Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) is a no-nonsense detective in 1970s San Francisco, where the political correctness is thick, Miranda-warning era sensitized bureaucrats rule, and crooks are coddled (every thug in Dirty Harry has the sneering, arrogance of a punk who knows that the law is on his side). The baddest guy in a sea of bad guys is the film’s facsimile of the Zodiac Killer, a vicious beatnik with Woodstock hair, an army fatigue jacket and a peace symbol on his belt buckle. Callahan is called in to help with the case. He is immediately accosted by the D.A. for his excessive brutality.
District Attorney Rothko: You’re lucky I’m not indicting you for assault with intent to commit murder.
District Attorney Rothko: Where the hell does it say that you’ve got a right to kick down doors, torture suspects, deny medical attention and legal counsel? Where have you been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? I mean, you must have heard of the Fourth Amendment. What I’m saying is that man had rights.
Harry Callahan: Well, I’m all broken up over that man’s rights!
In fighting with the mayor – who wants to give in to the killer’s demands – Callahan is blunt and dismissive.
Mayor: I don’t want any more trouble like you had last year in the Fillmore district. Understand? That’s my policy.
Harry: Yeah, well, when an adult male is chasing a female with intent to commit rape, I shoot the bastard. That’s my policy.
Mayor: Intent? How did you establish that?
Harry: Well a naked man is chasing a woman through an alley with a butcher’s knife and a hard-on, I figure he isn’t out collecting for the Red Cross.
Even in his ultimate scene, where he mocks one of three hold-up men, Callahan embodies the rugged conservative fantasy of turned-tables and frontier justice.
Harry: Ah Ah, I know what you’re thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya punk?
Punk. He’s a punk. Not a suspect. Not a person. Not a downtrodden, misunderstood product of an uncaring society.
Paul Newman was offered the film, but legend has it he was nervous about its politics, and suggested Eastwood for the part. Great suggestion. Eastwood has commented on Dirty Harry that “It’s not about a man who stands for violence, it’s about a man who can’t understand society tolerating violence.” Pauline Kael called the film “fascist.” This is, however, the same Pauline Kael who was stunned when McGovern lost in 1972, saying “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon.”
Politics aside, this is an excellent picture. Eastwood is mythic, the story moves, the San Francisco locale is used to great advantage, and the killer is truly frightening.