February 22, 2006

Well, do they, punk?

***This is a paper I wrote for an English class I'm taking this semester about discourses on graphic violence and sexuality in film.***

Don Siegel’s 1971 police action/thriller Dirty Harry is possibly one of the most quoted movies of all time. Millions of people can identify the line, “you've got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” as being from the film without ever having seen it. In fact, the American Film Institute named it one of the hundred greatest movie quotes of all time (“AFI’s … ”). Clint Eastwood portrays Harry Callahan as the kind of cop who walks softly and carries a big gun. He does not think twice before using brutal force to bring a suspect around to his way of thinking. Harry’s violent methods combined with Eastwood’s brooding persona are the subject of much of the critical response to the film. The film forces audience to ask themselves one question. Do the ends - a sadistic criminal being brought to justice - justify the violent means Dirty Harry uses to bring them about?
New York Times critic Roger Greenspun had a less-than-warm reception of the film. He writes that, “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” (Greenspun). Harry’s brazen disregard for the Constitutional rights of the apprehended suspect rubs Greenspun the wrong way. In one of the most violent scenes in the movie, Harry shoots the unarmed killer while he raises his hands in surrender. He then steps on the killer’s wound as he demands his right to counsel and medical attention. Greenspun notes:
But despite four known murders the man keeps walking away … 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."
Yet, as an audience member, it is hard not to share Harry’s frustration as the district attorney tells him that this twisted murder is going to walk away, despite the fact that they have the murder weapon and a confession. We are shown the violence that the murder has done to the innocent; therefore, it is difficult not to feel that Harry’s dirty methods are justified. It appeals to the eye-for-an-eye sense of justice that exists at some level in us all.
In his review of the film, Roger Ebert argued that the movie worked from a fascist moral ground. He writes:
The movie clearly and unmistakably gives us a character who understands the Bill of Rights, understands his legal responsibility as a police officer, and nevertheless takes retribution into his own hands. Sure, Scorpio is portrayed as the most vicious, perverted, warped monster we can imagine -- but that's part of the same stacked deck (Ebert).
If one agrees with Ebert about the film’s moral position, it makes you feel uneasy that in the final scene, when Eastwood repeats the oft-quoted “do you feel lucky?” speech to Scorpio before shooting the killer and hurling his badge into the water, you may have felt that justice was being served. The film makes it difficult to feel sorry that this sicko’s rights have been violated. Like Harry, says to the district attorney, what about the rights of the people that Scorpio killed? Violence is answered with violence, leaving the audience, in most cases probably predominantly male, feeling that justice has been served.
Both these reviews written at the time of the film’s release focus on many of the same issues. Greenspun and Ebert both devote many inches to discussing the ways in which Dirty Harry embraces a violent vigilantism and flouts the Constitutional rights of Scorpio. Yet, while it is slightly disturbing that the rights have been violated, it is mostly because the huge rifle in the hands of the district attorney is inadmissible. The model established by Dirty Harry, the cop who bucks against his superiors to get the job done by any means necessary, is one that reoccurs in many action movies and television cop shows that postdate it. Bruce Willis’s John McClane from the Die Hard films is just one of many examples.
While violence was a focus of the initial critical and public response to the film, in his essay “8 degrees of separation,” Richard Combs examines the ways in which Siegel used transitional shots of Eastwood walking and of city hall flags flapping in the breeze to punctuate the violence. Combs says:
The most spectacular sequence occurs toward the end, after the Scorpio killer … has hijacked a busload of children. An unhurried pan across the sky takes in all the flags fluttering outside City Hall, then there's another pan from Harry's superior, Bressler … emerging on a balcony to beckon to Harry arriving below. Long tracking and panning shots follow Harry through the echoing corridors of power and up to Bressler waiting in the Mayor's office. All this (over one minute) as preamble to Harry asking, “What's up?” (Combs).
It is sequences like these that serve to connect the film’s violent scenes together. Combs notes that Siegel has described the film as a “wall-to-wall carpet of violence,” yet there are many stretches devoted to this kind of slow, connecting material. It serves as a way to contrast and punctuate the more frantic scenes in which we see Harry and Scorpio exchanging machine gun and rifle fire, for example.
While Combs shows that there are many, more drawn out transitional sequences, it is still the perception of the film’s violence that draws much of the attention. Dirty Harry’s use of violent force in the apprehension of a deviant criminal, the Constitution be damned, most likely appealed to a certain set who by the early 1970s were begging for law and order after all the turbulence of the late ‘60s. But contemporary audiences still probably cheer Harry on, despite his failures at grasping Constitutional law, because we feel that justice is served when the criminal is brought down. It may very well contradict our feelings about criminal justice in the real world. But in the film, Dirty Harry is the good guy, and anything that stands in his way, including civil liberties, is a roadblock to justice.

Works Cited
“AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Movie Quotes.” American Film Institute. 30 Jan. 2006. www.afi.com/tvevents/100years/quotes.aspx#list>
Combs, Richard. “8 Degrees of Separation: A Look at the Quiet Side of Dirty Harry and
the New Wave aspiration of Don Siegel.” Film Comment vol: 38 iss: 4. MLA International Bibliography. U of Illinois Lib., 30 Jan. 2006.
Dirty Harry. Dir. Don Siegel. Perf. Clint Eastwood. DVD. Warner Home Video, 1999.
Ebert, Roger. “Dirty Harry.” Rev. of Dirty Harry, dir. Don Siegel. Chicago Sun-Times 1
Jan. 1971. 30 Jan. 2006. article?AID=/19710101/REVIEWS/101010307/1023>
Greenspun, Roger. “Dirty Harry.” Rev. of Dirty Harry, dir. Don Siegel. The New York
Times 23 Dec. 1971. 30 Jan. 2006. mem/movies/review.html?_r=1&title1=&title2=DIRTY%20HARRY%20%28

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February 11, 2006