deepened in the cities as the seventies have progressed is Clint Eastwood.”

It was not only the critics that denounced Dirty Harry in those days. The disenchantment with Dirty Harry carried over into the streets, as is exemplified by a demonstration held at the Academy Awards in 1972. Demonstrators at the Academy Awards waved placards reading “Dirty Harry is a rotten pig,” thus expressing the feelings of many Americans.

The film was seen as rotten in that it opened a whole Pandora Box of ugly new realities of American society, and then let these realities run all over the Hollywood movie screen for the first time. The film permitted a new kind of vigilante violence, for one. Dirty Harry Callahan’s anger at the urban poor who had turned to crime of course becomes this vigilante violence.

Eastwood’s character also played off of contempt for politicians and officials, which informs all of Dirty Harry’s struggles against authority. Which is not to mention a sexual paranoia that also is in the film. All of these things suggested an acceptance of reactionary policies to Americans in the early 1970s.

Despite what Eastwood or Dirty Harry’s director Don Siegel might say to the contrary, the film is political and did have some effect on politics. Dirty Harry was popular during Nixon’s 1972 campaign, at a time when the sort of law and order propaganda Dirty Harry contains functioned as an exploitation of Americans’ growing fears about urban decay. In other words, the film may have aided Nixon’s campaign somehow.

Anger over the Miranda and Escobedo rulings, which limited law officers’ power to act against suspected criminals, also surfaces in Dirty Harry. Don Siegel once said, “I enjoy the controversy [surrounding Dirty Harry] because if you make a film that’s safe, you’re in trouble. I’m a liberal; I lean to the left. Clint is a conservative; he leans to the right. At no point in making the film did we ever talk politics. I don’t make political movies. I was telling the story of a hard-nosed cop and a dangerous killer. What my liberal friends did not grasp was that the cop is just as evil, in his way, as the sniper.” It seems that Siegel’s perspective here was lost on audiences who only the sensational aspects of the film.

Dirty Harry is where Eastwood’s famous tough talks begin. A few years later, in the third sequel, Sudden Impact, Dirty Harry would utter the immortal words, “Go ahead, make my day.” But even in the original Dirty Harry, Eastwood has the same rough style, which would later enter the American lexicon. “When and adult male chases a female down the street with the intent to commit rape, I shoot the bastard. That’s my policy.” And, “When a naked man is chasing a woman through an alley with a butcher knife and a hard-on, he isn’t out collecting for the Red Cross.” Or how about, “Get yourself another delivery boy” Dirty Harry is the beginning for that kind of talk.

Finally, Dirty Harry affected our perception of San Francisco, where the film was shot. Dirty Harry’s working-class, superman-masculine independence is contrasted with the beautiful affluence and large gay population of San Francisco to create both a stereotypical view of San Francisco which will still carry with us today, and a homophobic slant to a film which is already in many other ways extremely sexually paranoid.