June 19, 2008

Dirty Harry Collector's Edition: The deluxe treatment to make your day


Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5):
Dirty Harry ****
Magnum Force ***
The Enforcer **½
Sudden Impact ***
The Dead Pool **½

If you watch enough Dirty Harry movies consecutively -- say, all five of them, as I did this past week, in viewing the newly remastered Dirty Harry Deluxe Collector's Edition from Warner Brothers -- you either go mad, or you start to spot a number of interesting patterns. Such as:

  • Being assigned as Harry Callahan's partner is not that different than becoming the latest Spinal Tap drummer in movie mythology -- both positions are seriously bewitched and essentially doomed. This does not go unnoticed by the screenwriters; in even just the second film Magnum Force, Harry (Clint Eastwood) makes his new partner nervous by alluding to this fact.

  • Of course, most famously, the police captains over Harry are always demoting and transferring him, looking for any excuse to get rid of him because "he doesn't do things by the book," only to have to bring him back to Homicide because they're too myopic and/or incompetent to solve anything without him.

  • Each film of course has the requisite car chase(s), Scene Where Callahan Goes Too Far and Crashes Something to Save the Day, one dimensional depictions of fringe groups (students. hippies and radicals, and so on) -- even if the films sometimes then subvert those expectations.

    Taken as a whole, the Dirty Harry series is a fascinating study of an American period that begins with the disillusionment and tumult felt in the early 70s and ends with "Morning in America" era Reagan (and some disillusionment beginning to be felt with that as well). Individually, the films are certainly a mixed bag, but even the lesser films in the series have a certain fascination about them. And each of these new discs offers up enough extras to make not only a die-hard fan happy, but film students and cultural historians, too. And each of these new DVD includes a host of supplemental features -- also of varying quality but with several new documentaries worth watching for any DirtyHarryologists out there or anyone seeking more background on the series.


    Dirty Harry, the first film, remains by far the best, with taut direction by the perennially underrated action director Don Siegel (who directed Eastwood a number of times to good effect), an effectively creepy, highly memorable villain (played menacingly to perfection by Andy Robinson), and several great set pieces and chases through the dark corners of San Francisco (including my two favorites in the series, up the shadowy hillside of the cross-topped Mt. Davidson and into the original Kezar Stadium, once the home of the 49ers). That last sequence ends unforgettably. Dirty Harry sets up many of the patterns the later sequels would try to imitate or reuse, but never as effectively as here.

    The new digitally remastered print looks sharper than it has (I recall first seeing the film on a faded VHS print and on TV, but even the first DVD was fairly muddy) but the two-disc set includes a mix of new and previously offered bonus features: commentary by Time film critic and Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel, two adequate featurettes on the original film shoot and with cast, crew and others revisiting the film's impact, and (on disc two) an all-new doc on the film's legacy and a biography of Eastwood himself.

    Memorable line: "I know what you're thinking. "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 one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"

    The second film, Magnum Force, was directed by the magnum-prolific Ted Post, whose career, mostly as a TV director, spanned the better part of four decades (including episodes of Eastwood's Rawhide series and the underrated Eastwood western Hang 'Em High. Post does very solid work here, though there is plenty of silliness (and homophobia and misogyny) to be found in this story of Harry on the trail of cops-turned-killers, which also features a cast of now-familiar faces then unknown as the bad cops, including Robert Urich, David Soul and Tim Matheson, and the wonderful Hal Holbrook giving more heft to the usual angry police captain role. The film's a bit overlong but there is still plenty to fascinate here. John Milius, noted screenwriter behind Apocalypse Now, The Wind and the Lion, Red Dawn and this film, provides the commentary and his anti-liberal POV infuses both the script and his comments (which are still quite interesting and insightful, even for this "liberal" reviewer). The film remains of note for Harry being pitted against cops who go too far --and Milius claims in the commentary that "in fact, they haven't done anything wrong... they're serving justice" -- even for him, in their reaction to the system letting them down.

    "The Politics of Dirty Harry," which is on the Magnum Force DVD, attempts to encapsulate the controversial morality of the films, with interviews with some of the actors and writers on the series as well as other directors, action screenwriters, and critics including Schickel again. While the documentary is a bit clumsy at times, it does show the complexity at work as well as the tumult at play during that time period, in which the country was even more polarized than it is now, where words like "facist" and "communist" were banded about too easily. The interviewees may get a little too appreciative here and they gloss over the fact that the films themselves also succumbed to the same simplistic characterizations of right and left (never mind right and wrong), but it's still a worthy watch.

