Crime films have always been accused of turning men into killers, since they often pull back on the consequences of murder and thievery to the extent they make it look like you can get away with both of them if you’re sneaky enough. Even though Dirty Harry focuses on the cop, not the killer, it still shows the title character as being no better than the man he’s trying to catch: he shows no sympathy towards anyone, he has no emotional range, he’s ultimately an unrealistic beauty standard for men. Worst of all, he’s equally as unempathetic about the delicacy of life as the Scorpio killer. How is this guy supposed to be a hero? Because he has a cool catchphrase? Not on my watch.
So why do they call him “dirty” Harry? Because he does every dirty job, and always gets the dirty end of the stick. It’s a clever nickname even if he’s the type of character you just can’t connect with on a personal level no matter how hard you try. He briefly says that he’s a widower, but that doesn’t affect his character in any way besides making him more independent. Now, it’s admittedly effective how all these high stakes are pressured around him, including what the Scorpio killer demands out of him in order to stop the murders, but those are all outer conflicts, nothing inner. To distance you even further, all the scenes are too darkly lit to make the villain’s scenery chewing any more tolerable. Seriously, the cinematography is so bad, you actually see some specks of dirt on the camera lens in a few shots, and the editing can’t properly crop out any time the camera loses focus.
It’s hard not to notice the lack of any development Harry makes. In the beginning, he refuses to work with a partner; in the end, he still refuses to work with a partner. I wish I could say he’s the only one in the script with this problem, but he’s not. There’s especially no hope or redemption for the Scorpio killer, he’s nothing more than a bad guy who screams in pain with all the haminess of a comic book villain. Oh, and Harry also has that one partner who is barely even there. Right upon his introduction, he seems to be set up as a strong contrast to round out Harry, but it’s never utilized. You’d honestly forget his character was ever even present, although he is there to help make the shoot-offs from the rooftops more intense, it’s not enough to make you realize he exists. It’s not about the characters at all, it’s just about the action, as the final showdown between Harry and Scorpio happens in what seems intentionally set as an awesome location for one.
Though it’s not just that Harry is too reserved to be a relatable character, as the production values are now so dated that they’re just laughable to watch. Both younger folks of today and those who were young when this movie first came out will scoff at the bad green screen effects around a driving car, as well as the fake blood effects that look like ketchup. The corniness of the feature reaches its peak ironically within the first three minutes, when a girl gets shot dead in a swimming pool: the acting is over the top, the blood effects are under the top, it’s so laughably bad to look at. In addition, this Bathsheba predicament of the girl sets the stage for this feature’s predatorial view of women. At one instance Harry even spies on a naked girl, and we’re still expected to see him as morally better than the man he’s trying to kill.
Yet there are a few things that still hold up in this product of its time, one being how it draws the stark difference between day and night to make the day feel more refreshing than the night, and vice-versa. It sets for some great dramatic effect when the setting moves to a football field. These little touches to atmosphere make you feel happy by how things turn out in the end, and help you forget about how much it shoves aside any actors who aren’t White. Yeah, you read that right, this is a racist movie: Black actors are only seen as either criminals or a doctor while Asian actors are in the background without speaking parts. So depending on whether you’re focusing on the darkness/lightness contrast of the image or the darkness/lightness contrast of the skins, it’ll affect your impression of the film immensely.
If anyone seems likely to appreciate the work here, it would be other police officers, as a strong understanding is displayed as to what it’s like for cops to catch a murderer. The very first frame lists names of San Francisco police officers on a plaque who are honored for giving their lives. For those who lived like Harry, they’ll feel right at home, especially if they too lived in San Francisco. There’s a giant neon “Jesus Saves” sign that is shot down by Scorpio, so you can imagine the personal impact that type of imagery would land on a San Francisco native. With the greatly dramatic music that brings out the heartbeat of Harry, anyone who actually went through a cat-and-mouse chase around a city like that would instantly feel what Harry feels. So while not for most viewers, this old feature can be potentially appreciated by those who lived it out.
It’s common for people to wish for the old days to come back, to return to a time when they were younger and supposedly more innocent with less responsibility. But come on, were things really any better in the early 1970s compared to right now? When you think back to that decade, many movies were like Dirty Harry: grisly, dark, depressing, discouraging, not a single likable character in sight, and making the most out of Hollywood’s newly introduced rating system. I wouldn’t want to go back to this time. Things really weren’t better back then, much like how things aren’t that great today. Thus, there really is no value you would get out of watching this popular definer of the cop movie genre, even if you are a police officer or San Francisco native. There’s nothing to it besides a quotable Clint Eastwood catchphrase; no matter how satisfying it is to hear, it offers no benefits.
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!