Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"Every Dirty Job That Comes Along"

There's talk of re-making Death Wish. The film's never been a personal favorite, and, honestly, the moral stance the film takes is so extreme that not even Charles Bronson's personal charisma can take my mind off the fact that Paul Kersey is a stone murderer. Not a killer, mind you, a MURDERER. There is a difference, and Kersey is as much scum as the criminals he targets and eliminates.

Which is not to say that I think it shouldn't be re-made. Joe Carnahan is attached to direct. In both Narc and, reportedly (I'm seeing it tonight), The Grey, he's shown a real talent for taking "macho" subject matter, and peeling back the layers. It's that kind of mindset that could make Death Wish into something interesting, an exciting film that also doesn't become "violence porn." It's the same problem that continually bubbles up when people try to adapt The Punisher. The main character is insane, horribly violent, and, in my opinion, works better as an antagonist.

Some friends and I were discussing the implications of remaking Death Wish, and I began to think about the film that, in my mind, is the true masterpiece of  "victim's rights" from the 1970's. A film that takes the ideas that Death Wish smothers under a moral quagmire, and presents them in a much clearer light. A film that presents a powerful lead character who is anything but insane.

I'm talking, of course, about Dirty Harry.

The 1971 film has long been held up as an example of right-wing/fascist propaganda and fantasy. Now, I'm not stupid enough to try to argue that Harry Callahan is some sort of flower-waving liberal, but to try to boil down the character in those terms is ignoring what is actually presented in the film. (I'm going to limit my comments to the '71 original, the sequels, Magnum Force, The Enforcer, Sudden Impact and The Dead Pool, all have their charms, but lack the complexity of our first meeting with Harry) Sure, Eastwood presents a character who is very much in the "alpha male, get things done" range, with no time or patience for political correctness, but he is not a fascist, nor is he a man who revels in violence...

...But he is very good at it.

Filmmaker John Milius (who worked on the script for Magnum Force) describes Harry Callahan as "a hunter," as evidence (being a gun enthusiast) he points to Harry's chosen weapon, the .44 Magnum. The Magnum is a hunting firearm, and, like most hunting weapons, is designed to cause massive damage. The target goes down, and does not get up. Proficient, skilled, hunters are not interested in cruelty, or prolonging the process, but in ending the hunt.

Harry's first response is also not to kill, if given the opportunity. He enters situations with the goal to resolve the situation as quickly as possible, with the minimum damage to life and property. No question that Harry puts more value in minimum damage to innocent life first, but, especially when we first meet him, his is not bloodthirsty in the slightest. Take the opening bank robbery sequence where we truly first see who Harry Callahan is:

It's important to note a a few things about this scene. First, Harry does not fire first, and does not fire until after shouting "halt," and being fired upon by one of the gunmen. Second, once a gunman is incapacitated, he feels no need for further violence, and bluntly makes it clear to the injured gunman that any further violence is HIS choice. The entire "do you feel lucky?" speech is Harry's tongue-in-cheek "drop the weapon, and you don't have to go out of here on a slab," because, again, against popular perception, Dirty Harry does have a sense of humor.

No one else on Earth could make a sweater vest look cool.
Then, of course, you get the clicking of the hammer on the empty cylinder. Harry is an excellent hunter. He knows his weapon. He knows it's empty, and the gunman's weapon is in his own hand. The situation is resolved, the danger is past. Our perpetrator has made the choice to not escalate the violence, and Harry is absolutely fine with that. So much so that he indulges in a bit of dark humor. There's even a sense of camaraderie, a "hey, pal, nice try, but I'm just better than you."

The other interesting element, which unfortunately comes before this clip, is watching Harry enter into this situation. He's eating lunch. He sees the robbery begin, and asks the guy running the place to call the police and report a robbery in progress. He then, flat out, hopes that "the cavalry will get here in time." Which, of course, they don't.