    Interestingly, as that documentary points out, critic Pauline Kael was the most famous in her criticism of the first Dirty Harry film - using that word, "facist" - and in the final film in the series, The Dead Pool, a woman film critic quite similar to Kael is murdered.

    Memorable line: "A man's got to know his limitations."

    1979's The Enforcer feels a little more dated than the previous two Dirty Harry films, with some flamboyant overacting (the killers, the victim, the gay waiter), a few ludicrous set pieces and the politics even more questionable (Callahan's equating minorities with hoods, and its portrayal of affirmative action and feminists) -- but maybe some of that was meant as comedy (the great Stirling Silliphant was one of the scriptwriters). There are some Harry-and-his-partner interchanges that feel straight outta Police Squad! and the plot set up seems almost literally out of the Streets of San Francisco pilot. But The Enforcer is still a watchably entertaining entry in the series, with Tyne Daly, as the woman who becomes Harry's partner against his will, a fine foil for Callahan's reactionary cop; the two of them have some nice rapport. Several adults-only chase scenes are memorable, if unintentionally humorous -- as Schickel notes, sex is never a safe activity in any of these films.

    Extra features on The Enforcer disc include entertaining enough commentary by the film's director, James Fargo; an interesting if too short-attention-span look at violence in cinema, and a not all that exciting featurette celebrating Harry Callahan.

    After the first two films, the most intriguing sequel is 1983's Sudden Impact, if only because it's the only Dirty Harry picture to have been directed by Clint Eastwood himself. Eastwood's skills and reputation as a filmmaker blossomed more and more with each new film, and while Sudden Impact is uneven -- overlong and overexplanatory -- it's provocative and far less workmanlike than the other sequels. Eastwood's one-time girlfriend Sondra Locke plays a woman seeking revenge for a gang rape some years ago that left her sister an invalid and her, well, a bit angry about it. After the previous film's lame attempts at examining the "feminist POV" this film is rather more interesting.

    Pat Hingle and Bradford Dillman, who must have done these kinds of roles a thousand times play a local police chief and SF police captain respectively - i.e., the usual repressive pains in Callahan's rear -- in capable support.

    As an added attraction here, Schickel again provides a most illuminating commentary track. As he notes, the film's main flaw is that there is a disconnect in the script between some of the darker themes explored -- the subject of rape, objectification of woman and revenge -- juxtaposed with some of the buffoonishness of the police machinery scenes and other scenes not related to the main plot, coupled with some contrivances and coincidences. This is also the film, of course, that gave the world the infamous and much satirized line "Go ahead, make my day," but at the least Sudden Impact is directed with style by Eastwood and has actually aged a bit better than the final film in the series, 1988's The Dead Pool.

    The Dead Pool, directed by noted auteur Buddy Van Horn (who was an assistant and 2nd unit director on previous Harry films) is of note in part because of its recognizable cast of then unknowns, including a very young Jim Carrey as a doomed rock singer/actor, Patricia Clarkson as a reporter who finds Harry fascinating, and Liam Neeson (distractingly, one of two men in the film to sport a hair tail) as an egomaniacal director suspected of being a serial killer. The plot is a fairly compelling if unsophisticated satire on celebrity obsession and the media fascination with serial killers, and the movie famously provides an absolutely ludicrous (if still entertaining) car chase featuring a remote controlled car. The commentary here, by the film's producer and cinematographer, isn't particularly scintillating, but the new featurette on this final disc, "The Craft of Dirty Harry," profiling the various departments who put all five of these films together is worth a watch.

    It's extra fun for anyone familiar with the city to see how the San Francisco landscape is presented (and how it's shifted since the late 70s). The Dirty Harry films were unique in the amount of on-location shot in San Francisco -- even 48 Hours, another of the great SF films, cheated by shooting some of its exterior scenes in Los Angeles -- and watching the series as a piece you can see the changes to the urban environment over the 15+ year span. Eerily, The Dead Pool was likely one of the last films shot here to feature the Embarcadero Freeway, which would come down a year later in the Loma Prieta earthquake; arguably the one positive aspect of that 'quake was that it forced the city to remove that monstrosity in exchange for a now-gorgeous waterfront, but these films sure loved to use it as a location.

    All told, this new deluxe set is more than worth a rent, even the lesser films in the series, for being important time capsule films, and for the extra features included. And in the case of the seminal first film, as a great opportunity to revisit a definitive 70s classic. If none of the other films quite measured up to the original Dirty Harry, they have all earned a place in the American cultural pantheon.

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    Posted by cphillips at June 19, 2008 4:08 PM
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