Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sufficient Probable Cause

Looking back, I guess I can now see why my parents were upset that they let me go see SUDDEN IMPACT in the theater when, after I'd already gone, they went to see the film themselves. It is, after all, a pretty sleazy, adult, violent film and not really like the standard cops and robbers thing I may have expected. But in my defense, they should have known what the film might be like based on the earlier Dirty Harry films which, of course, I hadn’t seen yet and there’s no logical reason why I should be held responsible for the violence in a movie that I was allowed to go see. I’d ask my mother about this but somehow I have a feeling that she’s gotten over it by now. I hope she doesn’t get upset that I watched it again.

I don’t know why Clint Eastwood chose this entry, out of the four sequels he made to DIRTY HARRY, to be the only one he would direct but it’s possible that he felt that this was the one story which warranted a little extra attention. Amidst the sleaze and general unpleasantness it does feel more like a real movie than the other sequels, mostly because of the added weight the story has. It’s not one of Eastwood’s best films, and it’s certainly no DIRTY HARRY, but maybe it belongs in the upper half of the middle section of the ones he directed.

As Harry Callahan deals with his usual concerns of trying to put away mobsters and having hired killers come after him, the more central storyline follows well-known artist Jennifer Spencer (Sondra Locke) who at the start of the film is beginning to seek out her revenge of a long-ago gang rape that she and her sister, now practically catatonic, were victims of. The first killing, with the victim’s genitals blown off, happens up in San Francisco on Harry’s watch. After one attempt on his life too many, Callahan is sent down to San Paulo to investigate a lead, although it’s clear that his superiors just want him out of town for a little while (“You’re a walking friggin’ combat zone! People have a nasty habit of falling dead around you!” shouts his Lieutenant) Of course, Jennifer Spencer is in San Paulo as well, officially to restore the local boardwalk carousel, but really looking to complete her revenge on a few of the locals. As everyone knows, “Go ahead, make my day,” came from this one. Warner Bros. must have known they were onto something with the catchphrase since the trailer makes sure that we see Clint say the line twice in under a minute.

Like the other sequels, SUDDEN IMPACT, especially the first half, feels cobbled together with elements from what feels like different scripts written for possible Harry sequels (three different writers are credited). All the mobster stuff never really amounts to anything except for some good action scenes—well, that’s why we’re watching it, after all—but it does work in convincing us that Harry Callahan hasn’t been resting during the seven years since THE ENFORCER. The most goofily enjoyable sections of the movie come out of this—Harry Callahan seems to stumble onto crimes in progress like Jessica Fletcher stumbles onto dead bodies—and these scenes keep SUDDEN IMPACT from getting too overwhelmed by the seriousness of the rape-and-revenge plotline. Harry is also given a dog when he gets to San Paulo for an attempt at a little comic relief. There’s no one great action sequence in the film but the ones we get are all well-engineered enough that I don’t have any complaints. And when the movie focuses more and more on Sondra Locke’s story in the second half, allowing Harry and Jennifer to interact with each other it correctly finds its focus and ultimately works well as a very adult action film. One that, yeah, I guess I shouldn’t have been seeing then. I vaguely remember Clint’s TIGHTROPE, which came out the following summer also having a sex and sleaze storyline, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen that one. Lalo Schifrin is back doing the music after being absent from the last entry and it’s a very good score, my favorite track probably being “The Road to San Paulo” which reminds me of “On the Way to San Jose” from the BULLITT soundtrack. Schifrin wrote great driving music.

This was of course the period where Sondra Locke was the Jill Ireland to Clint’s Bronson and this was the last of the six films they appeared in together. I’ve always kind of liked her, especially in THE GAUNTLET, and while she may not be the actress Tyne Daly was in THE ENFORCER, she does project the conflicting emotions burrowing within pretty well. Maybe because the two leads were so familiar with each other it means something to have an actress in this part who you could tell was very willing to challenge Eastwood with her eyes in scenes ("You want to be alone tonight, Callahan? Neither do I."). It also says something about Clint’s ego that he was willing to give her what was clearly the best part in the film. He does say ‘swell’ a lot, though—how many times does he do that in the Harry movies? Michael Currie makes his first of two appearances in the series as Donnelly, Harry’s superior, Bradford Dillman gets great billing for one scene as Captian Briggs—essentially the same prick desk jockey who yells at Harry he played in THE ENFORCER but strangely given a different name. I guess you could do that sort of thing more in the pre-video days. Pat Hingle, also in HANG ‘EM HIGH and THE GAUNTLET, is the San Paulo police chief and Albert Popwell, who played different bad guys in the first three films, this time plays a buddy of Harry’s (Harry Callahan has friends?). Michael V. Gazzo appears uncredited as a mob boss in the fondly-remembered wedding scene and Audrie Neenan, then a star of HBO’s NOT NECESSARILY THE NEWS (anyone remember that? I was probably more familiar with her than anyone else in the cast) plays the meanest lesbian in the history of the world. When fully aware that her number’s up she takes a last sip of Coors it’s one of the best moments in the movie. And I guess that really is Camryn Manheim standing behind Harry in the early elevator scene. She’s hard to miss.

SUDDEN IMPACT is nasty, yet no classic, so I may not want to watch it as much as DIRTY HARRY or even one of the goofier entries in the series (I promise, I’ll get to THE DEAD POOL soon). But it’s ambition and fairly solid story makes it easily the second-best in the series and it very clearly is a step forward in Eastwood’s career leading him towards the even better films he would eventually make. By then, he wouldn’t have to worry about providing Warner with Dirty Harry sequels anymore.

But would somebody please tell me, what exactly is wrong with putting ketchup on a hot dog?


Nostalgia Kinky said...

This is probably my second favorite as well...although I do love MAGNUM FORCE.
I recommend you checking out TIGHTROPE again when you can. It's one of my favorite Eastwood films and a real chilling production.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

TIGHTROPE's one of those movies that I remember liking but next to nothing about it. Actually, that's kind of the case for me with HEARTBREAK RIDGE as well. I guess some of Clint in the eighties has slipped through the cracks for me. But I'll be sure to put TIGHTROPE at the top of the list, I'm very interested in seeing it again.