What's amusing about this scene is how all of the fascist fantasy theories about Harry Callahan inherently use evidence of his enjoying, being drunk with, his power as an authority figure. In fact, Harry resists acting in almost every case (In fact, all five Dirty Harry films open in a similar manner). He just wants to eat his goddman hot dog! Eastwood, and director Don Siegel (who I must not forget, as he does fantastic work, here), continually place Callahan as the everyman, with a particular set of skills that are useful in certain situations.

There's a running gag in the film about why people call him "Dirty" Harry. Ultimately, Harry himself says it's because he "get's every dirty job that comes along." There's an online review I read, where the writer says he always thinks of Harry as a plumber. An average joe who ends up doing crappy jobs that other "regular" people don't want to deal with.

"The face of a choir boy"
Now, like all good drama, there is a change in Harry, a change that hardens him. The change is instigated by the Scorpio Killer, played with much relish by Andrew Robinson. Scorpio, it's worth noting, is obviously inspired by the Zodiac killer (still an active investigation in San Fransisco while the film was being shot in the same city), and the Manson family, and I always find it interesting that, even with Robinson going for broke in his performance, Scorpio is arguably less flamboyant than the real-life killers he's based on.

Robinson, as an actor, was really an inspired choice. Siegel reportedly chose him because he had an innocent, "choir boy" face, building in a dichotomy right from the get-go. That dichotomy is also reflected in the costuming choices, military boots with a peace symbol belt buckle.  There's a lot of material that suggests Scorpio might be an unhinged Vietnam vet. While that creates an interesting depth to the character, the real point is how he impacts, and reflects, Harry.

Scorpio drives Harry over the edge. Scorpio is so sadistic and sociopathic, that Harry cannot help but be affected by him. His callow regard for human life, and the system's inability to move quickly an decisively enough to contain his rampage, is too much for Callahan. We're treated to several scenes of Harry visiting his superiors, or the Mayor, to give reports, and delivering bon mots like the following:
The Mayor: All right. Let's have it. 
Harry Callahan: Have what?  
The Mayor: A report! What have you been doing? 
Harry Callahan: Well, for the past three quarters of an hour I've been sitting on my ass in your outer office waiting on you!
The case comes to a head for Callahan when Scorpio takes a teenaged girl hostage, and buries her alive. He taunts the authorities with a deadline before her oxygen supply runs out, and she dies. Harry is chosen to deliver a ransom (another "dirty" job), and he's viciously attached by Scorpio.
Scorpio: No, don't pass out on me now cop! No, no, no, no, no. Don't pass out on me yet, you dirty, rotten oinker! Do we understand each other? You better answer me, if you want to know where the girl is. Okay? Now listen... I've changed my mind. I'm going to let her die! I just wanted you to know that. You hear me? I just wanted you to know that before I killed you!
Harry, with some fast action by his partner, gets away, but now knows that Scorpio operates on such a level that no payoff is going to pacify him. Callahan tracks the killer to his workplace, a football stadium, where he intends to get the girl's location from Scorpio.

The case pushes him to actions that the film itself, in the cinematography, will not ally itself with. You can find the scene on YouTube HERE (I am not able to embed it). As you watch that scene, notice that Harry is as far gone as Scorpio. The taking of the girl has completely driven him over the edge, and he cares about nothing but attempting to save her live.

Harry beyond reason
One of my favorite camera moves of all times occurs when Harry steps on Scorpio's wounded leg, and begins, yes, torturing him for the girl's location. A helicopter shot, the camera moves up and back, further and further away from Harry and his victim. We side with Harry, we want him to save the girl, but we don't want to see what it takes to get that "dirty" job done. The audience, as society, is uncomfortable with the idea that, in these extreme circumstances, Harry deemed Scorpio's rights unimportant when placed against the life of an innocent girl.

What drives that point home is the committed performances on display, and the sharp writing. Watch the scene. Harry says almost nothing save, "where's the girl?" We see Scorpio wailing about his rights. Literally saying, "I have a right to life," while the girl he kidnapped slowly loses hers.

Then? Smash cut to the girl's lifeless form being lifted out of the ground. Bruised and naked, she is hauled out of a dirty hole.

