The Greatest Conservative Films: Dirty Harry (1971)
“When a naked man is chasing a woman through an alley with a butcher knife…I figure he isn’t out collecting for the Red Cross.”
WHY IT’S A CONSERVATIVE FILM:
“Politics is downstream from Culture.” And to prove his point, Andrew Breitbart needed only point to some quintessential examples of certain iconic moments of pop culture serving as the vanguard of societal change—for good or ill. The China Syndrome, for example, helped keep America dependent on foreign oil, by scaring us out of nuclear power, to this very day.
For our side, Greg Gutfeld has pointed to Sammy Hager’s 1984 hit “I Can’t Drive 55”, a protest song against that government-imposed national speed limit of 55 mph. A few years later, the imposition was lifted.
Dirty Harry is another classic example. It didn’t just give a perspective—it made a difference. The American people responded en masse to a film that specifically called out what our justice system had become. Something needed to change, big-time—and Inspector Harry Callahan specifically made that clear.
Callahan v. Warren:
Shortly before the election, recall, I first helped rally support for the Marsy’s Law campaign…making sure to invoke Dirty Harry:
Detective Harry Callahan—played to perfection by the mighty Clint Eastwood—did not exist in a vacuum. The most iconic Eastwood persona that does have a name arose in reaction to a very real problem facing American society in the late 1960s and 1970s: The overreach of the Warren Court, ruling on the rights of the accused. Yes, Warren and Company gave us the Miranda ruling. They also gave us a climate where “they got off on a technicality” was more than a tragic inconvenience…it was a threat to national stability. Loopholes for the guilty sprung up en masse—and in a tragic reversal of any objective notion of justice, it almost seemed as though the criminal was to be put on a higher pedestal than the victim.
…What came out of these rulings was not justice. It was not due process. It was not objective. A constant cloud of suspicion hovered over our police force, where every honest mistake, however minute, became potential grounds for criminals that were clearly, to-a-moral-certainty, and beyond-any-reasonable-doubt guilty as sin…being let off, free and clear, no ifs, ands, or buts.
And in the meantime, we saw an intense societal breakdown—protests turned violent, riots…and new serial killers, like the Zodiac.
…And so, [the American people] responded with a vehement, cathartic hunger for the kind of hero that wouldn’t take it—that would, to be sure, work within the bounds of the law…but would always be sure to look for any “grey area” and fight with full Magnum Force against those punks who otherwise slip through the cracks in the law. So they feel lucky? Well…not anymore.
Reforms Of Burger and Rehnquist:
The notorious real-life Zodiac killer—famous for his rubbing his endless escapes in the police’s nose with his constant letters and codes—appears to have been the last straw, for America. Certainly it was culturally. Scorpio, the archvillain of Dirty Harry, is a clear stand-in for Zodiac—down to his methodology and demands that the San Francisco police play his game by his rules. The parallels were so blatant (even the name “Scorpio” points to “Zodiac”), no one could miss it, at least not for long.
The message rang loud and clear: As far as the film was concerned, the reason Zodiac kept getting away…was because the police’s hands were tied. They couldn’t do what needed to be done, to find and capture him. The laws and the courts made sure of it. Meanwhile, more and more innocents suffered—victims both of the monsters themselves…and a rigid legal process that allowed the monsters to get away with it.
[T]he Dirty Harry franchise was at the cultural forefront of a widespread desire for a new wave of criminal justice reform—reform that wouldn’t protect criminals, but their victims and potential victims. And as Andrew Breitbart would say, Culture is upstream from Politics.
Of course, the Burger Court was decidedly not perfect. Just ask the unborn. Nonetheless, they got one thing right: fighting those technicalities that crept up from the rulings of its predecessor. Thanks to Burger, and Rehnquist after him, we got many a common-sense exception to give police acting in good faith the benefit of the doubt…and rationality restored to criminal justice.
Nixon came to office in 1969, and with his appointment of new “law-and-order” justices, slowly but surely the reforms began—blossoming throughout the Seventies, then in the Eighties under Rehnquist.
The “Plain View” Exception:
Many of the key rulings of the Burger and Rehnquist Courts involved exactly when the limitations of the Fourth Amendment against warrantless searches and seizures actually applied—and further, exactly what constitutes “probable cause”, with or without a warrant.
The Warren Court had essentially taken a hardline stance of “no arrests, searches, etc. without a warrant—no…matter…what.” But this led to a lot of unfortunate consequences. Namely: What if a crime’s being committed right in front of a cop…and if he had to go and get a warrant, it would just mean the criminal gets away? Or what if the cop’s in “hot pursuit” of a suspect—who turned tail and ran, when said cop approached them for questioning?
