Monday, January 24, 2011
In All This Excitement
If only I could have seen DIRTY HARRY when it was released in 1971 to fully understand just how the movie played back then but that it’s still thrilling to see now has to say something. As social drama, the film isn’t exactly nuanced which certainly hurts its credibility and the way it takes a real life case that was still ongoing at the time in the exact same city the film is set in to use for popcorn thrills still feels more than a little bit wrong, only adding to the undeniable aura of dark, anamorphic nastiness that permeates every single frame. But in spite of all this I can’t help but continually realize as I watch it how, as an incessantly forceful piece of work, it’s just so damn good, it really is. Don Siegel’s DIRTY HARRY could be considered many things, whether a genuine right-wing tract or just a desperate howl over what was happening to America in general around this time framing old against young, establishment versus radicals who wanted to take things over. Or if you just want to ignore all that and look at it as a straight action movie about a cop who just happens to be more interested in protecting the innocent and punishing the evil than in any ‘rights’ the guilty might have, a true urban western, there’s that too. It also provided the basic template for just about every other cop movie made during the next twenty years and beyond so some of what was groundbreaking at the time may now play as cliché, but so what. What it achieves was proven once again with the showing of an absolutely beautiful print as part of director Edgar Wright’s The Wright Stuff II series at the New Beverly Cinema and the first night I attended. Wright was there on Jan. 18th to introduce the film to the sold out crowd, along with seeing it from the front row, and brought out surprise guest Quentin Tarantino to discuss it with him both before and after the screening. No surprise, Tarantino had a lot to say. And there’s a lot to say about this movie.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone out there doesn’t know the plot of the film but I just went for a walk with someone who hadn’t seen it so they exist. She’s still a nice person, though. Anyway: In San Francisco, a young woman is murdered by a killer who calls himself Scorpio in a letter to the police, in which he demands payment of $100,000 or his killings will continue. SFPD Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), known throughout the department as “Dirty Harry” is assigned to the case, but his captain forces him to take on rookie Chico Gonzalez (Reni Santoni) as a partner. When an attempt to catch Scorpio (Andrew Robinson) goes wrong, the maniac kidnaps another girl and demands an even greater ransom. Harry is the one assigned to deliver the money but even though Scorpio is captured things don’t quite go as planned and due to legalities the District Attorney is forced to set him free. Harry is enraged by what the system is allowing to happen, but of course Scorpio’s plan doesn’t end there.
What sticks in the brain after seeing DIRTY HARRY is all that grime and sludge that seems to ooze out of the frame, somehow making the gorgeous city of San Francisco not all that attractive a place to be. It’s photographed in anamorphic Panavision, unlike the comparable BULLITT from three years earlier and while that film feels more open-aired in its Bay Area compositions, DIRTY HARRY’s well framed Scope use somehow feels more crammed in, narrower, meaner. Basically the entire film looks to be shot in location with the obvious exception of the bank robbery sequence filmed on the Universal (not Warner) lot and the city somehow feels more horizontal than it does in any other film, odd considering what our normal perception of the place is. The numerous views we see from high above making it seem strangely flat and spread out as if its citizens are all insects in this massive landscape, ready to be mowed down by Scorpio as he lingers on a rooftop waiting to take down as many innocent lambs as possible.
Contrary to what the normal perception of it might be, the film isn’t without its lighter moments and there is humor in the character of Harry Callahan, like his desire to finish that hot dog before the bank alarm goes off and that degree of likeability along with how he takes care of those bank robbers with his .44 Magnum gets us on his side right away even the character’s supposed racism is done with more of a wink than anything (the one friend of his we ever meet is black, of course). We can see glimpses of the more relaxed Callahan who was once married but much of that has been buried by the overwhelming feel of the madness that’s happened to the world, to this San Francisco that’s been overwhelmed by all the hippies who as this film portrays them have gotten progressively skuzzier in the years since the summer of love, as if they’ve managed to wipe away everything that was ever serene and normal in this beautiful city. Seriously, the black & white, Mancini-infused EXPERIMENT IN TERROR was only nine years before this? VERTIGO was only thirteen?
The square white guys Callahan has to deal with in his job like John Vernon “as the Mayor” and John Larch’s police chief (Larch somehow seems like he only belongs in the world of 60s detective shows) are for the most part totally ineffectual at even having an idea of how to deal with the city they’re allegedly in charge of, totally incapable at dealing with the mad killer Scorpio who seems to represent everything anybody who voted for Nixon fears about the younger generation, distorting the peace symbol for his own means. For the most part a straight ahead narrative dealing with Harry’s pursuit of Scorpio, the film focuses on the case at hand than the more relaxed BULLITT does and it makes sense. Harry, working overtime even though he knows he’ll never get paid for it, has nothing else other than this case, no restaurants to go to with friends where a jazz combo is playing, certainly no women in his life (the sequels made him more of a stud, of course) and he can’t even seem to imagine wanting anything else. Even the one person in the film who seems like he might really become his friend sensibly decides he doesn’t want any part of all this. “No reason for it, really,” he says about his wife being killed by a drunk driver and in a world where that happened, where a mad killer is set free, he seems to have come to the absolute realization that there’s no reason for anything so by a certain point there’s no need to listen to those who rank above him that say otherwise.
