Friday, August 19, 2011

Classic Film Reviews: Dirty Harry

The final film of the 2011 HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival presented by Bank of America will be Dirty Harry. Our classic film review comes from Roger Greenspun of The New York Times, who saw this film in 1971. He found elements of the film to be unrealistic, but overall worth watching. Go ahead, make Harry's day and see this iconic character in the first of the Dirty Harry Series this Monday evening in the park.

Dirty Harry
NYT Critics' Pick

By Roger Greenspun
Published: December 23, 1971

The honorable and slightly anachronistic enterprise of the Don Siegel cops-and-crooks action movies over the last few years (Madigan, Coogan's Bluff) takes a sad and perhaps inevitable step downward in Dirty Harry, which opened yesterday at the Loew's State 2 and Loew's Orpheum theaters. There are moments in Dirty Harry that I would place above anything in the earlier films, but as a whole it makes less sense—or less interesting sense—than they do. And the grim devotion to duty that has always been the badge of Siegel's constabulary is here in Clint Eastwood's tough San Francisco plainclothesman, pushed beyond professionalism into a kind of iron-jawed self-parody.

"Dirty" is Harry's given epithet, and he carries it proudly enough. But he is really a knight in shining armor whose dirtiness is mostly rubbed on from the scummy world he keeps trying to wipe clean. From beginning to end he has an antagonist (Andy Robinson), a skillful sniper and a maniacal murderer of innocent young girls, cops, kids, and Negroes, who means to hold the city to ransom for the lives of its inhabitants. However, he faces other problems.  A full-scale bank robbery (lovely sequence) and high-jumping suicide attempt he foils, as it were, during coffee breaks. But against civil rights and civic administration he has few resources. In the long run it is the Mayor's office, Miranda and Escobedo, and the first ten amendments to the Constitution that deal him out and—professionally—do him in.

Of course he gets his man—more than once. But despite four known murders the man keeps walking away (limping a bit from Harry's strong right arm and rough right foot) because he has been searched without a warrant and apprehended with a little too much zeal. It is not the hard-hat sentiment that I find disturbing in all this so much as the dull-eyed insensitivity.

Dirty Harry fails in simple credibility so often and on so many levels that it cannot even succeed (as I think it wants to succeed) as a study in perversely complimentary psychoses.

What does succeed, and what makes Dirty Harry worth watching no matter how dumb the story, is Siegel's superb sense of the city, not as a place of moods but as a theater for action. There is a certain difficult integrity to his San Francisco, which is not so beautiful to look at, but is fantastically intricate and intriguing—a challenging menace of towers and battlements and improbable walls.

It is from the properties of such a theater that Dirty Harry creates its own feelings and makes its only real meaning, and occasionally even generates a curious misty atmosphere that owes nothing to vague imaginings and everything to a desperate awareness that for this world the only end of movement is in pain.

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