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The Dirty Harry Sequels: 
Deconstructing a Hero

2,207 words

Dirty Harry (1971) is a compelling neo-noir thriller about San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), who is increasingly forced to choose between liberal legal norms and bringing a sadistic serial killer known as Scorpio to justice. Once Harry kills Scorpio, the movie ends with him throwing away his badge, symbolizing a momentous decision. When justice and law conflict, Harry chooses justice. 

This is what makes Harry “dirty.” Harry Callahan is not corrupt. He is not willing to dirty his hands with illegality for selfish and petty reasons. But he will go outside the law to secure the higher good. The various events of the movie’s plot beautifully reveal elements of Harry’s character, so that his final choice makes sense. 

Dirty Harry belongs in the category of first-rate crime thrillers like The French ConnectionL.A. ConfidentialTo Live and Die in L.A., and Drive

Director Don Siegel frames Dirty Harry with sweeping Bay Area vistas. Then the camera dives into the action and draws the viewer with it. The script is tightly written and the story swift-paced. Lalo Schifrin’s jazz fusion score marries perfectly with the action and heightens the emotional impact. This being a gritty crime thriller set in swinging San Francisco, there are some racy elements: violence, cussing, nudity, homosexual couples, etc. But Siegel avoids outright obscenity. It is easy to overlook the artfulness of Dirty Harry because the story is so captivating. 

The best way to appreciate Dirty Harry is to compare it to its four terrible sequels: Magnum Force (1973), The Enforcer (1976), Sudden Impact (1983), and The Dead Pool (1988). 

Dirty Harry was decried as “fascist” for making a hero of a vigilante cop who was also characterized as a racist, although the movie pulled its punches on this particular matter by making Harry an equal opportunity hater and partnering him with one Chico Gonzalez. But Dirty Harry was also a huge hit, especially among white men. This dictated two things. First, there would be sequels because there would be money in them. Second, the sequels would subvert everything that Leftists found “problematic” about Harry Callahan. 

This would dictate that the sequels could not build on the evolution of Harry’s character in the original movie, because that was the biggest problem of all. So instead, they just reduced Dirty Harry to a formula and repeated it four times. Each Dirty Harry sequel required: Clint Eastwood, a big gun, some shootouts with hoodlums, some California degeneracy, a clever line he repeats from time to time, and a jazz fusion score, preferably by Lalo Schifrin. 

Since Harry is racist and presumably sexist, they have to pair him with a non-white or female partner. Since Dirty Harry was very much a guy movie, they also tarted up the sequels with some romance. 

Since the formulaic repetition of tropes without any character development gets boring fast, these movies feel hollow and meaningless. Thus the filmmakers punched them up with fist-fights and car chases and made the sex and violence extra lurid. Dirty Harry had dashes of Playboy. The sequels in the sleazy Seventies were pure Hustler

The first sequel, Magnum Force, is the worst. With a script by the allegedly “based” John Milius, Magnum Force is less a sequel than a hard reboot. At the end of Dirty Harry, Callahan looks like he is quitting the police force and going rogue. In Magnum Force, Callahan is back on the force as if nothing has happened. Moreover, as a large number of criminals start getting gunned down, Callahan suspects that the culprit is actually a rogue cop gone vigilante. Our new Squeaky-Clean Harry is determined to bring him to justice. 

It turns out that the culprits are four good-looking white motorcycle cops played by David Soul, Robert Urich, Tim Matheson, and Kip Niven. Of course, the “real” Harry Callahan would have been mentoring young men like this, not trying to arrest them. But instead, Harry has a black partner, complete with ’fro, named Early. Naming a black man “Early” sounds like a racist joke to me, but surely that was not Milius’ intention. 

It turns out that the young vigilantes are mentored by Lt. Neil Briggs, played by Hal Holbrook, a pencil-necked prig who spends a lot of time chewing out Callahan for being trigger-happy. When Briggs finally reveals himself to Callahan, our Squeaky-Clean Harry argues (1) that vigilantism is a slippery slope that will lead to shooting people over parking tickets, which is absurd, and (2) that the system may be broken, but it is the only one we’ve got, and we can’t let go of it, which is Republican. At this point, Milius has completely destroyed the hero of Dirty Harry. And it was premeditated. 

