‘Dirty Harry’ – Clint Eastwood’s Urban Cowboy

Dirty Harry delivered justice from the barrel of a .44 Magnum

Clint Eastwood was a Western icon for a fistful of spaghetti Westerns and cynical American copycats. When he strapped on his .44 Magnum to stride the streets of San Francisco as Inspector Harry Callahan, known to the squad as Dirty Harry, Eastwood turned his frontier persona into an urban cowboy on the mean streets of our urban world.

He didn’t get his nickname for hygienic reasons. Everyone offers a different explanation for it: His partners have a habit of landing in the hospital or in the morgue. He’s been known to bend the law in the pursuit of justice. He’s an equal-opportunity bigot.

Harry has the best explanation: “Every dirty job that comes along. …”

In Dirty Harry, Callahan tracks a psychopath with a sniper rifle trying to extort the city for a small fortune (at least by 1971 standards). The killer signs his ransom demands “Scorpio,” a not-so-veiled reference to the Zodiac killer, who terrorized the San Francisco Bay area for years. The real-life serial killer eluded capture, but on the big screen we get a pure law-and-order fantasy, and closure from the end of a barrel.

Harry Callahan was made to order for an audience nervous about escalating urban violence in the ’70s, a go-it-alone John Wayne cowboy for the modern era. Despite comments about his “long hair” from fellow cops, he’s as square as they come. And as ornery.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he growls. “‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as 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 a question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”

That’s as much dialogue as Eastwood ever delivers in a single scene. He tends to let his eyes do the emoting and his gun do the talking. He doesn’t let distractions like civil rights and rule of law stop him from delivering justice to the scum on the streets. The film’s tagline says it all: “You don’t assign him to murder cases, you just turn him loose.”

In real life, we’d be terrified of Harry and the loose cannon he calls a handgun. On the big screen, we applaud his frontier justice on the mean streets of our modern urban America.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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