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.