Dirty Harry (1971) – Film Review

Time to count how many shots he fired...

In 1971, Clint Eastwood had made the breakthrough from TV western star, via The Man With No Name, into a bonafide A list movie star. He had played second fiddle to icons of the era such as Lee Marvin, Shirley Maclaine and Richard Burton and he had headlined the popular anti war movie Kelly’s Heroes. But despite this success he had yet to find his signature role in an American film. Dirty Harry was to change everything.

Inspector Harry Callaghan of the San Francisco police force was a tough, cynical character typical of late 60’s and early 70’s American cinema. This was the era of Steve McQueen brooding his way through Bullit, Peter Fonda and co. bucking authority in Easy Rider, Warren Beatty virtually inventing the downbeat ending in Bonnie And Clyde. Dirty Harry struck a chord with the cinema-going public at the time which endured through a further four sequels spanning the next 17 years, and established Eastwood as the biggest movie star of the 1970’s.

Callaghan is a world weary detective constantly at odds with authority. His methods are direct, old fashioned and violent but ultimately successful. To the San Francisco Mayor he is a loose cannon and a potential embarrassment, but when a serial killer holds the city to ransom it is to Harry that they turn. Initially he toes the line and plays it by the book, but when the killer escapes and a young girl’s life is in the balance, Harry deploys less than lawful methods to bring him in.

Harry is a character who is easy to root for, and in Eastwood’s hands he is totally believable. The film has a gritty realism and an almost cinema verite/documentary feel to it that was never replicated in the diminishing sequels. Don Siegal was not afraid to show the darker side of a city that had enjoyed a decade of flower power and more than one summer of love.

Dirty Harry is an uncompromising, tough and violent film that provided the blue print for the cop thriller for the next four decades. Imitated countless times, but never bettered, Dirty Harry is very much a film of its time, but its themes are timeless. That this would indeed become Eastwood’s signature role was inevitable, but it is essential that if you want to see a Dirty Harry movie – make it the original – make it Dirty Harry – MAKE MY DAY! (Actually a quote from the fourth in the franchise, Sudden Impact, and about the only good thing in it!)


Best performance: Clint Eastwood cutting a swathe through San Francisco’s scum!
Best scene: ‘I know what you’re thinking, did he fire six shots or only five?’
Watch this if you liked: Any cop movie of the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and beyond with a maverick cop. Particularly Lethal Weapon.

Impossible to imagine but the film was originally cast with Frank Sinatra in the leading role. However, after injuring his hand, he had to pull out. The gods must have been smiling.

Discussion feed

Up next in movies