July 3, 2014

The Winding Moral Road of 'Dirty' Harry Callahan

When you sit down to watch the Dirty Harry film series, the oft-iconic five film series starring
the universal man's man Clint Eastwood, you are not treated to anything resembling continuity.

When it comes to the more physical universe, for example, you'll see many familiar faces. For example, please meet:

Main Bank Robber Involved in Classic Scene

and Evil Pimp

and Ambiguous Black Militant Leader

and goofy, dog-giving never-before-seen best friend.

Hell, you'll meet entirely different characters from entirely different movies with the same names. I introduce to you: 

Lieutenant Briggs

and Captain Briggs

Wait. Didn't I see Captain Briggs from Sudden Impact in The Enforcer too?

Oops. That's Captain McKay. Wait ... what was I talking about?

Oh, right: continuity. Yes, in a physical/universe sense, the Dirty Harry Quintology really doesn't have a sense of keeping things tight (except, apparently, every side character's need for a mustache). In the first three films, there are a few recurring characters but they hardly factor into the stories. Inspector Harry Callahan seemingly meets best friends and lovers in each movie and loses them in a kind of less attentive Bondian fashion. 

It should be noted, however, that all of Harry's partners, without fail, are cruelly killed or maimed in some fashion ... or are victims of racial/gender stereotypes of some sort.

This is Al Quan, Harry's partner in The Dead Pool. He takes down bad guys with kung fu without irony. Incidentally, he is impaled by blown up car parts thanks to a deadly remote control car. Not a joke. I think he lives ... but he isn't important enough to check on.

Okay, so despite that one exception, you won't find the kind of continuity you'd find in something like the Lethal Weapon and its three sequels (which featured all the same background extras and rebuilt sets with attention to details like character tattoos and referencing past events).

And while it is fun to point out the many character/universal differences in the series, in a more serious way, it is fun to examine the various worldviews and morals of the title character. Not only does each Dirty Harry movie seem stand alone, its one connecting thread Clint Eastwood playing a character named Harry Callahan, but it contains drastic shifts in tone.

The tonal shifts are so drastic in fact that when each film tries to establish itself as a franchise and diverts from the main plot to cut to 'Dirty Harry Moments' (similar to James Bond moments but with more mustaches and really poorly located diners ...seriously, is every restaurant in this film series in the most crime riddled areas of San Francisco?), it can seem kind of jarring.

We'll go into more detail later but let's take the Clint Eastwood directed Sudden Impact. While far from the best film in the series, Eastwood throws a number of themes at us. For one, you have the iconic diner scene in which a very famous line is uttered:

This was a scene typical of the Dirty Harry sequels. Don't worry about the main story or plot. That grinds to a halt because, well, Harry is thirsty. Just like in the first film, Harry has to find himself in a situation in which he must rescue people whilst dealing out physical punishment and causing as much mayhem as humanly possible.

One liners? Check. Cocky, taking-Harry-totally-for-granted bad guys? Check. Bizarre gun physics and complete disregard for civilian safety? Check. Entertainment? Hell yeah! It's all light and fluffy and no one gets hurt.

Except the major problem is that Sudden Impact's main story, which Eastwood likes to take us away from for goofy ultra violence, is about a woman who, along with her sister, were brutally raped by a gang of local drunkards and maniacs and goes throughout San Francisco and San Pedro wiping them out by first shooting their dicks off and then blowing their heads away (I'd find clips for this to go with the above craziness but I'm kind of scared to type, in any combination, the words 'impact' and 'rape' into YouTube).

Phew, I don't know about you, but in-between vivid flashbacks showing the rape and visceral depictions of men's genitalia being blown away, I love a little wisecracking, tongue in cheek action sequence to liven things up. Don't you?

But this is just one example of the film series' unevenness. With the exception of the first film, each sequel debates with itself on what it should be: a franchise action piece or a serious look at the world's problems. Sadly, most of the sequels try to have both and sometimes fail at both. But these are all isolated to one film each.

When looking at the entire film series, the biggest inconsistencies are with Harry Callahan's moral code. They drastically change from film to film. What he thinks is slightly acceptable in film one and deplorable in film two is totally cool in film four. He'll use his gut in film one and three but will actually investigate, using the resources around him, in films two and five. His approach to women and minorities ebbs and flows. His ability to follow rules is non-existent in films one and four but essential to his actions in films two and five.

