Sunday, July 3, 2016

We All Like Watchin' Clint: on Dirty Harry

Went on a Dirty Harry kick. I'd grown up with the films, but never watched one through or did any kind of critical analysis of it. With today's news headlines showing no lack of stories from throughout the U.S. of police brutality, police murder (largely of people of color, poor people), SWAT over-involvement, and communities trying to strike a balance between liberty and security, it's pertinent to look at the recent past to understand the present.

I started with Magnum Force, then watched Dirty Harry, The Enforcer, Sudden Impact, and finally The Dead Pool. I work in San Francisco and it was fun to see all the San Francisco locations, and, as Les Claypool sings in "Lee Van Cleef," "We all like watchin' Clint." The first two films are actually pretty good; by the time of The Enforcer, the franchise gets formulaic and tries to inject some life by giving ol' Harry a female sidekick -- keep in mind the film was made in 1976, when, like today, a gender war was raging. Sudden Impact changes the usual San Francisco location, adds a compelling femme fatale/Fatal Attraction villain (who is different than earlier villains because she is the victim of rape and thus more complex), updates Harry's trademark .44 Magnum, adds a farting, pissing, balls-intact dog sidekick, Meathead, and brings the series into the 1980s. One of the villains is a woman who looks like The Witch in Wizard of Oz, and in the film they call her The Witch. In The Enforcer, Harry, the stoic pessimist, keeps sarcastically saying the word "Marvelous;" in Sudden Impact he repeatedly says, "Swell." 

Watching the films some years after they were made and released, one notices, besides the usual trappings of films reflecting the age they're made in -- hairstyle, cars, music, etc -- why Harry is a popular figure. The films are not art films or esoteric: they're high-grossing, somewhat lowest-common-denominator films in which Harry represents the average man: a tool of a changing system, beer-drinkin', quiet, generally moral. Loyal to the system but knows the system is rigged and flawed. He does the right thing, without regard for what the style or trend of the time is. (And, comically, Harry finds himself in every film just going about his business when he has to save the day from unusual, dramatic crimes going on: a hijacking, a bank robbery, etc. Magnum Force is probably the funniest: he's getting a hamburger when some terrorists take over an airplane, and Harry intervenes.) He's got a self-destructive or wild edge, tempered with a restraint you can see on his pinched face. He knows that good and evil clash and when he puts himself on the line, he has a confidence that he'll sacrifice himself for the fight, or know that good -- or the system -- will, eventually, win out. The criminals, whom he calls "punks" or "hoods," can sense this -- and Harry's imposing over 6' tall frame, cold eyes, and powerful .44 Magnum -- and they back down. 

Harry finds himself out of step with the increasingly pussified, politically correct police department he's been with, and they reprimand him, but never fire him. That's because, though his methods are often risky, reckless, and crude (not to mention costly to the City), he gets results: he gets the bad guys. (One problem with the films is that they usually have very cardboard villains, and the films fail to delve into any nuance or complexity of issues of social justice, poverty, media images, etc, to explain -- without condoning -- the actions of the "bad guys." The bad guys are also often people of color in the films (the first film being an exception, in which the villain is a deranged white hippie).) Harry doesn't say much, he just does the right thing, in the moment, when laws are broken or people are mistreated. He's the master of the quick, sardonic comeback, and a bunch of times in the films his eyes bulge and his jaw goes side to side and he barely contains his vitriol for idiots (often in the police department he works for) and criminals. Harry is Clint, Clint is Harry. He's pre-Baby Boomer: he's from the Silent Generation, when people were generally decent and moral, kept themselves to themselves, and did the right thing without the corruptive influence of fashionable and shifting moralities and popular trends. This has garnered Harry some criticism: he's been called a sexist pig by feminists, insensitive to the violence he causes, and he's perhaps the archetypal, iconic white male character that has been increasingly destabilized and criticized for having a white male-centric view of the world, with its accompanying sexism, racism, and supremacy-mindedness. Reagan obviously connected with Clint/Harry in Sudden Impact, even echoing the famous, "Go ahead, make my day" line. (I recently visited the "Acorn Cafe" restaurant in San Francisco where the line was filmed; it's now a McDonald's.) 

The Dead Pool was called by Ebert as good as the first Dirty Harry movie, but I disagree. After Magnum Force, I think the movies could have been serialized tv shows. In The Dead Pool it's interesting to note that Harry's partner throughout, an Asian-American, gets along with Harry the best of all his partners. I couldn't help but think of the "model minority" description of Asian-Americans in this case.

The films from the 70s, a genre I like -- especially films filmed/set in California, which seemed like an interesting place during that time -- I find the best. Long live Dirty Harry.

Update: in light of the recent fatal skirmishes between cops and death-by-police protestors, it of course makes us re-examine DH. Keep in mind DH, if he was in his 30s or early 40s in the 1970s, became a cop (presumably) in his 20s, in the 1960s or before. America was a different place then: from my research, serious crimes were usually burglary, sexual assault, murder sometimes, bank robbers. (A particularly shocking murder that made national news occurred in the quaint New Jersey town I grew up in, Ramsey, in the late 1950s. My father, a lifelong NJ resident (except for a year spent living in Holland) remembers this murder and that it seemed to signal a kind of new brutality.) Keep in mind, much of the violence around drugs hadn't hit America -- crack wasn't yet invented, meth wasn't on the scene, etc. The fictional Dirty Harry would have seen San Francisco change over the decades, often for the worse. In the films his affect is often one of pessimism and gritty stoicism. He is cynical as hell, but still fundamentally cares about people and reacts on the spot when crime occurs. DH is just a good guy at his core, and even though he kills 41 people (!) over the course of all the movies, he's not a killer kop like we're seeing today; he just wants people to be decent to each other, to obey the law. Think of him as the pretty much exact opposite of Keitel in Bad Lieutenant! Harry's nickname is "Dirty" because he cares so much about the law that he'll sidestep political correctness and bureaucracy in order to just do what's right. He's a white male from the Silent Gen, so of course he has some racisms, some sexisms, some imperfections. But I think he, though not color-blind, sees people as whether they obey the law or not, and if not, they're fair game, whether they're a white homicidal hippy (the first film) or Black or whatever. He feels for victims, especially (ironically, because DH was accused back in the day of being a sexist pig) women, it seems (see the first, third, and final films), who are victimized.

How would Dirty Harry view today's headlines of cops killing people of color, and people of color (and others) fighting back after only taking so much?

Disclaimer: I dated David Valdes' daughter, Marianne, in 7th grade. Her father is David Valdes, who was involved in the final two Dirty Harry movies.