The plots of each Dirty Harry entry always seem to feel like a number of elements sort of slapped together in the pursuit of a storyline and that’s a little true of the original as well but it easily works the best here with a script (Story by Harry Julian Fink & R.M. Fink, Screenplay but Harry Julian Fink & R.M. Fink and Dean Riesner, with uncredited contributions by none other than Terrence Malick and John Milius, who is the one responsible for the “Do you feel lucky?” speech) that is truly tight, lean and always knows how to push exactly the right buttons—along with one memorable exchange that was specifically parodied years later in THE NAKED GUN, of course. While introducing the movie Tarantino placed it into the context of the political shitstorm that resulted at the time, how it appealed directly to the far-right Americans that had voted for Nixon (“the tea baggers of the time” was the phrase he used, I believe) and were absolutely terrified by what to them had happened to the country over the past few years, with the particular city this film was set in seen as ground zero of all that was immoral. Addressing the mindset of the critics back then Tarantino mentioned if you go and read what people like Pauline Kael said about it, “You won’t know what the fuck they’re talking about,” since now it plays so much as a basic cop-movie plot we’re very used to, albeit an extremely effective one. And, yes, Kael called it a “right-wing fantasy of that police force as a group helplessly emasculated by unrealistic liberals,” and at one point adding that it’s a “stunningly well-made genre piece,” but you can kind of tell she hates it. I’m not sure how seriously I can bring myself to take it as political tract in either a 1971 or a 2011 world (maybe more than DEATH WISH, but I don’t know if that’s saying much), but simply as a cop thriller where its lone hero who everyone can depend on decides to take care of things on his own in the style of a classic western story the thing is goddamn gangbusters.
In his autobiography “A Siegel Film” the director pretty much downplays these elements in a ‘we were just trying to tell a good yarn’ sort of way, saying that he and Eastwood never had any political discussions at all (John Milius is also never mentioned in regards to the rewrites that occurred) but Peter Bogdanovich has written of recalling Siegel saying, “I don’t know WHAT people are going to think of this,” so there can’t be any doubt that he was aware of what he had. In 1972 Siegel told The New York Times, “I'm a liberal. I lean to the left, and I don't make political movies. I was telling the story of a hard-nosed cop and a dangerous killer. What my liberal friends did not grasp was that the cop is just as evil in his way as the sniper,” also adding in how he saw himself as a rebel, “I resent authority.” In some ways I can accept the film as more of a story of one man turning against the system he has attempted to be a part of, feeling he can only adhere to his own rules but more than that I wonder if it’s a statement made by a left-leaning filmmaker (working with others who, Milius included, certainly had different viewpoints) who was basically throwing up his hands, admitting that he didn’t know what to do about things anymore and asking the question of what could really be done. Maybe he simply wasn’t entirely aware of how much power the question he was asking about the world would have at the time.
It’s not a perfect movie partly for reasons having to do with the real world, which the film is a somewhat skewed mirror image of—considering the Scorpio plotline was pretty blatantly inspired by the actual Zodiac case the whole thing plays as kind of crassly exploitative if you really start to think about it (inspiring the scene in ZODIAC where Mark Ruffalo as David Toschi walks out on it five minutes in during that film) and the way the film stacks the deck in terms of the legalities during that scene with Josef Sommer’s D.A. feel ready-made for parody now—“implausible,” as Kael called it, but I doubt most people cared. That the judge who says everything Harry’s done to apprehend Scorpio is inadmissible in court gets introduced as teaching classes in “constitutional law at Berkeley” feels pretty designed to get a rise out of a certain audience the film is obviously aimed at, still fuming over the weasel muttering “I have rights” as Harry approaches him on that football field. And one imagines that the police could be a little more effective in letting the media know about this guy they’ve been forced to release instead of totally turning their backs while he goes wandering near playgrounds, but maybe I’m just overthinking things. The thing is, the way Siegel keeps the whole thing moving forward at a queasy, propulsive rate is massively effective in its grimy way and just as an action/thriller it can’t be stated enough times how truly effective it is, how well staged whole sections are and how much it knows how to get the blood boiling from the tension in builds. It’s an ugly movie, yes, but its ugliness feels absolutely right for what it wants to be and it’s maybe even a little beautiful in how it just makes me sad for the whole world.
