Siding with ‘Dirty Harry’ on the Use of Violence in Movies

Dirty HarryThink anyone in the history of movie-watching ever felt sorry for serial killer “Scorpio” in the 1971 Don Siegel policier Dirty Harry?

What, no one at all? Not even when Clint Eastwood’s Inspector Harry Callahan tortures the guy by stepping on his injured leg after shooting him on a football field? Or when he stabs Scorpio in the park, eliciting a screech of pain? Or when the killer cries out piteously for a lawyer as Harry is trying to interrogate him?

You’ve got to hand it to Siegel, Eastwood, and the brilliant actor who played Scorpio, Andy Robinson, as well as all of the other players involved in the making of this film, for creating a work of art that succeeds in doing exactly what it aims to do: Ensure that viewers hate the villain with a passion. I have to admire Dirty Harry in this regard, because its efforts are some of the most manipulative in the history of cinema. Despite the fact that Callahan operates, basically, as a vigilante without regard for rules and regulations, you feel for him and loathe his adversary. The inspector is even a racist … or at least he claims to be in one particular scene where he denigrates his Hispanic partner’s heritage, though his opponent is a bigot of such a vile low order that he specifically targets African Americans and Catholic priests for his murderous deeds. As such, Dirty Harry is the benchmark for many other good/bad cop flicks following its debut. We have to love him because the alternative is worse. And Harry does have many good qualities, including a hatred of maniacs.

Which brings me to a question that I’ve been asking for a long time. Why is the violence and rule-breaking in Dirty Harry so disturbing and controversial when, more than 30 years later, we have slicings, beheadings and dismemberment galore via pictures such as 300 (2006) or Kill Bill: Vol. I (2003) that are accepted, that we’re supposed to revel in, deem “cool” or honor as a tribute to past splatterfests? We pass off the gore in those films as fantasy, exaggerated, and maybe some of us even joke about it, but the mayhem in Dirty Harry is no laughing matter. Harry, to this day, has detractors. There are still people who believe what he does is wrong.

And yet we root for him in the movie. Does anyone really, in the context of the film, want to see Scorpio get due process of law, go to court, and get sentenced to 25 years or so after a long, drawn-out process? Let’s face it: We think he deserves getting treated the way he treats other people in the movie. Maybe he even gets off too good by being simply blown away by Callahan at the end.

This all comes down to a weird point that bugs me: What do we go to the cinema for, anyway? To see the good guys win? The bad guys lose? When we watch pictures that contain heavy doses of violence, what is our reaction supposed to be? Given Hollywood’s predilection for producing flicks that feature no shortage of such content, I assume the aim is not to make us recoil.

Yet many of us recoil when Inspector Callahan does everything wrong (in the right celluloid way) during this treatment of Scorpio. Take his attack on the football field: It includes Harry pursuing the deranged killer onto the turf and then yelling, “Stop!” Guess what? Scorpio stops. He even raises his hands, giving up. Yet Harry still shoots him.

Oh, yeah. That’s a no-no in copland.

Dirty HarryWhy, then, is it so satisfying and horrific at the same time in the context of the film? The reason: We want Scorpio to get what’s coming to him. He’s so incredibly evil—from his horrific treatment of children, which includes raping and burying alive a girl whom Harry is seeking information on, to his blubbering, selfish, unrepentant focus on his own needs over those he has harmed (his behavior after Harry blasts him on the football field offers evidence of this)—that our reaction to this in a “civilized” way must be tempered with the anger we share with Inspector Callahan over his repellent actions. We are, as a result, on Harry’s team here. We are Harry’s comrades-in-beliefs.

I was reminded of these beliefs recently following the terrorist attacks in New York City that involved a man named Sayfullo Saipov, who allegedly murdered eight people by running them over with a truck. The New York Times ran a story some days ago on the court appearance of this individual, who was shot by a policeman during the violence, which effectively stopped the perpetrator’s rampage. The story quoted the chief federal public defender, who has been representing the accused, as stating that Saipov was in “pain” from his injury and requesting that the wound’s dressing be changed. Now I’ve been in extreme pain—and have experienced only a couple of months ago the worst pain I’ve ever had in my entire life during a stint in a local hospital’s emergency room as part of treatment for a kidney stone—and I would not wish such sensations on anyone. But while reading this account and thinking about the victims, including those who had to have parts of their bodies amputated after the attacks, I couldn’t help recalling Inspector Callahan’s cinematic response to the district attorney’s assertion that Scorpio had “rights” violated by Harry:

“Well, I’m all broken up about that man’s rights.”

This line suggests a truth, a movie truth, that perhaps wouldn’t be so out of place in the feelings we have with regard to villainous activity in real life. We do believe in a society with legitimate rules and regulations that protect other people’s rights—even those of people who commit reprehensible crimes. Yet we also can’t fault ourselves for not being sympathetic to those people, for being angry at them, for being hurt, shocked, disgusted. Do we go see movies such as Dirty Harry to make ourselves feel better with that in mind, to vicariously live out a fantastical scene that wouldn’t be acceptable in our actual existences but is certainly so on celluloid? And is it the same with pictures such as 300 and Kill Bill: Vol. I, or is our reaction to blood on a different level? Is “enjoying” the sight of violence OK in one setting but not in another? Are we really thrilled by Sam Peckinpah’s filmmaking skill and technique while absorbing the mass shootings in The Wild Bunch (1969), or should we just admit to ourselves that we like seeing people get killed in creative ways onscreen?

I think we have to examine this issue further before coming to a conclusion. Thoughtful, perceptive movies such as Dirty Harry have given us a lot to work with and may cause us to question how we feel about fictional characters and their impact on real-life controversies and issues. Pictures such as 300? I’m not so sure. There is definitely a link here, a historical one, that connects our assessment of violence and how we react to it—and are supposed to react to it. Perhaps Hollywood has an answer. My feeling is, as long as we follow the law, things will make sense in the end … though, as Harry Callahan says, “The law is crazy.”

Movie law, on the other hand, is an entirely different story.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

3 thoughts on “Siding with ‘Dirty Harry’ on the Use of Violence in Movies

  1. Callahan becomes an even more complex character in the sequel Magnum Force. While he doesn’t exactly follow the rule book himself, he’s really not keen on joining a gang of killer cops.
    And then there’s his response to the crooked lieutenant…
    “You’re a good cop, Harry. You had a chance to join my team, but you decided to stick with the system.”
    “Briggs, I hate the goddamn system! But until someone comes along with changes that make sense, I’ll stick with it.”

  2. Very well written article, Simon. You nailed the issue perfectly using “Dirty Harry” as the example: it’s a brilliant film that puts you in the position of having to decide whether the “bad guy”, who we know did it, should get this “rights” – or face the punishment due him. Our system works to ensure he doesn’t face that punishment except when found guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt”, which Harry has already determined, and we’ve already been shown. To paraphrase Harry when asked by the Mayor how he knew a suspect he shot was doing something wrong, Harry replies: “Well, when I see a naked guy chasing a girl with a knife and a hard-on, I figure he’s not out collecting for the red cross.”

  3. At some point in our lives, I feel that most of us are outraged by some incident where we perceive that ‘justice’ was not done. The justice we sought may have been personal, or because of an incident like the one you highlight.
    When a film-maker delivers that rough justice, whether in ‘Dirty Harry’ or ‘Death Wish’ against criminals, or against imperialist Persians in ‘300’, we relate to that, as something we might like to do, given the chance. These films make flesh of our darkest human desires, and allow us to vicariously experience what we will never be able to do ourselves, in a modern society.
    Very enjoyable and thought-provoking, Simon.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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