You can buy Trevor Lynch’s Part Four of the Trilogy here.

It would take a free-standing essay to detail all the ways Magnum Force is lame, tasteless, and subversive. But life is too short for that, so here are a few highlights. 

Magnum Force was directed by Ted Post. I didn’t need to visit Wikipedia to know that he made his career in television. Despite being shot on location in and around America’s most scenic city, Magnum Force looks and feels like television: scrunched shots, dull camera work, sclerotic pacing. Not even Lalo Schifrin’s excellent score — the only first-rate thing about this movie — can breathe life into Post’s directing. 

The acting is all TV-grade as well. The only thing that would keep this movie off TV is its extremely lurid treatment of sex and violence. 

In good dramatic conflict, the outcome is determined by the characters of the antagonists. Action is revelatory of character. Events have a deeper meaning. But during the climactic battle with the vigilantes in Magnum Force, one of them . . . dies in an accident. This reduces heroic Harry Callahan to hapless Forrest Gump. 

The allegedly clever line that Harry repeats is, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” which is a far cry from, “Do you feel lucky?” and completes Milius’ transformation of the hero of Dirty Harry into a smug old fart. 

Three years later, Dirty Harry returns in The Enforcer. A mostly white group of hippy criminals has stolen military weapons and explosives from what is apparently a private warehouse guarded by a single geezer. They style themselves the People’s Revolutionary Strike Force and try to extort money from the city by planting bombs and kidnapping the mayor. 

Harry is paired with a female rookie (Tyne Daly), because the mayor wants to court feminists and good press. She tries hard to be a good cop. She also tries to seduce Harry. But her lack of experience gets her killed while rescuing the mayor. Thus The Enforcer actually amounts to a powerful critique of affirmative action and the political flakes who push it. Too bad it isn’t a better movie.

The Enforcer is directed by James Fargo, who like Ted Post captures the Bay Area’s spectacular scenery, as well as lurid sex and bloody violence, with all the cinematic sweep and dynamism of an episode of The Golden Girls. Harry’s pursuit of the criminals takes him to a whorehouse and onto the set of a porno movie. The killings are extra bloody and lurid. There are plenty of chases to a very routine jazz fusion score by Jerry Fielding. 

But none of it has any higher meaning. There is no character development, just repetition of the formula: Harry mows down bad guys with his big gun, gets heat from the brass, and mutters the word “marvelous” occasionally, because that’s this script’s idea of wit. 

Aside from Eastwood, the acting is barely serviceable for television. When Tyne Daly flirts with Harry — “Isn’t Coit Tower phallic?” “Ooh, what a big gun you have.” “Do you use a .44 magnum for penetration?” — the acting is barely serviceable for porn. 

Eastwood himself directed Sudden Impact, his fourth outing as Dirty Harry. Sudden Impact is the best of the sequels and a huge box-office smash. It has the best one-liner of all: “Go ahead, make my day.” But this film is mediocre at best. 

Eastwood’s girlfriend Sondra Locke plays Jennifer, the victim of a gang rape who decides to hunt down and kill her assailants ten years later. She kills her first victim in San Francisco, which puts Callahan on the case. Jennifer then leaves for the fictional town of San Paulo (filmed in Santa Cruz), where the rest of her assailants live. Callahan, meanwhile, gets in some heat with the brass and is forced to take a vacation. He just so happens to go to San Paulo, where he gets involved with Jennifer and notices a pattern when new bodies start turning up. 

Mick, the most dangerous of Jennifer’s targets, turns the tables and attacks her, using her gun to kill the local police chief. Harry kills Mick and rescues Jennifer. Harry suspects that Jennifer is the real killer, but since Mick has the murder weapon on him, Harry pins the other murders on him and lets Jennifer walk away. It is a strange ending. It is not really an endorsement of vigilantism, however, because Harry doesn’t actually know why Jennifer is killing these people. It is just a bizarre lapse of responsibility. 

Unlike the other sequels, however, Sudden Impact at least had the potential to be a good movie. All it needed was a better script, better actors, and better directing. It is certainly Eastwood’s weakest work as a director. Locke’s character is almost as bland as her comatose sister. The villains are ridiculous, cackling caricatures. The acting is TV-grade. 

