Dirty Harry: The quiet apologies of Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood has always been a paradoxical guy. Throughout his entire life he has presented himself as a bizarre point of convergence for seemingly contradictory liberal and conservative ideals. He is a man whose cinematic endeavours have oscillated between almost fascistic or misogynistic perspectives (High Plains Drifter, The Beguiled) and seemingly progressive views on the world (Breezy, Million Dollar Baby).

There are many possible explanations for this. The first is that Clint Eastwood is a human being, and like all human beings he possesses a range of views that cannot necessarily be collated into a simple cohesive whole. The second is that Clint appears to have mellowed with age, and his views have subsequently changed – this certainly explains why critics find his recent films more palatable than those of his earlier years. These points are both true, to an extent.

You might also argue that Clint doesn’t have authorial control over every film he is in, and therefore can’t be held entirely responsible for their varying perspectives on the world. But those who have looked into it will find that this is not the case. Almost every single film that Clint has been in since 1968 has been produced by his own company, Malpaso Productions. Clint is closely involved with the selection and production of every single film – even when he is not the director he is the auteur.

In fact, on one occasion, when Clint Eastwood’s opinions differed strongly with that of the original director of The Outlaw Josey Wales (Philip Kaufman), he fired the director and immediately stepped into the role. Clint learnt early on that in situations where he chose not to fulfil the directorial role, he should make sure that the director understands exactly what is expected of them. We can therefore suppose that all films produced by Malpaso productions are Clint Eastwood controlled films… and almost all films that have involved Clint Eastwood after 1968 are produced by Malpaso productions.

Clint Eastwood’s confusing status as a kind of hippy Republican is the result of having sat for decades between a rock and a hard place. While Clint has held conservative ideals his entire life, he has found himself fascinated with cultural niches that preclude him from totally embracing conservatism. Looking at his lifelong obsession with all things jazz and blues related; his regular use of meditation; his thorough (possibly excessive) enjoyment of the opposite sex; or the fact that he has spent a lifetime in the embrace of a left-leaning film industry, Clint has clearly been surrounded by a universe that contradicts many of the conservative ideals with which he aligns himself. The result: a range of films that often veer confusedly between thinly veiled (or possibly repressed) hyper-conservatism and a far more youthful and countercultural attitude that often seemed like an apologetic response to the former.

This is particularly true in the case of the Dirty Harry series, which sees Clint play the role of a fascist cop in the original film, only to have the next three films apologise for the politics of the first… without succeeding. The fifth film seems to sit apart from this chain.

NOTE: Don’t get me wrong, I love these films… that doesn’t mean I don’t think they’re backwards. They are.

Dirty Harry (1971)

I know what you’re thinking: “Did he fire six shots, or only five?” Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well do ya, punk?

This Don Siegel directed classic introduces us to Harry Callahan, the original archetype for the cop who’ll do whatever it takes to get his man. Harry is prevented from bringing a serial-killing psychopath to justice because of bureaucracy, the state’s over-emphasis on protecting the guilty rather than the victim, and his tendency to over-interrogate his victims/suspects. As a result, Harry is forced to move even further beyond the boundaries of legal law-enforcement to bring things to a final solution.

Criticised heavily for its perceived racism, justification of police brutality and for embracing the concept of brutal vigilante justice, Clint was surprised at the vitriol levelled against the film. He perceived it to be a sensible comment on the state’s over-emphasis on the rights of the criminal. He was openly unapologetic for the film.

Despite the criticisms, the film went on to become incredibly successful and is retrospectively considered an essential part of the cinematic canon.

Magnum Force (1973)

I’m afraid you’ve misjudged me […] I hate the goddamn system, but until someone comes along with some changes that make sense I’ll stick with it.

The second film in the Dirty Harry series is directed by Ted Post and boasts a screenplay by none other than John Milius and Michael Cimino. Magnum Force responds directly to the controversy that surrounded the first film (despite Clint nonchalantly rejecting any interest in these criticisms during interviews), with Harry now hunting down a group of vigilante cops who’ve taken the law into their own hands. At first, these cops mistakenly believe (just like the critics, Clint would say) Harry is like them, until he gives them the above quoted piece of his mind.

Despite this head-on confrontation with the criticisms leveled at the original film, criticisms continued in relation to strong undertones of racism and sexism pervading the film. The decision to have Clint have a casual sexual relationship with a Japanese girl came off as a fairly deliberate attempt at plugging a hole to appease liberal sensibilities.

The Enforcer (1976)

She wants to play lumberjack, she’s going to have to learn to handle her end of the log.

The third film, directed by James Fargo, sees Harry partnered with a woman to take down a terrorist group known as The People’s Revolutionary Strike Force. Harry’s new female partner, Kate Moore, comes custom built to combat the series’ negative image as sexist. Kate is portrayed as a desk-jockey unaccustomed to doing real police work – that way nobody can say the film is chauvinistic when Kate throws up during an autopsy while Harry chuckles to himself. Harry doesn’t mock her because she’s a woman, he mocks her because she’s weak… except we know why he really thinks she’s weak. This film ironically comes off as being more backwards in its gender politics than the first two.

Sudden Impact (1983)

Go ahead, make my day.

