Dirty Harry only has one significant problem. It has a bunch of little problems, but it gets past those–sometimes manipulatively, sometimes just nimbly thanks to director Siegel and star Clint Eastwood–but the big one. It can’t overcome the third act. Villain Andy Robinson (I can’t forget to talk about him) has kidnapped a bunch of school kids. Eastwood’s got to stop him. It should incorporate the film’s (significant) stylistic successes–the big scale action sequence (Siegel loves shutting down a city block with Eastwood playing super-cop) and the harrowing thrills (the middle of the film has this phenomenal sequence where Robinson’s running Eastwood all around San Francisco from pay phone to pay phone).
Instead, the finale has neither. It feels tacked on, sure, but a lot of Dirty Harry feels tacked together. And I’m not just making that observation because I know from director Siegel’s memoir he, Eastwood, and screenwriter Dean Riesner literally sat around and taped scenes they liked from the various failed drafts of the script. Most of the time the tacking works–it leads to strange, nice scenes, usually giving Eastwood some depth–but not at the end. At the end, it flops. The big final action sequence? Well, it’s not big, but it should be. But it doesn’t work. Even if the film’s final shot, with the beatific, haunting Lalo Schifrin music, is awesome.
The film starts in the daytime–literally, with Robinson killing his first victim on a sunny, presumably warm day–and gradually moves the action to night. Much of the second act is at night. Most of the second act, counting screen time and not present action elapsed, takes place at night. Nighttime is where even affably, charmingly churlish super-cop Eastwood gets to be scared. The movie works up to it, establishing Eastwood as much of a caricature as it can–doing a good job of it, of course, and doing the occasional aside to make sure the audience knows he’s their kind of bastard.
The finale’s not at night. It’s during the day. A very, very problematic day. Plot holes galore in its timing. Plot holes really shouldn’t matter in the last fifteen minutes of a serial killer thriller.
So the daytime throws Siegel off a bit with the finale. As does the setting. As does the pacing (he’s only got about ten minutes to wrap things up). But he also seems to let editor Carl Pingitore take a break, which is a big mistake. Pingitore’s editing intensifies as the film does, through the first and second acts; it’s incredible during the nighttime suspense sequences. Siegel, Pingitore, cinematographer Bruce Surtees–Dirty Harry is often breathtakingly well-made. Often set to the perfect Schifrin score.
Plot holes, Siegel’s lax direction, and daylight timing aren’t the finale’s only problem. Dirty Harry’s big little problem–and one of its most surprising successes–has its (muted) blow-up at the end: how can these silly cops and politicians not get over their liberal sensibilities and understand Robinson’s dangerous?
By the end of the film, Robinson’s killed a wealthy, beautiful, young white woman, a ten year-old boy, a fourteen year-old white girl (who he raped), a cop trying to stop him (Robinson shot him up with an assault rifle), and maybe someone else. Maybe not. But definitely those four. Yet mayor John Vernon and district attorney Josef Sommer want to make sure Robinson’s “rights” are “protected” more than anything else. Double quotation works because, while the rights are specific, how to ensure their protection isn’t. Anyway, even worse, they’re convincing Eastwood’s boss–Harry Guardino in a nice, ruffled performance–they’re right.
Eastwood’s new partner is a pre-affirmative action but come-on hire. Except, after working a couple nights with Eastwood, college educated, Hispanic Reni Santoni comes to understand not just the reality of the street but also how much no one listens to Eastwood. How could they? Their characters are too thin to have ears.
Harry’s coats its dog whistles in beautiful filmmaking, but it doesn’t do anything to disguise any of them. So when it turns out the reality of the street is Eastwood’s rampaging super-cop basically gets along with the bad guys. Even when they’re black guys. It’s all in the game, though sort of in a pre-cop movie, post-Western sort of way. It can even make for likable Eastwood moments.
It just doesn’t add up when Robinson’s the villain. He’s a proto-incel gun nut who fantasizes about killing marginalized people. The film frequently dehumanizes the character with these whiny, squealing wails. It’s supposed to make it okay for Eastwood to torture him. But it also makes the character even more unlikable because Robinson’s wails are so good, you just want Eastwood to kick him in the face until he shuts up.
It’s also kind of okay because at that point in the film he’s killed two adults and two children in a variety of circumstances and methods. Harry’s other problem with making its political statement is how ill-suited it integrates with the story. Dirty Harry doesn’t have much character development. In its place is this subtext about the problems with liberal intellectual politicians letting pedophile, cop-killing spree killers literally run wild. At least be invested in that subtext.
Until the third act, the film does a pretty good job of integrating that subtext. It usually gets loud for a moment, then quiets down for a while. In between are some great scenes. Getting over that thin aspect of the script is one of Dirty Harry’s successes, because Siegel and Eastwood are able to leap and bound over the thinness. Until the third act.
So Dirty Harry doesn’t finish as strong as it should. It’s hard to imagine how it could. Aside from the final action sequence actually being suspenseful.
There’s a lot of good acting–Eastwood, Guardino, Santoni, Robinson (kind of until the third act), John Vernon (ditto). Amid all those third act problems, Ruth Kobart gives the phenomenal performance in a small role. The film’s expertly made. Siegel’s Panavision direction–with Surtees’s photography–is outstanding. Those great Pingitore cuts, that great Schifrin music.
It’s just got a bad finish.