The plot is filled with dumb, disconnected events with no larger meaning. For instance, as in Magnum Force, when some of Harry’s enemies attack him, they die . . . accidentally, in another Forrest Gump moment. 

Since Harry is on vacation for most of the film, he can’t be paired with a female or non-white partner. But the formula dictates a diverse sidekick, so one was contrived. As Harry practices shooting, a black man with a gun creeps up behind him. The actor is Albert Popwell, who played different criminals in the three previous Dirty Harry movies. We worry that he is about to shoot Harry, but no, the stalker is one of Harry’s police colleagues, Horace King. The whole scene is pointless manipulation. Then, for no particular reason, King shows up in San Paulo to present Harry with an ugly bulldog, who also adds nothing to the story. Then King shows up back in San Paulo just in time to be killed by racists. He’s a useless character who does absolutely nothing to advance the plot, but he’s there because diversity demands it. 

There’s little to be said about the final Dirty Harry movie, The Dead Pool. The movie is purely by the numbers. This time the brass decide it would be good for the department’s image to partner Harry with a Chinese-American cop, Quan (Evan Kim), who knows kung fu. The Dead Pool features the world’s most ridiculous car chase, in which Harry screeches and lurches through the hills of San Francisco pursued by a toy car. Harry’s clever line is, “You’re shit out of luck,” which is how I felt watching this turkey. 

Eastwood was 58 in 1988 when The Dead Pool was released, so he decided it would be the last Dirty Harry movie. Having made more than $30 million from Sudden Impact, Eastwood decided to cut some of his friends in on the payday. The director of The Dead Pool is Eastwood’s stunt double, Buddy Van Horn. The story was thought up by two goofy libertarian pill and smoothie merchants, Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw. It’s everything you’d expect from such a brain trust. Given the cynicism of this exercise, it was a clever deflection to make the putative villain an even more cynical director of slasher films, Peter Swan (Liam Neeson). 

This being the Eighties, the Hustler magazine sleaze of the Seventies sequels is gone from Sudden Impact and The Dead Pool. Lalo Schifrin returns to write the scores, but this being the Eighties, we hear drum machines, funky basslines, and insipid melodies. 

As for the message of The Dead Pool, there’s not much left of the old Dirty Harry to deconstruct, but I do note that he is now respectable. He’s made the cover of San Francisco magazine, which he indignantly trashes. You see, Harry’s primary conflict with the brass is no longer about trampling on the rights of criminals but about cooperating with the press. In the course of the film, however, Harry learns that reporters are not all bad. In the end, he even saves one from a serial killer. Since the press is the ultimate enforcer of liberal norms throughout the whole series, if you are looking for an anti-establishment hero here, you’re shit out of luck. 

The Unz Review, February 8, 2021

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31 Comments

  1. Jeffrey A Freeman
    Posted February 10, 2021 at 4:18 am | Permalink

    The system assimilates Harry.

    Weaponizes him against himself.

  2. Captain John Charity Spring MA
    Posted February 10, 2021 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    The radical terrorist gang should have been recognizable Jewish characters.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted February 10, 2021 at 8:55 am | Permalink

      They were conspicuously goyish, now that you mention it.

      • Captain John Charity Spring MA
        Posted February 10, 2021 at 9:10 am | Permalink

        One thing that Forrest Gump got right was the tribal phenotype of the abusive peacenik activist boyfriend who has a go at Jenny.

        It’s tragic to think about the creative compromises that creatives have to make for the sake of getting a film production completed. The vigilante cops in Magnum Force, would more likely be the black cops in the Rampart Division who were also effectively active gang members. Examples of these small acts of cowardice in casting are legion.