This uber-creepy movie, directed by Clint himself, has Harry hunting down a killer who is picking off people in a small seaside community. Their crime – a gang rape many years earlier. Their killer – the woman they raped. Harry’s decision – let it go.

So… um… I guess it’s progressive because the murderer is a woman? Or because rapists die? Or because a rape victim gets revenge? Or because Harry thinks rape is wrong? Nasty stuff.

The Dead Pool (1988)

Fuck with me, buddy, I’ll kick your ass so hard you’ll have to unbutton your collar to shit.

The final film in the series, directed by Buddy Van Horn, involves a serial killer picking celebrities off one-by-one . The next person on the list – Harry Callahan. A fitting end to the series sees Harry delve into the world of celebrity with an appropriate amount of disgust. There is a wonderful note of bitterness in the film’s portrayal of an invasive media sticking their noses in where they’re not wanted. Perhaps Clint’s final response to criticisms of the series?

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

20 thoughts on “Dirty Harry: The quiet apologies of Clint Eastwood

  1. Dead thread, I know, but here goes: “seemingly contradictory liberal and conservative ideals”

    That’s known as libertarianism and the ideals only “seemly contradictory” until you examine them more closely.

  2. Interesting post. I love all the Dirty Harry films, there’s a real grittiness to them that can’t be replicated. They’re classics and I really hope nobody ever tries to remake them. As a teenage girl in the 70s I had a massive crush on Clint, and also the gorgeous Harry Guardino who played Lt. Bressler in two of the movies…! Me and my raging hormones…fond memories of getting Harry’s autograph circa 1976 flooding back. My mom did not approve of me seeing the movies at all, fearing the levels of violence would end up corrupting me somehow, hmm.

  3. hey Curnblog- nice work on the Dirty Harry canon. I just watched them all recently and they do hold up pretty well. The first is the best by far. Its interesting that when Reservoir Dogs came out in 1992 that QT had to defend his use of violence in the film especially the ear amputation scene which you didn’t even see on screen it was all off screen when 20 years earlier Dirty Harry shot Scorpio in the leg and then stomped on the leg and they didn’t cut away just a slow helicopter pull back but you got the full brutal impact of the act not a pan away before the business. As you say in one of your comments looking back you forget how tough this film was at the time..

    • Thanks 🙂

      Agreed – there’s definitely a brutal edge in those reactionary films of the 70s that is rarer in the average equivalent movie today (probably peaks with the Death Wish series).

    • Possibly. Clint has made statements in a recent talk that suggest he agrees with you.

      But in the same talk, he did also mention that the left element of Hollywood was highly vocal compared to the conservatives of the industry. As a result, I’d suggest that either way, he would have found himself surrounded by outspoken liberals that would have placed him in an awkward position in relation to his own ideology and his freedom to express it.

  4. I loved the Dirty Harry movies as a kid, and to be honest I don’t think I really understood them at the time. I just liked the strong silent bad-ass cop character a lot. I bought the blu-ray collection of Harry movies a couple of years back but it’s still sitting on the shelf. After this post, I think it’s time to pop them into the player and check them out again.

    • I bought the same box, and I STILL love them 🙂

      Definitely try and watch them all!

      The big thing about them is that they pretty much invented the modern ‘bad-ass cop’ character who breaks the law to uphold the law – a character we now see in a thousand films. It’s easy to forget how extreme he seemed at the time….

  5. I don’t think there is anything incoherent about Eastwood’s politics. He’s on the side of freedom and democracy, warts and all. Gran Torino I believe distills it very succinctly. Some were offended by its democracy-for-all political incorrectness.

  6. Curnblog I’d be interested in your take on his later pictures, and how your proposition stands up when examined against, let’s say, Unforgiven, Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby – how his politics may (or may not) have shifted? After all, a man’s got to know his limitations. Next column, perhaps?

    • Yep, he definitely takes a radical shift in the early nineties – his films become far more thoughtful and possibly less conservative.

      ‘Unforgiven’ is definitely a huge marker. It almost seems to draw a cross through his prior work, allowing him to break away from his ‘star image’ as it appeared at that point. From this point on he starts to look like a truly great filmmaker.

      I definitely plan on writing a lot more on Clint… this one happened to come out of a Dirty Harry marathon last night 🙂

  7. I am a huge fan of the Dirty Harry series and I agree with some of the things you have said. It’s a well-covered post and congrats for the effort. 🙂
    I kinda looked at Harry as a mere human who had undergone a huge change over the years, majorly because of a conflict of interest he had with his own policies and the state’s laws. I don’t know how much of this can be true because I haven’t watched those films very closely.. except for Dirty Harry which I watched twice. 🙂

    • Thanks, Manu!

      There’s an element of truth in that, but each sequel (bar the last) is structured around answering the accusations leveled at Dirty Harry and Clint during that period. If Harry changes over time, it is at least partly to do with Clint’s desire to clear his name.

      • That could be true. 🙂
        Well, he’s someone who has definitely evolved over time. Somehow, being politically correct is something that cannot be expected from Clint because for me his characters are mostly very impulsive and ridden with emotion rather than thoughtfulness. Post-1990 he has changed the way of filming… I sensed a change in his perspective post-Unforgiven.

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