In December 1971, Dirty Harry appeared on movie screens. Starring the then rising movie star, Clint Eastwood, the film proved as controversial as it was successful at the box office.
Today, Mr. Eastwood is Movie Royalty. It is worth remembering, however, that he failed in his first attempts to conquer Hollywood. Playing bit parts in films, in roles that kept getting bittier; he was rescued from penury by the television Western Rawhide. In acting terms, he then had a secure pay packet plus some degree of celebrity, but the latter was brittle, and the former the security of the grave.
Mr. Eastwood’s career appeared to be going nowhere. His next move was as bizarre as it would be instrumental in making him first an international screen star and, then, later, a movie star back in Hollywood. This was to be sweet revenge for the actor who had found himself rejected by Hollywood movie studios before being cast into the pit of television, a place from which few acting careers emerged. But Mr. Eastwood represented a new breed of actor who used television to hone his craft. Like fellow television stars Steve McQueen and James Garner, Mr. Eastwood was to make the transition from the small to the big screen. His path was by far the most unorthodox of the three, however, even if ultimately it catapulted Mr. Eastwood to a movie stardom that would outstrip all of his contemporaries.
By the 1960s, the Western genre had lost its way. Where the genre reinvented itself—albeit briefly—was in Europe. Italian-Spanish-German co-productions filmed in Tito’s Yugoslavia or Franco’s Spain were the unlikely fountainhead for this revival. What was at first to become known derisively as “Spaghetti Westerns” rapidly became a box office sensation throughout Europe. Laced liberally with the grotesque and the macabre, these films took the usual Western themes and subverted them with a dark humor. By so doing, these Euro-Westerns created something wholly distinct, and a cinematic world very far from that of John Wayne’s.
With few options, and even fewer offers of work in the United States, Mr. Eastwood took a gamble and travelled to Italy to play the lead in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964). It could have been a quickly forgotten “B” movie. Instead, it and its two sequels—For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966)—turned out to be box office gold. The Dollars Trilogy, as it came to be known, was to be directed by Leone; all three films would have iconic soundtracks by Ennio Morricone; and, all would star Mr. Eastwood.
Eventually, The Dollars Trilogy made its way across the Atlantic to experience equal success with the American movie-going public. On Mr. Eastwood’s return to the States, and after a number of routine Hollywood-style Spaghetti Westerns, none of which were as good as Leone’s originals, he diversified his screen roles in war pictures, thrillers, psychological dramas, and even musicals. Almost a decade after leaving America to find work abroad, at last Mr. Eastwood had become a star in Hollywood. He was to become something more, however.
The “Dirty” Harry Callaghan of the 1971 film’s title is a rather implausible Police Inspector with the San Francisco Police Department. In Dirty Harry, Callaghan is as violent as the thugs and psychopaths he pursues. This was something new on screen. Until then, Hollywood Police Officers were played as respectable men, upholding the shared values of the wider society in which they lived, enforcers of the law rather than acting above it.
Callaghan does not play according to that, or indeed any, rulebook. He is a loner who chooses to operate free of all police bureaucracy, seemingly without concern. He is, in effect, the traditional Western hero transposed to a late twentieth century urban setting.
In this regard, Callaghan resembles Mickey Spillane’s hard-boiled private investigator Mike Hammer of the 1950s book series—one of that series’ titles, I, the Jury, neatly summing up Callaghan’s modus operandi. Hammer’s on-page vigilante antics horrified the literati of 1950s New York, not least because the novels were phenomenal bestsellers. In just five years, between 1947 and 1952, Spillane served up seven Hammer novels. By the mid-1950s, those seven titles were among the ten bestsellers of all-time. Once, at a cocktail party, Spillane met an East Coast literary critic who upbraided the writer for polluting the bestseller list. Spillane replied, “You’re lucky I didn’t write another three.”
There is something in that exchange which mirrors the later commercial success of Dirty Harry and the resultant critical opprobrium that was to be heaped upon Mr. Eastwood. To understand this, however, one needs to look further afield than Hollywood.
By the end of the 1960s, each night television beamed the horrors of Vietnam into American living rooms. At the same time, at movie theatres across the land Hollywood no longer mirrored how Americans wished to see themselves. Instead, moviemakers seemed enamoured with hippie dropouts, sexual deviants, and draft dodgers. The Silver Screen became a shattered mirror of distorted and incoherent voices that disturbed more than entertained the audiences watching.
Yet, against this background, Richard Nixon had come back from the political wilderness to claim a stunning victory for the Republican Party in the 1968 Presidential Election. America had spoken, Nixon said at his Presidential Inauguration, and it was “the voice of the great majority of Americans—the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators.” It appeared this constituency was more numerous than many had thought.
Also in 1968, Steve McQueen had scored box office success with the à la mode police drama: Bullitt. Set in San Francisco, the McQueen police character, Frank Bullitt, has only the semblance of a police officer. Equally as much a loner as the later Callaghan, both characters are alienated from their superior officers if for different reasons. Bullitt despises the Establishment as represented by those superior officers and their political masters. In this aspect McQueen’s character is more counter-cultural than law and order. In contrast, Callaghan would despise his police superiors solely for being weak on the perpetrators of crime; so weak, in fact, that there is, under Callaghan’s glib one-liners, a visceral rage against their hypocritical inaction. By 1971, Mr. Eastwood’s character was tapping into a wider rage that was then seething through a large segment of American society, the same constituency who had voted for Nixon just a few years earlier. On screen, it is this rage that propels Callaghan to become less a law enforcement officer than an enforcer of his laws.
In Dirty Harry this is nowhere more exemplified than when Callaghan is confronted about his arrest tactics. To free a girl being held hostage, he tortures the reptilian psychopath Scorpio (played by Andy Robinson). When, later, Callaghan is told the confession and weapons retrieved from Scorpio’s lair, to say nothing of the dead girl’s body, are all inadmissible as evidence, the police inspector is rightly outraged. We watch as a shabbily dressed bureaucrat berates Callaghan over the so-called “Miranda warning.” This was the 1966 United States Supreme Court decision confirming that criminal suspects must have their rights read to them prior to any interrogation. Thinking only of the victim, Callaghan had dispensed with this while torturing Scorpio, and, what’s more, later, makes no apology for doing so.
Predictably, liberal film critics loathed Dirty Harry. In particular, they seized upon the torture scene as well as other aspects of the plot to come up with a catalogue of perceived “crimes” committed by Mr. Eastwood. The Scorpio figure is obviously counter-cultural, speaking in that argot, and dressed accordingly. He even wears a very San Francisco “love and peace” sign. He might be a rampaging killer but to some film critics he was representative of an emerging America with which they identified, one seemingly under attack from the Frontier Justice of Mr. Eastwood’s perceived alter ego.
Reminiscent of Spillane, despite these negative critical pronouncements, Dirty Harry was a box office smash: one of the highest-grossing movies of 1971. As well as a huge success worldwide, it was this film that moved Mr. Eastwood from Hollywood star to a Hollywood Super Star.
In the four Dirty Harry sequels that followed, the Callaghan character becomes more parody. In any event, the unashamed right-wing politics of the 1971 film were watered down. Mr. Eastwood has perhaps always been more libertarian than conservative, Callaghan more anti-hero than hero. Still, for a brief moment when cinema seemed to be dominated by the Left, Mr. Eastwood and his collaborators reminded Hollywood of a different viewpoint and another audience.
In the 1972 Presidential Election, less than a year after the release of Dirty Harry, Nixon was returned to power in a landslide victory.
Republished with the gracious permission of the St. Austin Review (September/October 2018).
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a still from Dirty Harry (1971).