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 DIRTY HARRY

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Clint Eastwood, Harry Guardino, Rene Santoni, Andy Robinson, John Larch, John Vernon
Director:  Don Siegel
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  102 Minutes
Release Date:  June 3, 2008

“Have you been following that man?”

“Yeah, I’ve been following him on my own time.  And anybody can tell I didn’t do that to him!”

“How?”

“Cause he looks too damn good!”

Film ****

1971 was a year of cultural and political turmoil in this country…the Vietnam war effectively saw the flower power generation giving way to a more cynical and angry attitude.  Collectively, our innocence had been coming to an end for some time with the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and others.  Watergate was about to change the face of American politics forever.  And a new feeling was emerging…one of distrust of our basic institutions, particularly the justice system, which was beginning to seem more and more like it was more concerned with salvaging the rights of criminals than protecting the innocents from them.

It was a year ripe for one of the most influential and politically incorrect films ever to come out of Hollywood.  Dirty Harry created a new kind of cop for a new kind of America.  A cop who would only play by the rules until the rules stopped working…then he would take matters into his own hands.

It’s a dark, violent piece of filmmaking that packs all the intensity of a tightly wound coil about to burst, or a keg of dynamite that sizzles and will explode at any time.  Other films in the last thirty years have covered similar territory, and have certainly been more bloody, but there’s something about the rawness of Dirty Harry that makes its images much more disturbing and haunting.

Clint Eastwood, who made a Western career out of playing antiheroes of few words, brings a similar mentality to the role of San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan.  The part suited him like a glove…he played it with a genuine sense of world-weariness and quiet anger.  One can read in his eyes some of what he’s seen during his years on the force…and now, he’s about to face his greatest challenge, with a pitiless murderer on one side and an uncaring judicial system on the other.

Harry is as cool a character as has ever graced the big screen.  I always love, for example, the first big shootout in the picture, which Harry executes while still chewing his lunch.  It culminates in the first reading of the now-famous “Do I feel lucky?” speech.  It would be repeated at the end, with the audience hanging on every word and anxiously awaiting the outcome.

When a psychotic killer who calls himself Scorpio (Robinson) demands a $100,000 ransom from the city of San Francisco against the threat of a killing spree, Callahan gets the call.  But Scorpio is as smart as he is crazy, and proves hard to catch.  In one of the most memorable sequences, Harry plays bagman for the police force, as Scorpio runs him all over town in order to shake potential tails.  He gets the best of Harry for the time being, but before long, you know he’ll get the worst of him, too.

Scorpio is one of my most hated movie villains.  Andy Robinson plays him with a soulless evil, and the film doesn’t gloss over or recoil from what he does.  The idea, for example, of a little girl suffocating in a well is a powerful motivating force for the story, and the image of it maintains a sense of underlying suspense that helps score the action on the screen.  When Scorpio ends up on a school bus full of kids at the end, there is no safe guarantee that the film won’t save the children just because most movies would never go that far.

But Scorpio is not Harry’s most powerful enemy here.  When a desperate effort to save the girl in the well inspires him to use unconventional methods, he learns the system will have to let him go as a result.  “That man had rights!” the District Attorney barks.  “Well, I’m all broken up over that man’s rights!” Harry retorts.  Soon, a known killer will once again be free to kill, and there’s nothing that can be done about it legally.  But when Harry decides to buck the system and take matters into his own hands, the film speeds towards an inevitable climax.  For him, it’s no longer an issue of legality or Constitutionality…it’s a matter of simple right and wrong.

Some were shocked by Dirty Harry…some prominent critics even hated it.  Others saw in Harry exactly what they were looking for, and the kind of cop the cynical atmosphere of the time demanded.  One could argue that the movie has grown more and not less topical over the years.  Some people see the system as protecting the criminals more than ever…it’s no wonder Harry’s final act always draws applause.

Personally, I have always counted Dirty Harry amongst my favorite films.  It never grows old for me, with its pent-up sense of anger and frustration, its terrific action sequences, its memorable villain and its study of a cop on the edge.  It also has to be considered one of the most influential films Hollywood ever produced.  John McClane in Die Hard, Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon…are these not Harry’s children?

Dirty Harry is the original and still the best.  Inspector Callahan has been taking out criminals, protecting the public, and thrilling movie audiences for almost forty years now…there’s no reason to think the next forty will be any different.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Scorpio was based on the actual San Francisco killer The Zodiac.

Video ***1/2

The original DVD release of Dirty Harry was not exactly a benchmark moment for Warner Bros., but for the new edition, they offer a newly remastered transfer worthy of a film classic.  A quick side by side comparison shows that this new disc fixes all the flaws I deemed noteworthy in the original release.  Colors are much brighter, more vivid, more natural, and with better containment.  Dark scenes with bright reds were once a serious image problem; not anymore.  Those darker scenes, which used to be horribly grainy, have been considerably cleaned up, maintaining a generally good sense of sharpness without the unnatural grainy look.  The print is cleaner, with only a few noticeable spots and specks here and there.  There are some night scenes that still look a little murky, and one or two short clips that don’t appear to have been touched in the restoration process for whatever reason, but these are few and fleeting.  Overall, this is definitely the best that Harry has ever looked, and fans will be thrilled!

Oh, the pan and scan version of the film is gone, and good riddance…this is the kind of impeccably framed film that is ruined with improper cropping.

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 soundtrack is a solid treat from beginning to end, with plenty of action sequences that bring up the audio on both stages, with added punch from the subwoofer.  Scenes where the helicopters are flying in surveillance show how smooth and lively the crossover effects are, and Harry’s legendary Magnum gun sounds more ominous than ever.  Dynamic range is strong, and dialogue and music are always clear.

Features ****

Warner has packaged this re-release double disc with a commentary from Richard Schickel, who also penned a bio on Eastwood.  There is a featurette, “Dirty Harry: The Original”.  It features interviews with stars Eastwood and Robinson, narration by Robert Urich, and even a guest spot or two from Dirty Harry fan Arnold Schwarzenegger.  I was pleased to see how normal a guy Robinson actually is!  In addition, there is an extensive interview gallery arranged by name, for even more information.  There is also an original 1971 short piece “Dirty Harry’s Way”.

The second disc boasts two new documentaries:  "The Long Shadow of Dirty Harry" examines the legacy of the film, while "The Man From Malposo" chronicles the career of Mr. Eastwood!

Summary:

Dirty Harry has held up well over nearly forty years.  This new DVD offering from Warner is a definite keeper, even if you’ve purchased the title before.  The terrific new transfer and juicy package of extras make this disc a treat…we fans can definitely consider ourselves lucky this time around.

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