Friday, January 14, 2011

Dirty Harry (1971) & Magnum Force (1973) & The Enforcer (1976)

          In the years following the Supreme Court’s landmark Miranda v. Arizona decision, which laid out the rights of persons arrested by police, an outcry rose from crime victims and others incensed by what they perceived as kid-gloves treatment given to accused criminals post-Miranda. Hollywood responded with films including Dirty Harry, a powerful action movie about a vigilante cop who personifies the “shoot first, ask questions later” ethos. Pacifists hate the very idea of this franchise, maligning Dirty Harry’s violent exploits as fascist pornography, but despite the diminishing sophistication of later entries in the series, the first movie (and to a lesser degree the second) are as thought-provoking as they are exciting. Segueing gracefully from his triumphs in a string of European-made Westerns, ascendant star Clint Eastwood is unforgettable as San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan, because his mixture of seething anger and swaggering confidence perfectly illustrates the film’s concept of an archaic gunslinger adrift in morally ambiguous modern times.
          Eastwood’s mentor, B-movie specialist Don Siegel, directs the first film, Dirty Harry, with his signature efficiency, briskly and brutally dramatizing Callahan’s pursuit of the “Scorpio Killer” (Andrew Robinson) as well as the policeman’s clashes with bosses including a politically opportunistic mayor (John Vernon). The legendary “Do I feel lucky?” scene is a perfect introduction to Callahan’s perverse attitude, and Eastwood and Siegel really soar in the climax of the film, when they reveal how little separates Callahan and the killer, ethically speaking; though the fine line between cops and crooks later became a cinematic cliché, it was edgy stuff in 1971. So whether it’s regarded as a social statement or just a crackerjack thriller, Dirty Harry hits its target.
          The first sequel, Magnum Force, features a clever script by John Milius, with Callahan facing off against a cadre of trigger-happy beat cops who make him seem tame by comparison. Milius’ right-wing militarism sets a provocative tone for the movie, forcing viewers to identify the lesser of two evils in a charged battle between anarchistic forces. Hal Holbrook makes a great foil for Eastwood, his chatty exasperation countering the star’s tight-lipped stoicism, and fun supporting players including Tim Matheson, Mitchell Ryan, and David Soul add macho nuances to the guns-a-blazin’ thrills. (Watch for Three’s Company starlet Suzanne Somers in a salacious bit part.)
          The last of the ’70s Dirty Harry flicks, The Enforcer, gets into gimmicky terrain by pairing Callahan with his worst nightmare, a female partner, but the producers wisely cast brash everywoman Tyne Daly (later of Cagney & Lacey fame) as the partner; since she’s not Callahan’s “type,” it’s believable that even with his Neanderthal worldview, he develops grudging respect for her once she holds her own in a series of chases and shootouts. The movie makes terrific use of Alcatraz as a location for the finale, but a bland villain and an undercooked plot make the film a comedown. After The Enforcer, Eastwood wisely took a break from the Dirty Harry character, returning several years later for a pair of uninspired ’80s sequels.

Dirty Harry: RIGHT ON
Magnum Force: GROOVY
The Enforcer: GROOVY

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