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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Dirty Harry (1971) - Culmination of the Sniper Film



Around 1970, there was a feeling among ordinary citizens that things were spiraling out of control.  Protests, the Vietnam war, an errant economy, all contributed to a sense that something wasn't quite right.  Some welcomed the turmoil and even encouraged it.  Others, however, liked order and security, and were looking for someone to step up and take control.

Hollywood, always looking to fill a need, pounced.  First came "Dirty Harry," and then Charles Bronson in "Death Wish."  Both characters became iconic and spawned multiple sequels, but today, everybody knows the name of Clint's character.  Do you remember the name of Bronson's character?

It is fascinating watching certain cinematic trends, because they reflect where we have been (and perhaps going) as a society. This film takes police procedurals to a completely different level than any before it, and started a genre of "lone avenger" tales that lasted for decades and never really left us. "Dirty Harry" is raw entertainment meat, served to the masses hungry for someone, anyone to take on the social problems that had been wracking the country. At a primal level, it filled the void caused by the decline of the Western.

Do you feel lucky?  Well, do you, punk?

Comparing this to "The Sniper" from 1952 and some similar films illustrates the evolution of the crazed-killer-hunted-down theme. The subtle differences show the choices Director Don Siegel made in "Dirty Harry" that made it such an iconic hit. "The Sniper" is particularly interesting because it is set in precisely the same spot as "Dirty Harry," San Francisco, and "Harry" is almost a remake of "Sniper." The point is that the same police department and its response is portrayed in wildly different fashions in the two films.

In the Dirty Harry series, it was ALL about the gun

In "The Sniper," sniper Eddie Miller is shown as a troubled, almost sympathetic character. He just wants to be found and understood - he even leaves the police notes pleading for them to find and stop him. There are vignettes attempting to show why he is disturbed - little children demean him, attractive women humiliate him. A police psychologist hammers the point home throughout the film that the gunman is simply sick and in need of help. And everything we see of Eddie confirms that indeed, he is just a sad loner who needs to be found and helped. Ultimately, the SFPD find some clues, and we are left with the hope that the poor fellow might be helped.

Harry doesn't take guff from some punk

Hitchcock's "Psycho" took the basic premise of "The Sniper" and made the murderer creepier, but at least explainable. While not actually a sniper, Norman Bates might as well be, since he operates hidden in the dark, picking off random passing strangers at the sinister Bates Motel. The fear factor is increased, and the clean-cut killer ultimately appears bizarre and weird, but there remains hope that his problem can be resolved. No sympathy is wasted on the killer (except perhaps by the psychiatrist at the end), but at least he is shown as a human being. As in "The Sniper," nothing great is at stake due to this sad mama's boy doing dirty deeds in his dark corner of the world.

Harry, remaining in control despite chaos

"Dirty Harry" came along, though, and completed the transition of the sniper from understandable, sad-sack killer to wild-eyed crazy who threatens everything we hold dear. Partly that is due to the fact that in the Fifties, when "The Sniper" was released, the idea that somebody would suddenly pick up a rifle and start randomly shooting was so alien that reasons for this strange behavior had to be offered. By the late Sixties, though, so much civil violence and unrest had taken place that there was no need to explain the shooter. It was widely understood then by the public that there were psychopaths running loose. Boris Karloff's 1968 "Targets" similarly shows a mindless killer on the loose, though without the "Dirty Harry" theatrics.

Harry was blessed with idiot villains

In "Harry," no background is given about the sniper, and nobody really seems to care about his motivations. He is what he is, a killer, a wild animal who needs to be be stopped or stepped on, like a cockroach. He babbles incoherently when cornered, and games the system by shouting loudly about his "rights." Who will stop him? Certainly not the weak and ineffectual police department or Mayor's Office, the modern version of the weaklings huddled in the church refusing to help the Sheriff. Harry knows he has to do whatever it takes to stop the sniper because he is not just attacking individuals, he represents a larger cultural assault on society itself. As in "High Noon," it is our hero lawman who saves civilization.

The Italian poster.


Harry is a paternal gunfighter of the Old West. Instead of Indians or killers released from prison, he subdues crazed psychos on the loose. Interfering Sheriffs and Marshals or weakling townspeople who just get in the way are replaced by a bumbling SF political bureaucracy. Observant viewers will notice a throwaway line spoken by Callahan, "That'll be the day" - which any fan of Westerns know comes straight out of the mouth of John Wayne in "The Searchers." "Dirty Harry" thus reverts from modern "understand the criminal" thinking to straight-up, kill-the-savages Westerns. There is a hunger in the public imagination for a powerful protector who uses his killing skills for good, and not evil. "Dirty Harry" was the first popular film to make the transition complete, followed by the "Death Wish" films (note how in "Death Wish," Charles Bronson's mild-mannered architect actually travels to the old West of Arizona to get his gun and complete his transition from victim to avenger).

Incidentally, in "Starship Troopers," another Western transported to other times and locales, the trend circles back. The simple kill-the-enemy philosophy of "Dirty Harry" returns to "The Sniper's" formula with the phrase, "We must understand the bugs." This is not nearly as cathartic, and certainly takes more thought than simply pulling the trigger while tossing off "Do you feel lucky, punk?" quips, but reveals a little about where Director Paul Verhoeven of "Troopers" stood on this issue and what he was really trying to say with that film.

The Western never left us. It became transmuted into the policeman-as-lone-gunfighter "Dirty Harry" line of films and its successors. And I can't say that's bad, because this is a very enjoyable film for anybody who enjoys lots of action and the triumph of simple good over pure, and easy to understand, evil. The recurrent rumors of yet another "Dirty Harry" sequel show the power of the "Dirty Harry" formula.

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