Just in time for a Supreme Court decision that will allow all of us to pack .44 Magnum pistols as home defense weapons, Dirty Harry takes the giant step to Blu-ray in a stylish five-disc set loaded with extras. Once again we can revel in Clint Eastwood as Harry Callahan, the one-man justice system pitted against the ultra-violent criminal creep Scorpio.
Dirty Harry has won a permanent place in American culture. It reaffirmed Clint Eastwood as a box-office force and provided the actor with the clout to establish himself as a director. Don Siegel's ode to the vigilante spirit popularized the reactionary notion that new policies like the Miranda decision favored the rights of criminals over those of their victims. Almost 40 years later, the issues are still being debated. The film's original title was Dead Right.
San Francisco police detective Harry Callahan (Eastwood) pursues Scorpio, a grotesquely nasty serial killer (Andy Robinson) who threatens to shoot one person a day until he's paid a hundred-thousand dollar extortion fee. Hindered by a mayor and a police chief (John Vernon and John Larch) more concerned with politics and legal niceties, Harry eventually captures Scorpio, only to see the maniac turned loose because of a technicality. From that point on the case becomes a personal vendetta.
The real-life Zodiac killer case was a thorn in the side of U.S. law enforcement. Although some suspects were eventually singled out, the case was never solved, due to bad luck, bureaucratic problems and the killer's own cleverness.
Dirty Harry has a more direct explanation: America is at the mercy of criminals who know they can get away with anything because the courts have crippled law enforcement. Scorpio is a longhair psycho who hates authority and delights in killing innocent children. He wears a peace symbol yet is also an expert with firearms. Scorpio is the perfect anti-liberal propaganda poster boy, a composite of traits chosen to demonize the peace 'n' love generation.
Fantasy super-cop Harry Callahan infuses Clint Eastwood's established "Man With No Name" persona with a generous helping of badass attitude. Callahan is John Wayne, but with added cynicism and insolence. The police chief sits in silence while Harry back-talks profanities at the mayor, when any real chief would demand that Harry turn in his badge. In this version of reality, bureaucrats are moral cowards that need real men like Harry to do the society's dirty work.
Harry is always ready to intervene with deadly force. Unlike real lawmen, Detective Callahan uses his gun at least once a day. We never see him filling out paperwork. Harry holds everyone in contempt and accepts help from nobody; most average citizens are jerks unworthy of consideration. Harry's only psychological tool is sarcasm, as demonstrated when he baits a suicide jumper with cruel taunts. Since the jumper is presented unsympathetically, we laugh. He looks like a Hollywood agent, not a depressive.
Dirty Harry's exciting script connected with audiences eager for violent action. Eastwood delivers the sardonic humor with his personal brand of laid-back menace. In reaction to the then-popular Blaxploitation genre, Harry massacres a band of black bank robbers and then taunts a wounded bandit with the barrel of his .44 Magnum. Eastwood's "Do you feel lucky?" speech to the fallen "punk" immediately entered the realm of screen legend. In her widely quoted review, critic Pauline Kael called Dirty Harry a fascist film. Harry Callahan talks softly, carries a big gun and doesn't need the law. He naturally intuits what is right and people with other ideas need to just plain shut up. Dirty Harry offers a quick fix for society's ills: unshackle the police and let them do their job. Stop being "soft" on crime. With real authority established, student protests, long hair, and anti-war demonstrations would disappear.
Don Siegel was never a liberal filmmaker, not even in his masterpiece Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The new ratings system allowed the director to include hard content, including several brutal beatings and an image of a knife being painfully extracted from a leg. We see fleeting glimpses of full-frontal nudity, one involving an innocent child victim. Dirty Harry gets big laughs peeping at a naked fat woman. Harry is disgusted by the necking couples and swishy homosexuals roaming San Francisco's parks. The script plays the political correctness game: Harry's positive relationships with blacks and Latinos (a doctor, Reni Santoni's educated detective) are calculated to counter his racial slurs when he "tells it like it is."