Even when we think the movie is going to somehow let us off the hook, we’re wrong—it’s like a sigh of relief when Scorpio never puts his gun to the head of one of those terrorized kids on the school bus but then one more kid fishing by a creek appears for him to get a shot at, to keep this horror going for as long as possible. The extended sequence of Callahan being sent throughout the city from one phone booth to the other as he tries to deliver the ransom is phenomenally well-executed with amazing nighttime cinematography by Brice Surtees, one of those long sections of a movie without any score that I kind of love. It stretches out the suspense to the absolute breaking point, building to an absolute fever pitch in the classic football stadium scene as Harry finally confronts this killer in person that seems designed to play to any point of anger we’ve been feeling up to that point, knowing just what we want to see happen. Seriously, I want Callahan to press down harder on his leg. I don’t want him to stop and the film is doing everything within its expert power to make sure I feel this way. The scene ends with that astounding helicopter shot which allows us to finally exhale in the midst of all our rage, pulling back to reveal hero and villain, alone in that massive stadium, this arena the modern action movie has suddenly turned into and because of this power would never be anything else ever again.
But what struck me more than anything on this viewing structurally was how it proceeds to the final showdown and the way it pulls this off is pretty close to perfect. It had actually been some time since I’d seen the movie so I couldn’t remember exactly how it plays things when Callahan makes the decision to go after Scorpio himself. Does he go somewhere and mutter a line of dialogue? Does he go to clean out his desk first? Stop at a bar for a drink? Catch a glimpse of himself in the mirror? Pause for a moment after getting into his car? Nope—he’s just there, on that overpass off the Sir Francis Drake Blvd. exit, waiting like a mythical giant for that school bus and there’s no one left to stop him or yell about procedure. Trim and efficient in terms of narrative, it’s a hugely powerful moment of a sort that movies of any kind rarely achieve. As great as his smile after “Do you feel lucky?” is, as powerful as his stepping down on the wound plays, right here is where Clint Eastwood becomes a legend once and for all, the legend that he still is today. Early in the movie Clint Eastwood responds to something Harry Guardino’s captain says to him by spitting out, “That’ll be the day,” just as John Wayne said it in THE SEARCHERS (well, Buddy Holly had to get it from some place, didn’t he?) and it really seems to underline how much the film represents a sort of grabbing of the torch away from the older star for the new guard.
At this point Wayne had recently enjoyed maybe his greatest career triumph with winning the Oscar for TRUE GRIT and was moving into the final stage of his career. But the western was rapidly dying out by ’71 and DIRTY HARRY came along with a star famed for western roles but was now hitting the urban mean streets of the time—after the movie Tarantino pointed out the transition over multiple pictures of Eastwood as star in the Leone westerns, then playing the Arizona lawman (or cowboy, essentially) who goes to New York in Siegel’s COOGAN’S BLUFF. By DIRTY HARRY, that transition from the frontier to the city is complete and this film was ready to take things further than had ever gone. Whatever the terms ‘cop movie’ or ‘action movie’ meant before, it would never be the same thing again (as an aside, considering what an action landmark it is and city it’s set in it’s surprising to realize what the movie doesn’t have—I can’t remember, but except for the spoof in THE DEAD POOL is there a film in the Dirty Harry series with an old-fashioned car chase?). Wayne himself made a few so-so stabs at the formula of the modern day cop movie (I still kind of like McQ, though) and his final film, 1976’s THE SHOOTIST, was of course directed by Don Siegel. It’s like at the end of his career Wayne wanted to be more Eastwood than the Duke but as we all know when it comes to each of those men there’s really only one.
DIRTY HARRY led to four sequels, none of which were directed by Siegel unfortunately, spanning all the way to 1988 as well as countless imitations or whatever you want to call them, resulting in idiocies like 1986’s COBRA which not only had the gall to cast Reni Santoni as Sylvester Stallone’s partner but put Andrew Robinson in there as a whiny (presumably liberal) bureaucrat, for all I know to say that the Scorpios of the world had managed to infiltrate the system. All a film like that ever does is show how good DIRTY HARRY really is and how hard it is to come anywhere close. The final beat of it is of course right out of HIGH NOON, but it doesn’t matter because the film that has been building up to this moment is so powerful that it transcends simple homage. It’s just what absolutely has to be.
