Monday, October 28, 2013


When one thinks of 70s cinema, "Dirty Harry" is rarely mentioned as one of the decade's best. While it's not exactly a forgotten film, it just doesn't seem to have the same respect as the other great films of the era. While watching the film however, it's easy to notice that it features many of the same trademark stylistic qualities as those famed films by Francis Ford Coppola et al. What made the 1970s so great, is the way that the filmmakers approached film as art, while still ensuring they served their function as entertainment. This is clearly evident in this film.
The plot is instantly recognizable as your usual crime thriller, as the title character attempts to track down a madman named "the Scorpio Killer". We are quickly introduced this serial killer's murderous intent from the very first scene, as he takes out an innocent victim sniper-style. It's a striking opening, not only for the blunt wickedness of the act, but also for the way it is shot. Bruce Surtees (the cinematographer) uses an overhead perspective which instills a strong sense of place (the city of San Francisco) while also establishing the idea of rooftops as a sniper's playground. In fact, the angular metropolis layout reminded me of video games like SimCity. Evidently, even this bright sunny locale is prone to random acts of violence. As we get deeper into the plot, the gritty reality of this danger continues to be fostered through this impeccable cinematography.
To support these daring images, the director Don Siegel and his team of screenwriters also make conscious decisions to portray the setting as a place filled with vice. It's a film that is packed with flawed characters, including our hero Harry. In particular, Siegel isn't shy with his depictions of nudity, racism and violent crime.
As Harry navigates the city to capture this criminal, the film also illuminates the daily procedural aspects of his job. Apart from the murder investigations, the film does an interesting thing by alternately showing police work as annoyance. Yes, Harry has to deal with serial killers, but he also has to deal with more trivial cases of people doing dumb things (like threatening to jump off buildings). It's a fascinating side to police work that is rarely ever included in similar thrillers. This further adds to the realism of the screenplay, showing some of the other variables that make crime-solving difficult.
The final aspect that makes this film compelling is the actors. The casting is simply perfect, with Clint Eastwood effortlessly embodying the confident arrogance of Harry, while Andrew Robinson is suitably diabolical as the villain. The quality of these performances prove to be very important as Harry is forced to make tough (sometimes unlawful), but understandable decisions to prevent further murders. Likewise, if it weren't for the sinister actions and deranged demeanour that Robinson conveys, Harry's blurred moral lines wouldn't be nearly as justifiable. Of course, each viewer brings their own personal set of values, but the script goes a long way in fleshing out the conflicted morality at play.
Overall, this film is the impressive result of a confident director making the most of a talented cast and crew. Despite the pulpy elements of its crime thriller genre, the film doesn't rest on its laurels. It's just as accomplished (smart writing, artful cinematography, skillful acting etc.) as a prestige drama. Truly, the fact that "Dirty Harry" is often seen as a minor effort in the pantheon of 70s cinema emphatically proves that famous saying - "They don't make em like they used to".

This film is part of my List of Shame.


  1. After your very thoughtful comments on 12 Years a Slave, I had to check out your blog.

    I really like your idea of a "list of shame" for movies that you should have seen by now, but haven't. I must admit that Dirty Harry would be on my list as well. I have a golden opportunity to see this on the big screen this week because my local cinema is playing a revival of it. But there are 5 current films I must watch and review. Argh!! So many movies! Not enough time!! :-)

    1. Thanks for visiting Mark! Really appreciate it. :)

      The 'List of Shame' is so useful! There are so many new films being released that it's hard to catch up the classics.