Saturday, June 26, 2010

"Dirty Harry:" The thing about fascists

Title: Dirty Harry
Released: 1971
Genre: Rogue cop story
Notable for: Taking Clint from star to icon
Coolest thing Clint does: Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?

A certain segment of movie critics squirted a big stain on Clint's career by calling "Dirty Harry" a fascist film.

Our guess is many of these critics were motivated by resentment because they spent the better part of a decade dismissing Clint as a bad actor who made bad films that appealed to stupid audiences. "Dirty Harry" instantly transformed Clint into something bigger than a movie star.

The movie had such cultural impact that in Brad's day, perhaps half the young males alive could recite Clint's speech about the .44 magnum being the most powerful handgun in the world. If a buddy tried to take a man's last beer, or commit some equally objectionable offense, there was a good chance the man would warn him off by saying, "Do you feel lucky, punk?" That wasn't even the real line from the film, but, like "Play it again, Sam," it should have been.

"Dirty Harry" is first and foremost a great cop story with lots of action. Harry kicks major ass. Scorpio, the villain, is so weirdly evil he is almost a comic-book character, but that's OK.

The main storyline follows Clint's pursuit of Scorpio, a demented serial killer who tries to blackmail the city of San Francisco into paying him. Eventually the gutless mayor wants to pay. Clint, a homicide cop, surmises Scorpio will never stop killing because he enjoys it too much.

Along the way, Clint stumbles into random situations like a bank robbery and a suicide attempt. Humor is thrown in, like the famous early scene where Clint keeps munching a hot dog during a shootout with the bank robbers.

Dirty Harry Callahan is not a sensitive cop. For one of many examples, he prevents the potential suicide by explaining to the guy what a mess he'll make -- arms and legs everywhere -- after he jumps off a ledge. He is disgusted to learn his new partner, Chico, has a sociology degree. It is fair to say Dirty Harry was politically incorrect years before the term was invented, but that's a far cry from fascism.

The fascist charge was perhaps based partly on a false premise that Dirty Harry is a racist. Early on, a fellow cop explains that Callahan hates everyone equally -- and then he elaborates with a long list of racial slurs to describe all the people Harry hates. But Clint never uses any slurs except when he calls Chico a "spick," and that seemed a test to see how he would react. He really does treat everyone equally.

The main evidence cited for fascism is Dirty Harry ignores constitutional protections like Miranda warnings, search warrants and the right to an attorney in his pursuit of Scorpio. By the end, Callahan violates direct orders to stop "harassing" Scorpio.

If the movie deserves criticism on this political ground, the real offense was making the law-enforcement system appear neutered by its concern for the rights of the accused. After Clint catches Scorpio, a prosecutor and judge lecture Harry for violating his rights. They say Clint contaminated all the evidence with illegal police methods so Scorpio is released. "I couldn't convict him of spitting on the sidewalk," the judge says.

This is bullshit.

For one thing, Scorpio shot Chico, a crime worse than spitting on a sidewalk, and Clint contaminated no evidence in that case. More importantly, anyone who knows anything about the American justice system knows no cop-shooting serial killer would have been released in 1971 (or now), even if excuses for police misconduct had to be, shall we say, fashioned imaginatively.

The worst thing Clint does to Scorpio is step on a wound to force him to reveal where a young girl was buried alive. The prosecutor calls this "torture" but in real life damn few prosecutors would refuse to look the other way under those circumstances.

Dirty Harry did none of those things for the sheer thrill of applying police force. He did it to stop Scorpio, with or without search warrants or the blessing of his bosses.

In the final scene, Callahan even resigns from the police state by throwing his badge away, clearly unaware four sequels were coming.

Stupid audiences grasped the true lesson of "Dirty Harry:" A real man is guided by his sense of right and wrong, not orders from above.

That, as the records from Nuremberg show, is the opposite of a fascist.

Next up: "Joe Kidd."


  1. Have you seen this poster of Dirty Harry?

    Someone is using it to promote a showing of the film.