I found myself drawn into Dirty Harry the other night. I channel-hopped my way into it during a hunt for some decent music telly just as it was starting and watched through eyes that hadn’t seen it for so long that watching it seemed like I was doing so for the first time.
It’s an accepted classic, of course, the loosely-based-on-a-true story of the Zodiac Killer – the pscychopathic Scorpio, a blackmailing maniac with a Van Morrison/Astral Weeks haircut – and you can’t get it out of your mind as you watch – who shoots women, hits school kids and extracts teeth from teenage girls, being hunted down by maverick cop Harry Callahan (no ‘g’). “Why do they call you ‘Dirty’?” his colleagues repeatedly ask, and Harry, played brilliantly by Clint Eastwood will stare them down into quiet, intimidated submission.
Harry lives by a set of police rules made for bending and frequently breaking, and has a list of against-the-book demeanours longer than the barrel of his Magnum. He’s forever being called into a supervisor’s office (or even to receive a fist-banging dressing down from the Mayor- wherever there’s a non-conformist ‘70s cop, there’s always a haranguing, popularity-infatuated mayor) where he’ll! be! shouted! at! with! incrEASING!! VOLUME!!! that culminates in a chewed “GETTHAHELLOUTTAHERECALLAHAN!!!!”, both Harry and his boss left under no doubt that Harry – Dirty Harry, remember, is off to bring justice to Scorpio by any means necessary.
Filmed in ‘70s San Francisco, the cinematography has a bleached-out, sun-kissed and almost-Instagramatic haze to it all; long, tracked shots of Lombard Street winding forever, the Golden Gate Bridge looming large, Alcatraz an unreferenced yet ominous permapresence out in the bay.
The night time scenes are so oily black as to be genuinely tense whenever the clock creeps around to the wee hours. Of course, homicidal maniacs as off-kilter as Scorpio only work under the grainy shadow of the moon, so whether Harry is running the gauntlet through a midnight wood full of propositioning perverts or he’s running breathlessly through a tunnel where you know – just know – that criminal elements lurk within or he’s running (again!) across neon-lit rooftops as bullets permanently alter the fascia of the building he’s conducting his stakeout from, Callahan spends a lot of his time in semi-darkness, semi out of breath and only ever a half-step away from life-threatening danger.
Dirty Harry is brilliantly scored by Lalo Schifrin. Knife stabs of brass puncture the murky silence whenever Harry and Scorpio’s eyes meet. Fingers-down-blackboard strings scrape across the more violent scenes. And all that running is scored by breathless, alarming, pitter-pattering percussion; frantic hi-hat action and rattling toms that replicate exactly the sound made by two sets of Cuban heels in pursuit of either freedom or justice, depending on who the camera is focused on, as they batter at full pelt down a San Franciscan sidewalk.
When are these people – the goodies as well as the baddies – going to realise that sneakers are so-called for that very reason?! A clomp of Harry’s boot heel on bare floorboard is always Scorpio’s cue to make a run for it, the tinkling, ringing vibraphone that helps build the tension giving way to full-blown percussive bombast. But then again, no Cuban heels, no highly-tense soundtrack.
Dirty Harry Theme – Lalo Schifrin
‘I know what you’re thinking…” Harry says to Scorpio at the finale. ‘”Did he fire six shots or only five..?” Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?’”
A film that looks great, sounds great and has instantly quotable lines in it…they don’t make ’em like that anymore, do they?