Lest anyone doubt 'Dirty Harry's reputation as a genuine cinema classic, one need look no further than the film's ability to push buttons nearly 40 years after it first hit theaters in 1971. A stinging piece of testosterone-fueled agit-prop, 'Dirty Harry' is as relevant today as ever -- the kind of film that can still cause NRA members to stand up and cheer while whipping criminal rights advocates up into a frenzy. Hard-edged, laid-back and with humor blacker than charcoal, 'Dirty Harry' definitely ain't firing blanks.
Clint Eastwood stars, of course, as San Franciscan cop "Dirty" Harry Callahan, the kind of detective who lives simply, adheres to a regressive moral code and loves to catch criminals. He also has little concern for a then-new little legal wrinkle called Miranda Rights, and his "any means necessary" approach begins to rub bitterly against his higher-ups. The opening sequence gives us the perfect intro to Harry's way -- when he finally corners a petty crook on a street corner, he skips all pleasantries, sticks a gun in the guy's face and says (in the film's most famous line), "Ask yourself, do you feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"
Harry's code starts to not work so well, however, when he comes up against Scorpio, a slippery sniper (played with great menace by Andrew Robinson) who gets to kill a little longer thanks to Harry's rights-violating mistakes. While Harry continues to go through a series of new partners (like something out of Spinal Tap, they continue to meet unfortunate fates), Scorpio holds San Francisco hostage, leading to Harry suffer all sorts of indignities as he tries to catch his killer. The climax is an inevitable showdown involving a school bus and breathless chase through a quarry that blurs the moral line between bad and good, with vigilante justice ultimately saving the day.
Directed by Don Siegel, 'Dirty Harry' holds its own as an action-thriller, a police procedural, a serial killer flick, and a complex moral exploration that never fails to incite debate. That the film is politically incorrect is a given, but what remains underappreciated about 'Dirty Harry' is that it's not so much a polemic advocating wanton violence as it is a wry examination of a social issue that's wonderfully subversive. Thanks to some uncredited rewrites by John Milius (Hollywood's favorite gun-totin', beef jerky-eating Republican), 'Dirty Harry' allows us to live out our vigilante fantasies via Eastwood's iconic characterization, while not shying away from the messier implications of his actions. It's rare in cinema that a film can have its cake and eat it too, but 'Dirty Harry' forces us to be both spectator and participant in events we would otherwise find morally repugnant.
Essential to 'Dirty Harry's success is, of course, Eastwood. Aside from being forever cool, Eastwood is able keep Harry laconic and unflappable even as he stumbles through a series of misadventures that, with a slight shift of tone, could have been comic. A key synergy of the film is that Eastwood's approach to the character and Siegel's direction both take their time, so Harry is allowed to emerge as a fully-fleshed out presence without barely saying a word. The sight of Eastwood, magnum in hand and bearing down on his prey even while he's teetering on the edge of a garbage can (and tossing off the spare one-liner in the process) is both intimidating and hilarious. That Callahan uses both a precise internal logic and a brute physicality to catch Scorpio further elevates the character to the level of archetype, and allows us to take seriously his ethically-sketchy methods -- Harry means business, and 'Dirty Harry' is more than just an exploitative lark through audience-pleasing carnage.
Thematics aside, 'Dirty Harry' works just as well as a fun and very well-made cop flick. Siegel sets up a series of recurring visual and structural motifs beginning with the opening bank robbery scene that play out all the way through Harry's final showdown with Scorpio. Callahan will constantly play hide-and-seek games with his targets, and Scorpio himself is a sniper, so there is the ever-present tension throughout the film of victims watching and being watched at the same time. Harry himself is even mistaken for a peeping tom at one point, further underlining the film's cat-and-mouse antagonism. Such craftsmanship on all levels -- script, performance, photography and editing -- is a treat, and makes 'Dirty Harry' work purely on an entertainment level.
But 'Dirty Harry' remains most memorable for Eastwood, and for bringing vigilantism into the pop culture vernacular. It stimulates as a social statement, an action flick and the epitome of '70s cool. If you've never seen 'Dirty Harry,' it's a must, and if you're already a fan, it's time to pay another visit as the film nears its fortieth anniversary just to remember what a seminal film it is.
Warner has remastered 'Dirty Harry' for its Blu-ray debut, and the results are a clear improvement over all previous video editions. Presented in 1080p/VC-1 video (2.35:1), the age of the material still causes a few problems, but overall this is an excellent restoration.
Having taken a quick look at the entire 'Dirty Harry: Ultimate Collection' that Warner is releasing concurrently with this stand-alone version of 'Dirty Harry,' I can say that the first film is (comparatively) the weakest of the bunch. However, that's not as bad as it may sound, as Warner has still done a fine job spiffing up the elements. There is minimal grain, and only a few small instances of dirt and blemishes. Blacks hold firm throughout, and contrast is nicely balanced across the entire grayscale, delivering a nice amount of depth while still retaining the appropriate film-like look.
Colors are subdued by today's standards, but the film's palette of realistic hues still looks pleasing and clean. Likewise, fleshtones are accurate and I had no problems with chroma noise or bleeding. Detail is generally healthy, with the transfer somewhat soft (particularly in darker scenes) but above-average considering the age of the material. Last but not least, this is another solid encode from Warner, with no obvious compression artifacts or other issues.
A wealth of audio options are offered, including English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround (48kHz/24-bit) and English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (640kbps), plus Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono dubs in French, German, Italian, Spanish (Latin), Spanish (Castellan) and Portuguese (the same languages are also offered as subtitles).
Unfortunately I wasn't nas impressed with the audio as I was the video. The source for 'Dirty Harry' (originally presented in mono theatrically) is just too limited to really serve as the foundation for a great high-res mix. Surround use is minimal, and the pseudo-discrete effects sound obviously processed. There is no real sense of envelopment, with only obvious sounds (gunshots, etc.) deployed to the rear. Score is also rooted firmly in the front. Dynamics are fine if overly bright, which initially gives the deceptive impression of real heft. Dialogue sounds cramped by poor lows and clipped highs. There is little true sense of peaks and valleys to the sparse mix, particularly the score. Make no mistake -- 'Dirty Harry' is certainly listenable, but not much more than that.
(Note that in a move that's likely to irritate purists, the film's original mono mix is not offered. It's an odd omission, as really, doesn't Blu-ray allow more than enough space for such things?)
Warner has included a slew of supplements on this Blu-ray release of 'Dirty Harry,' some old, and some new. Throughout, the video-based extras are presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 only. (Subtitles are offered in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish (Latin), Spanish (Castellano) and Portuguese.
'Dirty Harry' is an undisputed cinema classic, and a fascinating artifact of '70s era vigilante justice. This Blu-ray is quite strong, with a sharp remaster and tons of extras. The audio didn't quite blow me away, but for a vintage flick, 'Dirty Harry' in high-def won't disappoint.