What can really be said about Clint Eastwood as Harry Callahan by this point, playing the role that provided the perfect outlet for his screen presence, even more than he was able to do in the Leone westerns? The way he moves across the frame, letting nothing ever stop him, is undeniably powerful but seeing it on the big screen also spotlights just how likable he is when given the chance, a few of the offhand smiles he gives to people and his gentle way of talking to Lyn Edgington as Gonzalez’s wife. He seems like the sort of guy who it would be fun to have a beer with, as long as you catch him in the right mood that is but when that anger boils up in him he shows what Callahan has really become deep down. Placed up against him is Andrew Robinson as Scorpio, terrifyingly unforgettable in how he barely seems human, instead coming off as this unspeakably weird, sniveling, cowardly, evil force of nature, spitting out phrases like “oinker” to Harry and, really, who wouldn’t want to pound the hell out of the guy themselves? Paying attention to what he’s doing, every non-panicked line of dialogue he has seems to be some sort of test to whoever he may or may not be threatening as we waits to make his move (“My wife’s brother. I hit her. So he hit me. Several times,” he says to the liquor store owner who chuckles his approval) and it makes every quiet moment he has, not that thee are many, dangerously unpredictable in a way that is rarely ever seen from movie villians. Several of the other supporting actors seem deliberately cast in a way to not let them make much of an impression with Tarantino after the movie observing that “Harry Guardino is second billed and you forget about him even when he’s onscreen” and some of these authority figures do manage to disappear in that way.
Reni Santoni does do a very good job as Harry’s partner, selling how capable he ultimately can be and how intellectually curious he is as well but certain people in small roles, likable and villainous, are allowed to make a strong impression throughout. I kept noticing how Siegel seems to direct his actors at times as if they should actually be thinking about what they’re saying to someone, making even bit players somewhat multi-dimensional. The most unsung character, of course, is Lalo Schifrin’s amazing score, with a main title them that is as super-cool as you would expect but becomes truly unforgettable with the recurring driving force of Scorpio’s Theme along with those female voices presumably wafting through that characters head playing over and over until you can’t forget it, as much as anything helping to transform Siegel’s look at urban madness into a true modern day classic.
Speaking after the movie over the course of what was probably nearly an hour, Tarantino remembering seeing it as a kid when it was first released and covered just about all the bases imaginable from placing it in the context of both Siegel’s and Eastwood’s career, addressing the unmistakable visual style the film has when compared with such square-looking cop dramas from the period released by the likes of Universal (with Siegel’s MADIGAN correctly cited as one of the chief culprits in this regard). Tarantino also went into various socio-political elements of how the movie was aimed right at Nixon’s America who believed that San Francisco was the root of all evil in terms of the times while pointing out how there’s really no way to fully understand how different all this was at the time since so many movies and TV shows have aped various cop and serial killer elements that seemingly began here. Both men spoke admiringly of Albert Popwell, this film’s bank robber who utters the immortal phrase “I gots to know” and who appeared playing different roles in each other film in the series except for THE DEAD POOL. The name Popwell, of course turned up in Wright’s HOT FUZZ as the name of the sergeant with the ‘great, big bushy beard’. Tarantino also spent some time criticizing the first Harry followup MAGNUM FORCE, which he called a counterpoint sequel made more for critics of this film instead of its fans and both seemed to agree that considering how Siegel’s film ends this is one of a few films (along with HALLOWEEN, to name another) that would probably be more effective today if there were never any sequels at all.
Second on the bill that night (and it turned out to be a very late night, so many thanks to Phil and Jackie of the New Beverly for the ride home) was the early 70s buddy cop movie THE SUPER COPS which starred Rob Liebman and David Selby (recently seen in THE SOCIAL NETWORK as the Winklevoss’s attorney) and, like THE FRENCH CONNECTION, was actually based on true events. Directed by Gordon Parks and never released on video in any format, the film isn’t exactly a hidden masterpiece-- Neither a totally kick-ass action movie nor a totally rollickingly hysterical display of anarchy it’s still kind of fun in its scrappy early 70s way with enjoyable work from the two leads. Eighty-seven year-old screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr (a legend for things like THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, THE PARALLAX VIEW, FLASH GORDON and, of course, the BATMAN tv series) spoke before the movie, recalling his participation in a blunt, old-school way at one point basically saying, “I wrote a script, turned it in, there were no notes, I never met Gordon Parks, they shot the script.” That’s not an exact quote, but you get the idea. David Selby was there as well to speak at greater length after the movie with Edgar Wright, recalling making the movie with fondness but a little hazy on the reasons for certain difficulties that arose during production which resulted in the plug getting pulled while they were shooting in Brooklyn and eventually beginning again at the MGM lot in Culver City. For other thoughts on both of these movies as well as more of the fun going on at the New Beverly during this festival check out Dennis Cozzalio’s piece at his always terrific blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.
Maybe most surprisingly that night was how Quentin Tarantino admitted that he’d never seen THE SUPER COPS, even though he’d always wanted to. It just proves that everyone still has movies they need to see, so whether it’s encountering this one for the first time or returning to DIRTY HARRY once again there are still discoveries to be made in these films, rewards to be found in that celluloid to remind you how amazing it can be to spend time in a movie theater. And it’s important to go and once again discover why something like DIRTY HARRY is able to maintain such power nearly forty years after it was first released. Nights like this courtesy of Edgar Wright and the New Beverly can be the right way to remember.