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Dirty Harry’s Dregs, or a Franchise Learns Its Limitations

Dirty Harry’s Dregs, or a Franchise Learns Its Limitations

Dead Pool

Clint Eastwood revisited Harry Callahan three more times, usually whenever his career was in the dumps. If Dirty Harry was a cultural phenomenon and Magnum Force a respectable follow-up, the rest are uninspired cash-ins. The main law Harry enforces in these sequels is the Law of Diminishing Returns.

Given Dirty Harry‘s San Francisco setting, something like The Enforcer (1976) was inevitable. After all, San Fran hosted Haight-Ashbury, hippie capital of the world; was a favored site for Black Panther and SDS protests; headquarters of the nascent gay rights movement; victim of Weathermen bombings and the racially-charged Zebra murders. Writers Gail Morgan Hickman and S.W. Schurr based their script, originally titled “Moving Target,” on the Symbionese Liberation Army which kidnapped Patty Hearst. Dean Riesner (who cowrote the original Harry) and Enforcer PosterStirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night) polished the film.

Harry battles the People’s Revolutionary Strike Froce, led by a disturbed Vietnam vet (DeVeren Bookwalter) and allied with a Black Power leader (Albert Popwell, in his third and most substantial role in this series). They steal weapons, murder cops and kidnap San Francisco’s Mayor (John Crawford) but the filmmakers reveal their politics as an attention-grabbing sham. Worse, aside from Popwell, creditably restrained as a wannabe Huey Newton, the villains are colorless dupes. Harry doesn’t need a LAWS rocket to beat these losers, but then he always liked overkill.

For its next dose of progressive ridicule, The Enforcer pairs Harry with a female partner. Played by Tyne Daly (rehearsing for “Cagney and Lacey”), Detective Kate Moore is laughably pinched, a marked contrast to the uber-macho Harry. The Enforcer lies halfway between respecting and ridiculing Moore, who tries chasing a criminal in high heels and fends off lascivious blacks with officious banter. The Mayor promotes her as a “symbol” of progress, which Harry disdains as being fashionable. Predictably enough, her toughness and tart tongue wins Harry’s respect, and perhaps even the audience’s.

Badly dated, The Enforcer survives on its stars and some nifty action. Eastwood and Daly have great chemistry, enhanced by never advancing beyond professional respect. Harry breaks up a hostage situation by driving a car through a storefront; later he chases down a pimp, accompanied by Jerry Fielding’s whaka-chaka score, in the most ’70s scene imaginable. Yet James Fargo’s boring direction adds to the made-for-TV feel. The Enforcer is Harry’s most generic outing – though thanks to the next installment, far from the worst.

Eastwood didn’t revisit Harry for six years, arguably his least-successful period. He directed off-beat dramas like Bronco Billy (1980) and Honkytonk Man (1982), which critics praised but audiences ignored. His main successes were the monkeys-and-motorcycles epic Every Which Way But Loose (1978) and his last pairing with Don Siegel, Escape from Alcatraz (1979). Eastwood himself directed the next Dirty Harry film, Sudden Impact (1983), the darkest, most violent and worst of the series.

A vehicle for Eastwood’s longtime paramour, Sondra Locke, Sudden Impact is more distaff Death Wish than Dirty Harry. Harry tracks a sexually-motivated serial killer who proves to be Jennifer Spencer (Locke), an artist tormented by memories of gang rape. Belatedly seeking revenge, her violent slayings draw Harry’s attention. Harry finds the rapists hiding in a small seaside resort, protected by the local sheriff (Pat Hingle), leading to a bloody Sudden Impactshowdown at an abandoned carnival.

There’s no getting around it: Sudden Impact is unremittingly ugly. Jennifer’s MO involves shooting her victims’ testicles before killing them. Eastwood depicts this in loving, sadistic detail, along with lurid flashbacks of Jennifer’s rape and a crude running gag of Harry punching out a cackling lesbian (Audrie J. Neenan). The villains are rapacious hyenas, while Ms. Locke shows the full range of her talent, from sullen to pouty. Some critics interpret Jennifer as a feminist heroine but since she needs Harry and his brand-new Automag to save her, the point’s lost.

Though visibly older, Clint still commands the screen. Sudden Impact gives Harry his signature line, “Go ahead – make my day!” as he busts the inevitable robbery. He’s so intimidating that his mere presence induces a mob boss (Michael V. Gazzo) into a heart attack, and converts series veteran Albert Popwell into his partner! Too bad Harry throws out his scruples, helping Jennifer escape after killing her tormentors. Eastwood’s generosity to Locke didn’t extend off-screen; their relationship acrimoniously dissolved, with Eastwood sabotaging Locke’s career.

Even Sudden Impact‘s extreme violence seemed pat in the era of Rambo, the Terminator and John McClain, who exponentially escalated Harry’s sadism and body count. And Eastwood recognized the absurdity in now-middle-aged Harry shooting his way through San Francisco’s thugs. Thus the final Dirty Harry film, The Dead Pool (1988), is an epic pisstake, directed by stuntman-turned-director Buddy Van Horn.

The Dead Pool

The Dead Pool sees Harry investigating a rash of celebrity deaths. He discovers that filmmaker Peter Swan (Liam Neeson) hosts a game whose participants bet on dying celebrities. As the body count grows, Harry finds himself targeted. Helped by reporter Samantha Walker (Patricia Clarkson), he hopes to uncover the culprit.

Screenwriter Steve Sharon conceives Dead Pool as a 91 minute joke at Harry’s expense. Eastwood plays now-gray Harry with a wink-and-nod, enlisting perky reporter Clarkson and martial artist partner Evan C. Kim to bolster him. Eastwood and Van Horn play the violence for laughs, especially a prolonged, Bullitt-inspired chase with a remote controlled car. Eastwood has his serial killer slay pre-stardom Jim Carrey, as a rock star, and Ronnie Claire Edwards as a Pauline Kael stand-in. It’s hard to take any of it seriously, especially when Harry confronts the villain with a giant harpoon. “You’re shit out of luck!” he crows.

An ignominious end, perhaps, for Clint Eastwood’s greatest character. Yet where Harry’s peers, from Joe to Billy Jack and Death Wish‘s Paul Kersey, ossified into kitsch, Dirty Harry remains a classic. His style, wit and .44 Magnum set the standard for 40 years of action heroes. Not a bad legacy for a “fascist” crime fighter.

For previous articles in this series, see: Dead Right: How Dirty Harry Captured the ’70s Culture Wars and Harry’s Disciples: Magnum Force, The Self-Critical Sequel. I hope you’ve enjoyed these articles.