Retro Review: Dirty Harry (1971).

Retro Review Dirty Harry

Retro Review: Dirty Harry (1971).

While Dirty Harry has some cool moments and a praiseworthy attention to detail, the film is just too dark. And surprisingly for a story about a rogue cop that shoots first and asks questions at the morgue, I’m not talking about tone.

Last week, we watched “Dirty” Harry Callahan’s final outing, The Deadpool. We weren’t impressed. This week we go all the way back to the origin of the man with the magnum: Dirty Harry.

In all the excitement, I couldn’t remember how many movies Clint Eastwood’s iconic rogue cop had starred in. Was it five? Or Six? I even forgot whether Dirty Harry was the first movie (for some reason I thought Magnum Force came first). Luckily for this punk, Roku has a free movie channel, and Dirty Harry was front and center on their free movie list.

Time to see if Dirty Harry is truly the world’s most powerful action movie. One that can blow my mind… clean off.

Retro Review Dirty Harry
“When a streaming service gives me a free movie, I watch it. That’s my policy.”

Dirty Harry (1971)

Retro Review Dirty Harry
And this was for a routine traffic stop!

Inspector Harry Callahan has earned the nickname of Dirty Harry due to his ability to handle the dirtiest of jobs. As a homicide detective in San Francisco, it’s a useful ability to have. When a psychotic sniper calling himself Scorpio decides to hold the city for ransom, it will be up to Harry to stop the madman before the body count gets too high.

Tough as Nails, Sharp as a Tack

Retro Review Dirty Harry
“…Across the desert the man in black fled, and the gunslinger followed…wearing discount sunglasses.”

When you imagine Dirty Harry you probably imagine the shades, the .44 magnum, and the iconic dialogue. Sure, Harry Callahan is an ultra violent, jaded, ruthless enforcer of justice. What I was pleasantly surprised to find out was that he was also a damn competent detective. Early and often the film shows us that while Harry is more than willing to shoot first, second, and last, he is also keenly observant, methodical, and intelligent to boot.

It really elevates the cat and mouse chase, because the villain isn’t all that interesting. He’s just some psychopath that loves killing. The film doesn’t really seem to know how to use him either: one moment he’s cold and calculating, the next he’s crazy and whimsical. It’s all saved by how doggedly Harry hunts him. It gives Dirty Harry the feeling of a modern western.

Which plays well with Dirty Harry’s persona: he’s a man out of time. He’s ruthless, obsessed with a brand of justice that civil society can’t condone. While everything that Dirty Harry pines for are repellent to me, they are presented convincingly. I didn’t like Harry Callahan (he’s a racist white male power fantasy at heart), but I believed he exists. For an action movie, that’s above average characterization.

Point Aim Fire

Retro Review Dirty Harry
Not a man who likes to waste time.

Much like Inspector Callahan, the film moves at a dogged, brisk pace. It’s also tight, moving from A to B intelligently. The final compliment I have for the screenwriting is that nothing is wasted. If something is brought up, it’s relevant; furthermore, it is also resolved. Dirty Harry doesn’t waste your time, and it doesn’t insult your intelligence.

Darker than the DCEU

Retro Review Dirty Harry
Now just imagine that you can’t even see Harry and you’ve got the (lack of) picture.

Despite everything in Dirty Harry’s favor, the film is very tough to watch. Literally. Technicolor and Panavision haven’t aged gracefully, and the film is downright opaque. When shooting at night, everything becomes one almost-black mess, and it’s impossible to see what’s going on (I tried every contrast/brightness trick I could). This is a big problem when most of the film takes place at night.

I noticed this same problem with a lot of older horror movies: if you film at night, you better have a good soundtrack, because everything fades into the shadows. With Dirty Harry, there are large chunks of the film where you can’t see anything, so you have to really on things crashing and guns firing to tell what’s going on.

Maybe a better version (like an HD remaster) would make this point moot, but the standard digital version of Dirty Harry has a good hour’s worth of unwatchable content.

Not Quite a Magnum Opus

Dirty Harry is an above average police procedural grafted onto a fairly ho-hum action thriller. I like Harry a lot more when he was doing his job compared to when he was going to town like a vigilante. There are a few cool moments, such as the thwarted bank robbery and the phone-booth to phone-booth chase. It’s a shame then that so much of the film has aged very poorly, and is downright unwatchable in spots.

While I don’t think Dirty Harry is the classic that it’s been billed as, it’s certainly worth a watch. If your TV has exceptional color and fidelity, that is.

Retro Review: Dirty Harry (1971).
Thank goodness for that!


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