Lessons from Dirty Harry

Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?

This past fall Sam and I were scrolling through Roku – or maybe it was another streaming service; I can’t remember – and we came across Dirty Harry, the iconic movie starring Clint Eastwood as the San Francisco homicide detective who isn’t afraid to get rough with the criminals in order to save his city.

I definitely know who Clint Eastwood is. Although to be honest, prior to Dirty Harry, I was always a bit reluctant to watch his movies. I don’t do well with violence and gore, so I typically stay away from films that would likely include that. My folks watched Gran Torino a while ago, and my mom told me that while it was a very good movie, there some parts in there I probably wouldn’t do well with seeing. In the back of my mind I wrote off Clint Eastwood films as being great, but probably not for me.

Then we finally watched Dirty Harry and I realized how wrong I was.

I absolutely loved everything about it – how it was filmed, the story itself and the characters. It’s hard not to relate to Harry Callahan, to think back to the times in life when I knew I was doing the right thing for the right outcome, even if the methods weren’t conventional and caused more headache. He’s raw and real, and if I do say so myself – the raw masculinity on my TV was doing something to me.

I’m going to move on from that last statement, lest this post gets weird. Anyways…

This past Christmas I bought Sam the complete Dirty Harry series, and we just finished all five movies. I’m not going to turn this into a summary of each plot, but I will specify which movie I’m referring to as I go along. Overall, the series is great and each film gets better than the next. I told Sam that this is the only series where the first one is incredible and will always be iconic, but the following four don’t get stale or feel repetitive. Each story is strong and even though you know Dirty Harry is going to defeat the bad guys, actually seeing him do it will keep you on the edge of your seat.

I read that Clint Eastwood actually did his own stunts for the movies, which makes the fight scenes even more impressive.

Dirty Harry – both the titular character and the series – doesn’t sugarcoat anything. There’s obviously police shootouts, and there’s the expected blood which actually didn’t bother me like I thought it would. Truth be told, the only killing that bothered me came from Magnum Force, when the pimp killed the prostitute in the back of the cab by pouring drain cleaner down her throat. In the movie you could see something going on but didn’t figure really figure out what it was until a later scene at the coroner’s office. That scene stayed with me a few nights.

There’s also plenty of topless women in the first three films, if that’s your thing. I noticed them before Sam did. Take that however you will.

I caught how the first three films – which were released in 1971, 1973 and 1976 respectively – brought up topics in policing that are still relevant and debated today.

The Enforcer saw Dirty Harry assigned Det. Kate Moore as a partner. She was one of the first women hired to detective work as part of the mayor’s efforts to diversify the police force. She has no experience with arrests or the gritty parts of the job, but despite Harry’s objections to having someone so inexperienced, she gets assigned to him. Ironically, in spite of his earlier objections to promoting someone simply because of biological sex, Harry is the only one who actually treats Det. Moore like an equal. The other characters make sexist or patronizing comments to her throughout the entire movie, but somehow that’s supposed to be okay because they’re not gruff like Harry.

I shared that observation with Sam, and we talked a bit about hiring women in “masculine” professions. I’m not by any means saying women can’t be in law enforcement, physically demanding jobs or traditionally male fields. I am however going to say that in my lifetime (so far), I can’t tell you how many well-intended but frankly ignorant people I’ve met who praise the women in the above fields simply because they’re women, and can’t get over the fact women are women. I found myself getting irritated on Det. Moore’s behalf – is she supposed to be equal, in which bringing up the fact she’s a woman is irrelevant because she’s competent at her job and got it on her own merit? Or are women actually supposed to be dainty little flowers who can’t handle “man work,” which is why the fact she’s a woman is so focused on?

I also noticed that race relations are heavily focused on in the first three films, with stories and dialogues that definitely wouldn’t fly today. Most if not all the characters use racial or occupational slurs – against white people, against black people – but strangely enough, it seems natural to the time period and almost casual. However, Harry’s dialogue never crosses into that territory. He’s equally gruff with everyone.

The last two films – 1983’s Sudden Impact and 1988’s The Dead Pool – kept true to the series, but definitely felt different. Dirty Harry was older and it’s no longer the 1970s, and there was something about those two movies that made me emotional. Sudden Impact was about the murderer getting vengeance on the men who brutally raped her and her little sister 10 years prior. Sam and I found ourselves rooting for her and Harry. Seeing the bad guys get killed in this movie might have been the most satisfying movie death I’ve seen yet, even trumping Edward Scissorhands killing Jim once and for all (I should rewatch that one close to Halloween, now that I’m thinking about it.)

Last night we watched The Dead Pool and finished the series. Overall I loved it and was sad afterward to realize the movies were over. Dirty Harry is timeless. The gruff badass is who most everyone wants to be. Marching to the beat of our own drum and dealing with the fallout of others not willing to consider our way is something most of us have dealt with at some point. It’s a story of bravery and giving no damns, and letting absolutely no one stop you from your mission. In a word, it’s perfection.

I hope you all have a great weekend ahead. Sam and I are thinking we’ll watch a new movie series throughout the winter. If you have any suggestions, please let me know in the comments.

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