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A Moral Right: The Politics of Dirty Harry (2008)

Filmmakers, social scientists and authors take a provocative look at the moral, political and ethical themes of the Dirty Harry films.

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Filmmakers, social scientists and authors take a provocative look at the moral, political and ethical themes of the Dirty Harry films.

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23 July 2008 (Finland)  »

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Edgy Endorsements.
28 December 2016 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

"Dirty Harry" was a feature film released in 1971, so successful that a number of sequels followed, each weaker than the last, which is the usual progression for sequels. The original was wildly popular and the values that it embodied -- one man's conception of morality against "the establishment" -- was consistent and controversial. An organization wanted Inspector Callahan, San Francisco Police Department, to follow the rules in applying the law. Inspector Callahan was a pragmatist more concerned with outcomes than with the means of achieving them. "There's nothing wrong with shooting -- as long as the right people get shot."

This short film examines the moral value of that proposition. Should Harry shoot anybody he thinks is worth shooting? Should he follow the code even if it allows serial murderers to go free? Is any compromise possible? Well, there's not much doubt in the minds of most of the commentators. "There burns in the heart of every liberal a desire to bypass the courts and just go out and shoot a guy." "If somebody cuts us off on the highway, we can't do anything about it, but Dirty Harry can just shoot them. It's great. And he's always on the side of right." John Milius contributes his point of view. He's the screenwriter who had it put in one of his contracts that any animals shot on screen would be killed by him. Another commentator is nearer the bull's eye when he describes Harry as being "consistent in his view of the universe" but the question is how far is he allowed to go before he becomes the thing he despises? It doesn't bother Clint Eastwood. He laughs it off as "just a movie."

Most of the commenters have some sort of, how you say?, skin in the game? They include the writers of some of the films and the authors of books on Clint Eastwood and the Dirty Harry character. The commentators don't include the most popular of all in the 70s, Pauline Kael, who called the film a brutal fascist dream. When her attitude is being described, the image we see is of the hand of some mad person slicing a newspaper feverishly with a carving knife. Andy Robinson, who gives an incandescent performance as the killer, and some of the others, give what strikes me as reasonably balanced remarks on Dirty Harry. Pauline Kael, now as dead as Robinson's innocent victims, gets no chance to say anything in her defense.

"Dirty Harry" was a rattling good tale of mayhem but it was as brutal as Kael said and it turned Harry into a monomaniac who just happened to be on the side of the law. The first sequel, "Magnum Force," was original in the sense that it turned things around. The heavies became a death squad within the police force, a kind of half-arsed answer to the "fascist" question. Milius makes the interesting (and entirely accurate) point that "Magnum Force" differed from today's sequels. Today, the sequels are merely repeats of the original story with more action and special effects. At least "Magnum Force" was responsive rather than simply repetitive.

The several sequels that followed alternated between right-wing villains and left-wing villains. The quality of the stories and characters declined monotonically and aren't worth description except that the sadistic hippy villain in "The Enforcer" is Bobby Maxwell, a name of renown.

The film is about equally divided between clips from the Dirty Harry series and the commentators. It's not badly done, sort of middle brow, and should offend no one to any extent. You're not going to find skull-numbing discussions of Aristotle or Michael Davis or retributive justice.

The original was a great commercial success but what is it really? The single-minded gunslinger rides into a town full of rowdies and cleans it up by killing the evil doers, in disregard of legal restrictions.

Anyone remember 1971 and the cities? What had been peaceful milieus had just turned into hunting grounds on which any white person was a legitimate target, or so it seemed in the popular press and in the statistics. The black kids had turned the cities into nightmares. The transposition of the narrative -- gunslinger, outlaws -- would have been made manifest if instead of Andy Robinson's single white villain, there had been a dozen black kids with names like Tyrone and T-Bone.

Other MBAs picked up on the theme with movies like Charles Bronson's "Death Wish." The dusty Western town had simply turned into the big dirty city.


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