        • Broseph
          Posted February 10, 2021 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

          “One thing Forest Gump got right was the tribal phenotype of the abusive peacenik…”

          That was incidental. If they had fleshed out the character, he would have been of Christian heritage (but the same actor probably used)

  3. Vagrant Rightist
    Posted February 10, 2021 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    I had not considered these films in this way, but I remember always instinctively being disappointed with Harry’s take on the vigilante cops in Magnum Force. It didn’t ring true. It felt like a moralizing lesson to the audience. It relied on our cultural conditioning with normy con words and slogans to get past the senses. It was weak tea trying to be passed off as something tough, conservative and pragmatic. So I agree with this criticism. I think with these sorts of films, when the hero is written to cuck out as part of their quest; to be seen to uphold to Judeo-Republican values, it is always disappointing nonsense and so we are left having to accept other things in the film we like or feel a resonance with.

    I liked Tyne Daly a lot in the Enforcer. I thought she great and was very well cast.

    It’s interesting Greg mentions films which feel more like a made-for-TV movie, I haven’t seen MF in ages but I know what he means generally. There are some modern films that do feel like that to me with the writing, editing, pace, sound editing and so on. I haven’t watched a whole one, but some of the sections I have seen of the new SW films feel exactly like that to me. Perhaps another way of demoralizing SW fans or the creators just didn’t care.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted February 10, 2021 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      The made for TV feel basically boils down to being optimized for a small screen. In the first Dirty Harry movie, Seagal clearly thinks in terms of the effect the vistas will have on a wide screen in a theater. Magnum Force and The Enforcer don’t have that quality.

  4. Cicada31
    Posted February 10, 2021 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    One of my favorite things about trevor’s reviews when they appear on Unz is that commenter called Priss Factor will sometimes expound in the comments. Not to lessen Trevor in any way, but it’s as if when the essay reaches a certain candle, it invokes Priss Factor! He is similar to the guy from that soiledsinema website, also a patriot, also among the most brilliant film commenters I know. I thought they must be the same person at first, but in time it seemed Priss is more straight laced and even pious, while the other guy is a little twisted in his tastes. There’s some relation there; all the smartest critics I know are from the far right.

  5. Bernie
    Posted February 10, 2021 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Movies like Dirty Harry (and the sequels) are supposed to be “hard-right” “racist” “fascist” and about “vigilante justice.” But they are just politically correct boomer conservatism complete with black best friends, mostly white criminals, multiracial gangs, white-on-black racism and killings (heh), interracial romances. They ultimately support the system they are supposed to be criticizing.

    I just saw Magnum Force on TV a few months ago (I had seen it years before). The real “fascists” would have been the cops who were essentially “right wing death squads.” His scene with Hal Holbrook has “Dirty Harry” defending the corrupt “justice” system as “the best we have.”

    Death Wish was the same thing – complete with street criminals played by Jeff Goldblum ….

    • Captain John Charity Spring MA
      Posted February 10, 2021 at 9:16 am | Permalink

      The Death Squad aspect of Magnum Force could have been excellent in terms of character development. There’s a Brazilian Film about their BOPE armed response called Elite Squad about the conflicts in such units that are clearly all about shooting folk out of hand and how Brazil got there. Suppose they’d been four black cops designated to clean up the ghetto by an ambitious Hispanic supervisor. Harry would have been a Spectator to what happened to the California in the 80s. But the cops just had to be blond blue eyed boys.

    • Bernie
      Posted February 10, 2021 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      A bit off topic but Hal Holbrook died only last week. He made it to 95!

      • Greg Johnson
        Posted February 10, 2021 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, I saw that. He was a familiar face and name. I know I have seen him multiple times but can’t place him.

  6. Lee
    Posted February 10, 2021 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Good article. Dirty Harry is a masterpiece that I never tire of watching. However, I enjoy all of the sequels, despite how clearly inferior and formulaic they are. If I had to rank them…
    Dirty Harry
    Sudden Impact
    The Enforcer
    Magnum Force
    The Dead Pool

    As an unrelated side note, I think The Beguiled is one of Clint’s most underrated or even unknown movies. A totally different kind of character for him that you’re not sure to root for or view as a total scumbag.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted February 10, 2021 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      I have not see The Beguiled,, but I will check it out on your recommendation.

    • admin user
      Posted February 10, 2021 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      The Beguiled is a must for any Eastwood fan.

    • Right_On
      Posted February 10, 2021 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

      “The Beguiled” is one of my favourite Eastwood films.