Do we just…let them get away?
Well, as I noted, a couple of years before Dirty Harry, the new Burger Court started chipping away at the binds tying the hands of cops…but it wasn’t much, just yet. Still, we saw the roots of something—something Callahan refers to regarding “intent”, at the end of the following scene:
What’s Callahan referring to, in the “legal” sense—and why does the mayor admit he has a point? Well, earlier that same year, with Coolidge v. New Hampshire (1971), the Burger Court codified the “plain view” exception. That is, if—during a perfectly lawful maneuver—a piece of new evidence a cop didn’t anticipate comes within plain sight, the cop can seize the opportunity, provided they have a good case for “probable cause”.
That case didn’t quite parallel Harry’s…but he’s got a good case, regardless. As of 1971, though, it’s still something of a grey area, legally. (It would take Arizona v. Hicks (1987) to “strengthen” the doctrine a bit.) But the mayor ultimately seems willing to stand by him on it. Harry’s in the clear.
Shades Of Grey:
The above bears emphasis. Contrary to the popular mindset, Det. Callahan almost never goes all the way to break the law. (We’ll talk about the “almost”, later.) He is not a “vigilante” who “doesn’t care about the rules”. What he does do is walk in the murky grey area, where “a case could be made”. He bends the rules. He doesn’t break them.
We’ll talk about that in detail, next time. For now, I’ll just say: Dirty Harry isn’t stupid. He knows his “shades of grey” methods cause some tensions, as it is. If he were to ever cross the line and expect to get away with it, he’d be drummed out of the force. As such, he may verbally lash out against the line being drawn where it is…but so long as it’s there, he knows he can’t cross it. It’s all he can do to call attention to the injustice of it…and in the meantime, try his best to work around it.
Well…except that one moment…
A Time To Torture:
Before Jack Bauer, there was Dirty Harry.
This is the one time Callahan arguably does “cross the line”—when, having Scorpio wounded and sprawling on the ground before him, Harry steps on the wound, demanding to know where the punk hid the girl he’s kidnapped.
“I have a right to a LAWYER!!!”
However, it should be noted that right there, Harry’s top priority is finding the girl—and at the moment, if that means “inadmissible”, so be it.
Alas, the girl’s already dead—making the crossing of the line pointless, all for nothing. As such, Scorpio’s set free…and it’s pretty clear the D.A is just as frustrated about the situation as Harry is.
“Are you trying to tell me Ballistics can’t match the bullet up to this rifle?”
“It does not matter what Ballistics can do! This rifle might make a nice souvenir—but it’s inadmissible as evidence.”
“And who says that?”
“It’s the law!”
“Well then the law is crazy.”
And when the judge in the room lays out the law’s point of view, we get the ultimate statement of the film’s theme:
“Now, the suspect’s rights were violated—under the 4th and 5th, and probably the 6th and 14th Amendments.” (Note: The Judge probably means the 8th, not the 6th.)
“And Ann Mary Deacon—what about her rights? I mean she’s raped and left in a hole to die—who speaks for her?”
But alas, that’s that. And so, Callahan knows darn well he has to redeem himself for his failure.
In The End…
Callahan doesn’t violate the law in the final sequence. He violates his orders—because it has to be done, to take Scorpio down for good. He’s a “cowboy cop”…but he’s not a vigilante. Rogue as he might be…he’s not above the law—and he knows it.
When all is said and down, and Scorpio’s put down, he tosses the badge—in a clear nod to High Noon, as if in final protest to all the times his hands were tied. As it turns out, though, he’s still on the force…if the sequels are any indication. Perhaps they begged him to come back, in the interim—and the reforms to come convinced him to accept a new badge.
For Bonus Points:
From the opening shot—a pan over a plaque “In tribute to the police officers of San Francisco who gave their lives in the line of duty”, and a list of names from the beginning of the force to the then-present—the film exudes a great love and respect for the police, those who keep us all safe…and free.
This intro might at first glance come across as something the filmmakers probably thought was “obligatory”. Actually, it has an important thematic purpose. With the plaque, the movie’s making clear that—whatever Mark Ruffalo may think in David Fincher’s Zodiac—the issues brought up in the film are not meant to criticize the police. Rather, Dirty Harry challenges the government policies and precedents that tie the hands of the police, so they cannot do their job. It isn’t condemning “due process”. It’s condemning the stretching of the concept into something arbitrary, which treats the criminals better than the victims.
Lest people can accuse the film of any racism, the police doctor tending to Harry’s leg is black—and on a first-name basis with Callahan, with a good, casual chemistry.