So the film unspools a real moral quagmire. Harry has gone over the line, in hopes of saving an innocent life, but failed. Does an innocent life justify torture? Does the fact that the victim was not saved change how you feel about the act? The whole structure of the editing, and how Don Siegel directed the scenes, asks these questions. Harry and Scorpio are both held at arms length by the film. They are both unsettling.

Yet, also consider that the character the audience shares viewpoints with most often is, in fact, Scorpio. Not only sharing viewpoints, but staring down the barrel of a gun with him. We target innocent people along with Scorpio, and even witness one of his murders from that viewpoint.

The film operates on two levels, on one it's an entertaining crime/detective picture, executed with precision and power by Siegel and Eastwood, on another it's questioning, or at least uncomfortable, with it's protagonist's actions. Harry does what needs to be done, without question. Scorpio is such a dangerous, sociopathic, nihilistic villain that virtually no argument can be made for allowing him free. Even as Harry goes father than we expect him to, or can fully condone, and certainly farther than the more staid, pure authority-figure action heroes of John Wayne, for example.

However, by basing the character on such high-profile, and very recent at the time, true-life criminals, the film doesn't give you the "oh, that could never happen" easy out. Zodiac was threatening specific races, and claiming to target school buses full of children. The Manson family had slaughtered a house full of innocent people. In the face of such horrible, utterly random, acts of violence, the questions posed by Dirty Harry can't easily be ignored.

Ultimately, Callahan's treatment of Scorpio backfires. The girl is dead, and because of his brutality, evidence is ruled inadmissible, and Scorpio is set free. Harry is called on the carpet for his actions, and stymied by his superiors and the District Attorney. They all know this man is a killer, and will kill again. The system has to let him go. The unspoken truth is that it's not just "the system," but Harry's own actions that have brought us to this place.

I like to think that some of the pure rage that flows out of Callahan during the final act of the film is guilt, as well. It's certainly directed at Scorpio, and the system in general. Harry, I think has to be aware that what he did contributed. Maybe deep down, but I think he does. He doesn't regret it, as a life was on the line, but that guilt is there.

Scorpio kidnaps a school bus full of children. The Mayor falls back on paying the ransom, but Harry, of course, has other plans. The climax, as the entire film, is taut and exciting, with Harry separating Scorpio from his hostages, then pursuing him through a gravel pit. Eventually, the two square off, and Harry intones a familiar speech...

One of my favorite things about Eastwood's performance is how we get to revisit that speech, and see how the Scorpio case has changed Harry Callahan. If you watch the two deliveries back to back, you see a man who's had his faith burned out of him. He can't trust the system, and the self-reliance he's always had has proven to be the one thing he can rely on.

Even with that, again, Harry gives Scorpio the out. He's removed the young hostage from danger, and Scorpio is separated from his weapon. The message is the same as the first time we heard the speech, "you can walk out of here, if you want." The difference is, it's no longer a game.

The loss of faith is driven home by the final shots of Harry trowing away his badge. The system which he had been part of is proven to be flawed, and Harry is left without much to believe in, but himself.

Now, listen, Harry Callahan is a fictional character, and no one here is suggesting that the Bill of Rights ought to be tossed out. I, personally, feel it's doubtful that would be Inspector Callahan's stance, either, if he were a real guy. Harry, in a moral sense, hews very closely to the film noir characters that have been around this entire century. Yes, he makes decisions that are questionable, but the film more than acknowledges this fact. However, what Dirty Harry, and many detective/crime films dramatize, in a manner with a primary goal of entertainment, is that every cop in the world must struggle with the same questions Harry does.

Police, for all intents and purposes, a public servants there to do the "dirty jobs" that most of us don't want to deal with. Hell, most of us balk at jury duty. Yet, here is a whole group of people asked to make extremely difficult decisions on a daily basis, and, yes, risk their lives doing it. Harry mentions many times that  Scorpio enjoys killing, but, in the final moments, Harry himself does enjoy putting an end to the serial killer. Both men, a policeman and a soldier, impacted by the "dirty jobs" they do for our society, and damaged by them.

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