      I’m surprised that Greg didn’t get in a mention of “Coogan’s Bluff” (1968, directed by Don Siegel) as it’s the obvious forerunner to the ‘Dirty’ movies. Now I think of it, I’ve never re-watched a single Dirty Harry film but have watched Coogan a fair few times. The scene with Coogan pushing his way through the freaks at a psychedelic nightclub is worth the price of admission alone.

      • Lee
        Posted February 10, 2021 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

        The Pigeon Toed Orange Peel!

  7. Autobot
    Posted February 10, 2021 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    I thought of some other rightist or vaguely rightist movies Trevor might would like to turn his pen to. I think the movies Stagecoach, Naked Prey, and Apocalypto form a triplet in that each is a take off of the other. I know naked prey sounds like a weird sex movie, but it’s actually pretty good lol! I always avoided it in the old video shops for that reason. Each contrasts civilization with nonwhite noncivilization. To link them in one paper would be creative.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted February 10, 2021 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      I am planning to write about Stagecoach and Apocalypto. I am going to do a series on Westerns. It is a genre that I have only written about in its Space Western garb, and none too deeply. I have a whole box of John Ford movies winging their way to me as I write.

      • Autobot
        Posted February 10, 2021 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

        David Lean said “I learned from the great masters, and by that I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford!”

        In each movie European civilization is a deus ex machina which saves the harried fugitive from pursuing savages. The army in stagecoach, the British in naked, and the Spaniards arriving in apocalypto. The stagecoach represents America; all walks of life and they don’t always get along, but they fight together against the apaches. There’s a Maupassant story with a stagecoach like that too, just no apaches.

      • sordello
        Posted February 10, 2021 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

        I would like to know what you have to say about Apocalypto

      • Rock N Roll Is White
        Posted February 11, 2021 at 9:03 am | Permalink

        Have you seen any of Budd Boetticher’s so-called Ranown Cycle? Worth checking out, especially “Seven Men From Now”.

  8. PC2
    Posted February 10, 2021 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    One of the Clint Eastwood movies I see frequently is The Gauntlet, starring Clint and Sondra. It had a scene of Clint driving a commercial bus through downtown Phoenix and through the hail of (8,000) bullets from the police on the street. Has Greg seen it?

    • Captain John Charity Spring MA
      Posted February 11, 2021 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      I’ve seen that Scene. I thought it was a Dirty Harry sequel.

  9. Esoteric Du30ist
    Posted February 10, 2021 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    Not only is “Magnum Force” one of Clint’s worst outings, it’s also unequivocally Milius’ worst too. The man might be a Jew by birth, but nobody can bring “Conan the Barbarian” to the screen and not be our kind of guy in his heart. Maybe that’s why he is so Cold Warrior-ish. The idea that a leopard can’t change its spots but maybe change its mind is appealing to a fashy right wing Jew who exults white culture.

  10. Bigfoot
    Posted February 11, 2021 at 1:39 am | Permalink

    A lot of movies will bring up the topic of racism or discrimination in a scene that doesn’t have anything to do with the plot, even if the film has a white cast. It’s like it’s a disclaimer, where the filmmakers are trying to tell the audience they aren’t racist. In “A River Runs Through It” Brad Pitt takes his Native American date to a speakeasy where he gets into a confrontation with the bar owner over it. There are numerous examples like this.

  11. Broseph
    Posted February 11, 2021 at 2:53 am | Permalink

    I always have seen Clint Eastwood as a virtue signaling cuck passing himself off as bravely standing against leftist insanity. He was controlled, manipulated “opposition” like McCain or Romney vs Obama.

    • Mike Ricci
      Posted February 11, 2021 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      Eastwood is probably an old school liberal at heart, but you should never put much stock into the politics of actors. Or any other entertainers.

  12. Rock N Roll Is White
    Posted February 11, 2021 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    “The Dead Pool” is a cool movie.

    • Jim yankowsky
      Posted February 15, 2021 at 8:26 am | Permalink

      Gran Torino is the real Dirty Harry sequel.

  13. Vauquelin
    Posted February 15, 2021 at 1:05 am | Permalink

    “Naming a black man “Early” sounds like a racist joke to me, but surely that was not Milius’ intention.”
    This one got a laugh out of me.

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