Besides, Harry hates everybody equally. Especially…
Back in the day, it was totally okay to be “politically incorrect”. As the great George Carlin said, “It’s the context that counts!” And contextually, it’s pretty clear Harry says it to Gonzales as a rib. He ain’t racist.
Scorpio might have gotten his sniper skills from the military. It’s not really brought up or emphasized, so there’s no “evil Vietnam vet” stereotype to speak of. Besides, Oswald was a sniper, too.
Finally, Dirty Harry—and Magnum Force—were written by John Millius, he of the Apocalypse Now screenplay, and director of Conan The Barbarian and Red Dawn. Of course it’s Conservative.
WHY IT’S A GREAT FILM:
Well, let’s get the obvious outta the way…. (Language, by the way.)
But even that aside, Dirty Harry went a long way towards paving the way for countless action heroes to come. Without Harry Callahan, there may have been no Paul Kersey of Death Wish, no John McClain of Die Hard, no Bobby Riggs of Lethal Weapon—no Robocop, no Mad Max, no Judge Dredd going, “I am the law.” And we may not have gotten a darker-than-Adam-West Batman. At least not for a while.
An “anti-hero”, or just a hero who’s willing to get his hands dirty? Who knows? All we know is, we’re with Harry, and root for him every step of the way.
Clint Eastwood as Harry Callahan:
A quiet-voiced tough guy with a sly sense of humor. Pointed when he’s gotta be, playful when he wants to be—at once ready with a smirk or a sneer. That’s Clint Eastwood. He’s the ultimate “cool head”…but when you get him angry, it’s a deep, simmering rage with a growl in his voice—and that can be far more terrifying than a roaring, rampaging hothead.
A priceless example of the playfulness—a priceless sequence when he dissuades a would-be suicide…by teasing the man, actually trolling him.
The rage? Well…just how he interacts with Scorpio, whenever they’re in range of one another. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
In the meantime, there’s a reason John Millius picked the now-iconic .44 Magnum, Smith & Wesson M29. Aside from being, at the time, “The most powerful handgun in the world”…it’s specifically the gun of a hunter—something that can bring a target down in one shot. For Dirty Harry is a hunter. And criminals are his game.
Andrew Robinson as Scorpio:
Star Trek fans know him as Garak, of Deep Space Nine. Here, he brings a deliciously sadistic glee to Scorpio, who clearly delights in making everyone his playthings. No other motive given for his actions. It’s a mystery—or it would be, if the film made us care about that issue. It doesn’t.
And that’s part of the effect, isn’t it? Understanding the criminal isn’t the point, here. The point is: What needs to be done to capture someone like this?
It’s a battle of wits—and will. Nothing more. Nothing less. And Scorpio has a lot of will—certainly, if he’s crazy enough to pay to get himself beaten up, just so he can publically spite Callahan. And that insanity intensifies with his enraged impatience—and desperation, as Harry closes in, one last time.
The Grand Finale:
Everything’s come down to a few final moments. After a last hot pursuit, and Scorpio’s brief use of a human shield…Callahan at last has the tables turned—and once more, Harry gives his pitch (Language!):
And that’s that.
By The Way…
The film’s score—especially during the opening credits—is pretty…funky. Almost like the filmmakers wanted to connect the film, stylistically, to the Blaxploitation movement. Dirty Harry came out the same year as Shaft, incidentally…so perhaps, in their own way, the two heroes are brothers from other mothers….
No, Harry doesn’t say “Go ahead: Make my day” in this one. That’s from the fourth movie in the series, Sudden Impact.
Clint Eastwood himself’s noted that Dirty Harry PROBABLY couldn’t have been made today. For obvious reasons. Heck, even back then it was branded “fascist” by Lefties who apparently didn’t know any better….
By the first of Clint’s classic series here. And stay film-friendly, my friends.
Any recommendations for films to make this series? Read the rules, here, and let us know!
Buy the movie here.
Eric was raised by Conservative Christian parents, but first became especially passionate about politics in high school, through reading up on economic theory. He also first read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged around this time, for the ARI's essay contests. He now owns a great deal of Ayn Rand's work. Also included in his library are the collected works of Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Ann Coulter, etc.
Eric is no stranger to writing commentary, as the writer of the Conservative Considerations column on CampCampaign.com, and as a film critic and commentator on FlickRev.com. He has also carried on the Conservative tradition of talk radio commentary, as the host of "Avengers of America" for the USF student radio station, Bulls Radio. In the meantime, he is practicing what he preaches: Striving to enter the professional realm of Hollywood, he has already written and directed short films for the Campus MovieFest, which can be found on his YouTube channel, Hard Boiled Entertainment.