Dirty Harry (1971) is often considered to be one of the most significant action films. Along with The French Connection (1971), we see a much quieter variation on the action genre, where filmmakers embrace silence and character as a method for audience involvement.
Maybe this has something to do with Eastwood’s relationship with westerns. Unforgiven (1992) drips with character and pacing. And Mystic River (2003) place an emphasis on the same run-down urbanity that we see in Dirty Harry. Far from the escapist cinema of Steven Spielberg, Eastwood is attracted to fiction that can emphasize the real.
Inspector Harry Callahan is not the hardboiled detective we might see in the likes of The Maltese Falcon (1941), where Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is as greedy and corrupt as anyone, but none the less clever. Callahan is pure street smarts. He teases a college boy who thinks he can make it in law enforcement, and instinctively knows that a bank is going to be robbed by the way a car is parked. What’s more, he is driven by the desire to prevent crime by all means possible.
The story begins with a random assassination and as we watch through the eyes of the killer, just watching a swimming pool, we feel a sense of the inevitable and our concern is concentrated on the victim who we know is going to die. The criminal says he’s after money and demands it from the city, or else he kills ordinary citizens. But his strategy is designed such that he can preserve unanimity.
Harry is driven by the desire to reduce suffering through fear, while the criminal only values people for the economic ends they can provide him. Harry attempts to bring this criminal in line with the status quo and despite ruthless pursuit, it is increasingly the case that bureaucracy gets in the way. First, the society, then the government, and then the law itself.
One of the puzzles that civilization has always faced is how do we preserve our citizens (slaves don’t often count) and allow them to be happy? And what’s more, how do we stop people from harming the interests of those people that do count.
One solution has been to kill those who threaten the status quo, because it pretty much shuts them up for good. Take Sophie Scholl (2005) for instance. Another solution has been religion, where people are encouraged to behave in a certain way.
One of the justifications for punishment has been that it can prevent crime. But what we often find is that this approach is limited in that it only affects the criminal after their actions, and that we have to continually punish people in order to have order. Harry appears to value this as a necessary evil, but is willing to give people the chance to act in a civil manner.
Interestingly, popular crime fiction has been reluctant to explore the reasons for crime. Films like Reservoir Dogs (1992), The Godfather (1972), and Chinatown (1974), tend to portray criminals as looking out for their own interests. Their self-interest does not value the interests of others, and the law is an inconvenience. While we can empathize with this, easily in fact, it does not help us to understand the problem.
What we do know is that crime tends to be the result of socio-economic pressure, marginalization, or population density. If people are put into positions that force a choice between survival and crime, they will take survival, and if they blend easily into a crowd, they face fewer risks of being held responsible.