Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Dirty Harry's Filmmaking Is Ill-Suited For Such A Disposable Story

Look, let's get this out of the way first and foremost, yes, Dirty Harry is an exceedingly uncomfortable movie to watch. Not in an effective way either, like when you're watching a brazenly bold comedy or an intentionally upsetting drama. Harry is a wish-fulfillment fantasy for people who stamp Blue Lives Matter stickers to the back of their truck. Every white boy who feels that firing a gun off is the only way to solve any problem in the world has found their savior with the titular character of Dirty Harry. It's a character who was woefully out of date and uncomfortable back in 1972 and he's only even moreso in 2020.

That's what I expected out of Dirty Harry though. It's no secret that the film's politics are repulsive, Pauline Kael wrote about that fifty years ago. What I didn't expect was that the filmmaking for Dirty Harry would be so baffling. There's clearly talent and thought going into the making of this film. Yet there's just not enough substance in Dirty Harry's script tp justify the artsier flourishes in the movies filmmaking.

Before we get to that, though, let's outline the story of Dirty Harry, which concerns Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood). He's a grimy officer who doesn't play by rules and is determined to get every criminal off of the street. His newest fixation is a killer by the name of Scorpio (Andy Robinson). Getting this guy taken care of is an assignment Harry can't do alone. He'll have to work with a new partner, Inspector Chico Gonzalez (Reni Santoni).

Their exploits on the streets are filmed in a relatively similar manner under the direction of filmmaker Don Siegel. He opts to capture much of Dirty Harry through extended single-take wide shots. It's an extremely slow-paced style of filmmaking that's incredibly effective when employed in the works of Kelly Reichardt or Chantal Ackerman. But films by those directors tended to use this type of restrained camerawork to emphasize weighty themes or moods. By contrast, letting the camera remain so still in Dirty Harry just reinforces what an empty movie it is. There isn't anything extra to soak up as the camera lingers on a shot. The commitment to all the work necessary to execute these shots is admirable but Dirty Harry needed to find a better use for them.

Of course, maybe the shots would be more interesting if we could see what was happening during them. Dirty Harry frequently makes use of such pervasively dark lighting for nighttime scenes that it becomes to impossible discern whose on-screen and when. A big nighttime chase between Harry and Scorpio should be thrilling but the mixture of bleak lighting and the choice to frame it all in a stagnant wide shot suck all the energy out of the room. Another noteworthy filmmaking detail that doesn't quite work in execution is how Dirty Harry frames some of Harry's most grotesque moments as a police officer.

These include when he tortures Scorpio for information. Such moments are depicted in a frank manner eschewing any sense of glamor. Lalo Schifrin's score vanishes entirely, the camerawork and editing take on a more jagged quality. The execution of these scenes conveys a more intriguing version of Dirty Harry. If the movie had followed through these moments, Harry could have been a companion piece to The French Connection in being a tale of a law enforcement officer losing himself in the pursuit of revenge. Unfortunately, Harry's script (credited to a mess of writers, including Harry Julian Fink) fails to give these flashes of introspection anything to build up to.

Dirty Harry's filmmaking briefly flirts with the idea of Harry becoming as bad as the people he hunts down. But the script traps those moments in a story that's basically one step up from your average network cop drama. Harry's exploits throughout Dirty Harry end up being thoroughly predictable while the writers fail to lend any sort of propulsive suspense to his race against time to save a captured little girl. Dirty Harry tries to be both exciting and reflective but never manages to achieve either quality.

Antagonist Scorpio himself turns out to be part of the problem. The character works better as a more understated mysterious presence early on in Dirty Harry. When he's just a silent guy with a sniper on a roof, there's a quiet air of menace about him. When he's doing a lame Joker impersonation while intimidating a bus full of kids, it feels like the character has become too detached from reality. He's a caricature of villainy rather than anything one can take seriously.  As for Dirty Harry himself, well, the character's pretty uninteresting as far as rule-breaker cops in pop culture go. To boot, the fact that Dirty Harry only goes halfway in really exploring the true darkness of Harry's actions leaves the character half-baked. He doesn't work as a thoughtful cautionary tale nor does he work as a generic action hero. Clint Eastwood's lead performance doesn't help matters since he fails to lend all that much in the way of a distinct personality to the role.

Honestly, I've always found Clint Eastwood to be much better at playing subversion of tough-guy archetypes than when he plays the real thing. Dirty Harry only reinforced my thinking in this department. It's no surprise to hear that Dirty Harry's ionization of a rule-breaking violent cop who brags about being racist to everyone goes over like a lead balloon in 2020. What is surprising is how the tedious script for Dirty Harry gets placed alongside some occasionally interesting but mostly misplaced filmmaking.

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