Back in high school, in the early nineties, our literature teacher had to leave for a course of some sort and while she was away she wanted us to go to the school video room to watch “Babette’s Feast”. Us, being typical teenagers, made a quick vote whether to watch “Dirty Harry” or “Rain Man” instead. “Dirty Harry” won by a large margin. Twenty years after its release “Dirty Harry” was still a favorite, even against recent releases.
We are now closing in on its fifty year anniversary and the interesting question is if it is still holding up? The answer to that is an unwavering affirmative. “Dirty Harry” is just as effective and intense as it was those many years ago and still holds a lot of the satisfaction of watching a guy standing up to evil and win. The problem is that I as a viewer has gotten older and what back then seemed simple and straightforward is now a lot more complicated and tinge a movie like “Dirty Harry” with a bitter taste.
In case you just came back after fifty years on the moon let me briefly explain what “Dirty Harry” is about. In San Francisco, in the early seventies, a cold-blooded murderer is on the rampage. Scorpio (Andy Robinson) shoots people at will and demands 200.000$ to stop. The city authorities hope to stall Scorpio and has assigned police inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood, of course) to find and stop Scorpio. Harry is a bitter man with a no-nonsense approach to problem solving. He is also a bit of a super cop who can take care of a bank robbery in his lunch break, shooting the bandits in stride.
As the case progresses it becomes clear that this is a high stakes game and the city authorities get nervous and cave in to Scorpio’s demands. Harry, who at this point has watched evil in the eye, steps out of the civil servant role and enters the grey zone of the vigilante to take care of this problem himself.
On the face of it this is a police procedure movie and one of the better ones if for no other reason than Clint Eastwood being awesome. But this also very quickly becomes a discussion on how far you are allowed to go to fight evil. There can be no doubt here, at least for us, the viewers, that Scopio is a deranged maniac who needs to be stopped and that any delay just means more people will die. The question is on the other side of the equation. The position “Dirty Harry” seems to have is that the regular justice system is unable to deal with someone like Scorpio who knows how to play the system. That the red tape and the rights of the accused renders law enforcement impotent, and that it takes a ruthless and potent player who is willing to cut through the red tape to level the playing field and take care of the problem.
This is where “Dirty Harry” becomes uncomfortable. We cannot help agreeing with Harry Callahan, we want Scorpio to suffer and we understand how important it is to find the kidnapped girl and to prevent more murders, but how many rules do you need to break? And are those very rules not what protects us from a tyrannical police? What if Harry had gotten the wrong guy? And what right does Harry Callahan have to issue the death sentence on those he accuses? “Dirty Harry” wants us to give up that protection because the accused is very guilty, but fifty years later it is pretty clear there are a lot of Dirty Harrys out there whose victims are not as guilty.
All this philosophizing may give the impression that I did not like the movie and with a hint of disgust I have to admit that that is not the case at all. “Dirty Harry” is riveting and awesome and so full of iconic scenes and lines that I can only compare it to a movie like “Casablanca”. "...you've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do you, punk?” is the kind of line that everybody knows and most of us wish that it was us who had come up with it in that special situation.
“Dirty Harry” is politically problematic but so convincingly played out that I can almost ignore it. It has to be a recommendation.
Thirty years ago, our literature teacher never realized that we had watched “Dirty Harry” and not “Babette’s Feast”. We had agreed that the few of us who knew the movie should discuss it in class while the rest should simply stick to that “it was alright, but a bit long”. Lis was a bit disappointed that so many found “Babette’s Feast” long.