All Clint Eastwood really gives the part, in terms of continuity from film to film, is, as I said above, the name Harry Callahan. While this seems like a slight on the actor, it isn't. This was just the case of stories and ideas being born first and the character of Dirty Harry being added on later.

In the end, Harry Callahan is a new man each and every go around. This crude, unscientific picture guide will tell you the Harry Callahan that appears in each film:


For better or worse, HELL YEAH! THE SYSTEM!

The system is pretty good AND is equal opportunity!

Fuck the system???

HARPOON GUN! Oh, and the system will be televised.
Let's look at the first, second and third films of the series primarily. In the first Dirty Harry, Harry Callahan is the loose cannon we all know and love. But do we really love him? Harry is insensitive, lacking any emotion or affect, is cruel, borderline racist and is not against torturing suspects and harassing them when they seemingly beat the system. His biggest moment is at the end, after dispatching the Scorpio killer, when he throws his badge in a lake, disgusted that the system couldn't stop Scorpio but he could. Why need a system when your gut and bullets can take care of the bad guys alone?

Makes sense for the character of Harry as introduced in the first film. So, then we go to Magnum Force.

In Magnum Force, Harry Callahan is a mildly temperamental police officer who participates in authorized skill competitions (would you see the Harry from the first film doing this?), using forensics to aid in his investigation (as opposed to his gut) and is completely disgusted with a gang (or 'death squad') of motorcycle cops who are wiping out the worst criminals in the city without due process.

Wait, what? Is this the same Dirty Harry? Wasn't he basically dying for the chance to have a death squad of his own so he could take care of bad guys? Well, Harry changed a lot between films, I guess. He says he doesn't like the system but accepts it until a better one comes along but, wasn't he trying to invent his own system in the first film?

And that brings us to Sudden Impact. In that film, Harry's love interest Jennifer (Sondra Locke) also happens to be the killer going around shooting balls and heads off as revenge for the rapes she endured that left her tortured (and artistic, apparently) and her sister comatose.

Harry, at first, tries to stop her because, well, he is against premeditated, non-thug related murder, but he eventually sides with her when he sees how scummy the rapists are. In the end, thanks to happenstance, he is able to place the murders on the now-deceased head bad-guy and let's Jennifer go free.

Wait, what? Wasn't Harry railing against vigilante justice in Magnum Force? But wait, wasn't he kind of sort of advocating it in Dirty Harry? I'm confused.

System schmystem
So, I guess I've taken a lot of time and typed a lot of words simply to say that while the Dirty Harry films all share Clint Eastwood, a .44 Magnum and crazy action sequences, they certainly don't share philosophies. And that can make for some confused viewing when watching the films in order.

In some cases, you side with bad good guys. In others, good bad guys. Etc. Etc. Etc. It makes me wonder about the planning stages of the films and Eastwood's involvement in them. Was he interested in just 'good' stories (I use 'good' loosely because I watched The Dead Pool and good does not exist there) or was Eastwood (and the writers) trying to say something about society, conveniently wrapping around fantastical sequences of mayhem?

I almost view it as alternate universes. The Harry from Dirty Harry wouldn't function in the world of Magnum Force. However, you could see him getting by in Sudden Impact. It seems each film offers a different perspective on what is good and what is bad. Harry himself goes from anti-hero to hero from film to film.

In the end, it is a fascinating approach to a film series that has never felt organized or planned. Instead of writing the characters into corners by keeping them true to form, growing only from point A and thus only moving forward to a limited B and C, the producers, writers and actors basically take a clean slate and start over each time, telling the story they want to tell, regardless of character history.

So, in actuality, these aren't Dirty Harry films in the sense that they are movies with Harry Callahan and his reaction to an ever changing world. No, these are films in which a man named 'Dirty' Harry just happens to appear and, interspersed throughout gun fights and ironic mutterings such as 'swell' and 'marvelous', ends up being involved in a kaleidoscope of human emotion.

In each film, you can pick a side. Hell, Harry picks all of them. But it wouldn't be a unique film series, through the classic, good films and the horribly bad ones, if in its attempt to remain utterly inconsistent they actually become consistent on accident. These films are social essays whether they wanted them to be or not and Harry is simply our ever-evolving psyche, tackling new ideas.

I'm not complaining. In fact, I feel lucky. Punk.

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