“Dirty Harry” was one of those movies that was almost never made. Actors turned down the part. Studios turned down the script. It morphed from a story about a New York cop chasing a serial killer who is eventually shot by Marines, not by Dirty Harry. Then it was moved to Seattle.
Actors from Paul Newman to Burt Lancaster to George C. Scott to Lee Marvin complained about the level of violence and/or that the script was too “right wing.” Enter Clint Eastwood (who was one of the first choices early on), who brought his own preferred director and creative pros along and the script became the iconic film it is known today.
Even watching the trailer, you can see Hollywood wasn’t very comfortable with a right-wing cop being a hero and the accused killer having his constitutional rights violated. The trailer introduces “a movie about a couple of killers, Harry Callahan and a homicidal maniac. The one with the badge is Harry. There are a lot of reasons they called him ‘Dirty Harry’ and he keeps adding new ones.” The trailer focuses on how Harry’s partners wind up quitting, hospitalized or dead. Doesn’t seem like the Hollywood studio thought audiences should like Harry.
But they loved him, even though the character and film were protested at the Academy Awards. Fourth highest-grossing film of the year, making nine times its budget.
“Dirty Harry” opens with a monument to San Francisco police officers killed in the line of duty, then shifts to the sniper’s first murder. It’s evident which side the filmmakers are on, despite the studio’s marketing.
Despite the buildup, Harry is a pretty reluctant hero. He sees a bank robbery in progress, and has it phoned in for street cops to handle, rather than interrupt his lunch. But events force him into action, and Harry doesn’t even shoot first. Some vigilante cop. But he is tough. If the doctor makes him choose between cutting his suit pants and pain, he chooses pain.
Eastwood is this entire movie. It’s a character movie. The plot, which has been imitated repeatedly since, is pretty straightforward and, as it turns out, irrelevant. What makes this film is Harry’s interaction with everyone else, the Mayor, the Police Chief, his new partner and his partner’s wife, and the psychological games with the bank robber who didn’t “feel lucky.”
The rooftop sniper who is Harry’s adversary is about as unnuanced a character as can be written, and well-played by Andrew Robinson, who makes the “Scorpio” sniper into an interesting, psychologically-driven nut. Not a single redeeming value in Scorpio.
Sorry, Warner Brothers. These are not two sides of the same coin. Scorpio is nuts. Harry, when provoked, responds with ruthless violence.
At a time when the Supreme Court and legislatures were more concerned with protecting people accused of crimes than those who were the victims of such, Dirty Harry and, to a great extent the #1 film of the year “The French Connection,” gave a little tilt of the scales back to the boys with the badges.
“Dirty Harry” became a five-film franchise on the strength of Eastwood’s performance and Harry became iconic. Unlike most franchises, the original was the lowest-grossing of the series, with each film increasing its box office until the final film, 17 years after the original’s release.
If you want to see how to create an icon, give “Dirty Harry” another take.
Eastwood is as anti-establishment as they come. Check out the scene after he captures the sniper with evidence and a confession, and the combined efforts of the District Attorney, the Judicial system and Academia tell Harry they have to let the killer walk free. Want to know why this series became iconic? This is why.