When I scoured the films that I've picked so far for Cinematical Movie Club, I realized there was a palpable absence of action on the list. Sure, JD likes gun play in Heathers, The Deer Hunter goes to war, and The Godfather digs into the world of organized crime, but for the most part, the action isn't the main focus. So it was high-time we got into some well-paced thrills.
Though I'm no NRA member and have no personal interest in guns outside of the water variety, my favorite action films always turn the camera on gun-toters -- good guys or bad guys, good films or bad films. There's just something about it that pulls me in as much for Kuffs as for Reservoir Dogs. But I wanted to go back further for tonight's gun action, to the man instrumental in molding the modern gun-blazing action hero, Clint Eastwood and Dirty Harry.
As much as subsequent films have copied aspects and style from the 1971 action flick (hello John McClane and harried missions through Manhattan), for the most part Dirty Harry is an entirely different cinematic beast. Here's a film that does get funky with its soundtrack, and offers up one of the most iconic cinematic quotes of all time, but is measured and patient in a way that modern action movies are too scared to be. It's artistry without spectacle, right down to the final moments that are not urging and begging for peppiness with hard rock anthems and loud tunes, hoping to make you leave the theater on an upbeat note, but rather a simple and sombre soundtrack as the credits begin to scroll. It's much like Harry himself -- he's not cool because he tries to be or knows how to be. He's just cool because he his own unique self.
Yet, at the same time, Harry Callahan is one of the most sketchy heroes cinema has offered up (one that Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael called fascist, though our Jeffrey M. Anderson called Libertarian). For the most part on screen, the hero goes one of two ways -- he's flawed but good, or bad and anti-hero irresistible. Harry, however, is the good guy who has the right intentions and for the most part, right common sense, but his actions aren't so stellar. Here's a guy with gun talent and smarts, but whose success is largely based on luck as he keeps on fighting crime while his partners fall one by one. It's a good thing he never faced Rain Man. He's lucky that getting distracted by some naked women doesn't stop him from ultimately catching his man. He's lucky Scorpio doesn't start picking off the kids on the bus -- you know the killer is sick enough to react in that way; he's lucky that as much as he's a pro marksman, he doesn't shoot the hostage Scorpio takes. His luck exists in many avenues, like any action star, but Harry's luck is linked to this almost carelessness for the safety and rights of the world at large. The mayhem in Dirty Harry is not only the hero trying to avoid attack, but the hero being dangerous.
The film frames the higher-ups as flimsy and too chained to the particularities of the law (a complaint once expressed to the production that you can read in the box set's book), but they have a point. We all know Scorpio is guilty and Callahan had first-hand knowledge of that, but there's also the whole red-tape-hating style to consider. It's not only catching the guy, but doing it legally so the charges stick. Furthermore, what if some of those children died? What if he missed his shot and fell victim to street-side friendly fire? It's extreme good fortune that the only victim of Callahan's shenanigans in Dirty Harry -- besides the villain -- is his partner, who signed up for the danger. Harry is basically a vigilante with a badge, and the same concerns apply. He might have a point when he talks about how he can discern someone has the intent to rape, but his bosses also have a point when they try to uphold the law.
At the same time, though they gripe, their snarky and badged vigilante is just what they need and desire. That's why they call him "Dirty Harry" -- he gets "every dirty job that comes along." As much as they have, and want, to chastise his practices, there's a reason they turn to him. His style works and his luck is good enough that the bad press doesn't linger for too long, and should it ever become too troublesome, they can excuse the actions to one lone man and wipe their hands clean. His actions aren't condoned, but it's quite obvious that they're necessary -- making the film work as a comfort blanket and hug to those who think the law is flawed. The film is even based on a real case -- the Zodiac Killer -- allowing Harry's style to solve what the real-life police never could.
It was obvious that the plan was to imbibe Callahan with a certain amount of cool -- Frank Sinatra was initially lined up for the part -- but by turning to Clint Eastwood, the project was given the last essential piece of grey area in the film about a man who lives in common sense black and white. He has a certain humanity and often an easy-to-relate-to opinion of things, yet he's dynamic for film in a way that could never work in real life. He's the perfect hero for the screen because a fictional, cinematic world is the only way Callahan can be careless, cool, and irresistible.
At every turn, there's something to talk about, gripe about, and discuss. It's never simple and easy to discern, no matter how much Callahan might disagree with that sentiment. So, rather than going on here, I'll get to some of the many topics up for discussion.
- Which side of the line do you fall on? Is Harry skilled and lucky, or just plain skilled and unstoppable?
- The film -- and subsequent sequels -- bring up interesting discussion points about minorities. There are racial slurs, from himself and others, but also an overall dedication to always pitting Harry with an unexpected minority partner. Then again, these partners never last. What do you think the film and series says about race?
- In a big-spectacle world like we have, is it possible for a new type of Harry Callahan to make waves, or is the assured and carefully paced style of Dirty Harry something that only works nostalgically?
- Just for fun: Considering that we've got The Expendables on the way, plus Red, in this current trend of older folks getting back in on the action, should we get another in that vein starring Eastwood either reprising Callahan or taking on another tough-as-nails senior?
Next Week's Film: Limbo | Add it to your Netflix queue
Last Week's Film: Chasing Amy