The first film of the Dirty Harry franchise, written by husband and wife team Harry Julian Fink and Rita Fink, opened to audiences fed up with America’s involvement with the Vietnam War and a general public demand for accountability in government and more law and order in society. According to Wikipedia, the murder rate in the United States grew from 9,110 in 1960 to 20,510 in 1975. Other violent crime statistics such as rape and armed robbery show similar increases during this period. Law and order was the cornerstone of many a political career such as those of Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. The Supreme Court provided a cogent counterbalance to strong arm law enforcement as demonstrated by the landmark decisions of Miranda vs. Arizona and Berghius vs. Thompkins in which a suspect’s Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights are preserved. In the Dirty Harry franchise, we see Harry violate victim’s rights, fight vigilante justice, and form an unlikely partnership with a woman and the Press all in order to see justice served. In each movie Inspector Harry Callahan steps in to administer justice, and the viewing public, liberal or conservative, appreciates the results.
In Dirty Harry, Inspector Callahan broke the rules and violated the suspect’s rights which led to release of the suspect. As the plot would have it, the suspected sociopathic murderer is right back on the streets snubbing his nose at the inept city government and committing further acts of random violence. Here is the dialogue taken from the famous scene in which the suspect’s rights were originally violated:
The Killer: [pleading] Please. Stop. No more! Can’t you see I’m hurt?
Harry Callahan: The girl, where is she?
The Killer: [crying with reason] You tried to kill me.
Harry Callahan: If I tried that your head would be splattered all over this field.
Harry Callahan: Now, where’s the girl?
The Killer: [cries] I- I have rights. Why can’t you people just leave me alone?
Harry Callahan: Where’s the girl?
Here we see the court has tied Harry’s hands. If he interrogates the suspect without first Mirandizing him, then the suspect will go free, Harry may be held accountable in a court of law, and ultimately justice is perverted. If Harry follows the law, then he must read the man his rights, arrest him, provide council, and then interrogate. By this time the victim is dead. The politicians and the court have engineered a system that ultimately places law enforcement officers at a literal life and death decision point but they have not provided the answer or protection of the law. Inspector Callahan is on his own with no protection of law to deal with the killer. The screenwriters Fink are asking quite clearly, “What is the appropriate balance between rights of the victim and the rights of the suspect? When and by whom shall this be determined?” Meanwhile, the killer is set free because Harry violated his rights. The killer then hijacks and terrorizes a busload of children. Harry chases the killer to the waterfront and instead of arresting him, Harry executes him. The end scene shows Harry pull out his badge and throw it into the Oakland Harbor.
There is no coincidence that the year was 1971 and Harry was Inspector 71. Why is Harry throwing his badge into the water, one may wonder. It is the symbol of the bureaucracy he is flinging away, or perhaps he sees himself unworthy of the badge, being no better than the killer he just murdered. Maybe he was throwing away the value system that the badge had come to represent. Maybe he was throwing his whole career out. These questions pick at the underpinnings of society and leave conclusions to the viewer. The conclusions of the film are cloudy, leaving space for thought and challenge of convictions.
If it is good and well that the killer is stopped, why must Harry symbolically bury Inspector Callahan at sea? Have the Finks suggested that Law and Order can not thrive alongside Justice in the American way of life? Or that there are no absolutes judgements concerning life and death? That leaves a scary opening for cops who aren’t Dirty Harry Callahan and think they are. The Finks have me convinced that justice is a zero-sum fixed ideology. Ultimately, in a laboratory setting, either all the good guys or all the bad guys will have all the marbles. That is why Harry throws his badge into the water. Because America is a nation of laws, and a cop operating as judge won’t fly. Harry served justice, but justice did not serve Harry.