The film attains maximum political hysteria in a scene on a football field where Harry shoots and then tortures Scorpio; a dynamic crane shot emphasizes the epic nature of their confrontation. Siegel's visuals may ask audiences to question Harry's actions, but the film ultimately endorses his brutality: the opening role call of San Francisco policemen killed in the line of duty is meant to silence objections. When Scorpio hijacks a school bus (something the real Zodiac had threatened to do) we want the giggling monster exterminated once and for all, before the "liberal" justice system can set him free again. Dirty Harry had a profound effect on the public, supporting arguments against basic criminal rights that protect us all from government abuse. To quote Charlton Heston from Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, "A policeman's job is only easy in a police state." Dirty Harry is pro-police state.
The new Blu-ray of Dirty Harry prompts mention of the heated web debate about whether or not studios are over-enhancing older films for hi-def. Irate bulletin board posters have singled out Patton, as Fox's Blu-ray has been enhanced to minimize natural grain, presumably because Blu-ray proponents think that the format means "no grain." Patton was so bright and clear in its 70mm theatrical presentation that ordinary viewers are unlikely to complain. This reviewer wasn't offended either.
Dirty Harry on Blu-ray is more complicated. The 1971 release was never a visual beauty. The quest for ''docu realism" seems to have meant indifferent exposure and an over-reliance on zoom shots. Many dialogue scenes have a very shallow focus, and a number of shots are just plain out of focus. On original release prints, "pushed" nighttime scenes offered milky blacks, golf ball-sized grain and weak hues. The Blu-ray disc shows heavy tweaking to minimize grain, sharpen contrast and brighten colors. Sunny exteriors haven't changed much but heavy processing has given most night shots an almost unnatural look -- detail and bright color in what were once dimly lit areas, with everything else falling into inky blackness.
To this reviewer, Patton looks more or less like its theatrical presentation, while Dirty Harry is substantially altered. The question is, who should judge how much tweaking is too much? When push comes to shove, home video executives have the final say, and their commitment to authentic restoration is naturally subordinated to marketing concerns.
Complainants on the web accuse home video companies of trying to give every movie a contemporary gloss, to eliminate film-like qualities. Artists' rights and the distortion of film history enter into the debate as well. Studio marketers are looking for a wide customer base, and can easily argue that unless Blu-ray grabs consumers with eye-popping images, the public won't go for it.
Just the same, it seems counterproductive to decide that all movies need to be re-invented with new and improved visuals to dazzle the buyers in retail demo rooms. Why stop at altering colors, when audio tracks can be remixed with modern sound effects, and dated special effects can be replaced with "better" CGI work, following the precedent set by George Lucas? Remember when it was reported that De Palma's Scarface almost had its dated disco score removed? Some studio marketer thought that a new hip-hop track would make it commercially viable for re-release.
What are your thoughts on the issue of beautiful, enhanced transfers of vintage films versus transfers more faithful to the films' original appearance? Do you think we today can truly divine the intentions of the original filmmakers, as studios often claim? Will movie rights holders do anything to move product, no matter how much movie history is rewritten -- or re-painted? Is such "fixing" necessary to sell "old" movies to new audiences? The comment box awaits below.
Now available from Warner Home Video, the clean, bright and colorful Dirty Harry is also available in what may be the first multiple-disc Blu-ray boxed set, the Ultimate Collector's Edition The five titles are Dirty Harry, Magnum Force , The Enforcer, Sudden Impact and The Dead Pool.
The fancy packaging includes a host of amusing extras. A new docu, The Long Shadow of Dirty Harry, covers the whole phenomenon from an understandably approving point of view; the laudatory American Masters tribute to Eastwood is included as well. Each disc has new commentaries and featurettes. A hard-cover booklet uses glossy photos to differentiate the films' various villains and compares things like body counts and signature sneer dialogue lines: "Do you feel lucky?" ... "Go ahead, make my day" ... "You're *$%# out of luck."
An envelope contains reproductions of documents associated with the film, including a note from Frank Sinatra's agent confirming that he's backing out of the project. A folding map-poster of San Francisco plots the bloody path of Scorpio's crime spree, and six "collectible art cards" commemorate the films' original poster art.
Finally, buyers of the Ultimate Collector's Edition also get a leather-like detective's wallet, with a Harry Callahan I.D. card and a detective's badge! When we defend our houses with our newly sanctioned .44 Magnums, we'll have official I.D. to flash. But we'll have to write our own quotable tag lines.
reviews online at DVD Savant